Colonel Koszorús “Has Written His Letter”*
The letter came from America at Christmas, 1962. It was addressed to Mrs Dr Sándor Czeglédy,1 née Aranka Molnár, the daughter of Aranka Koszorús, and was sent from Washington by Colonel Ferenc Koszorús to his niece at her Debrecen address. The letter was partly about personal and family matters and partly about serious matters concerning public affairs and historical events. The latter subjects are of public interest as well.
The writer of the present account is connected in two ways to the Koszorús family. My wife, Dr Mária Czeglédy, comes from the Koszorús family through her mother, the wife of Dr Sándor Czeglédy, and I am the godfather of Col. Ferenc Koszorús’s grandson, Gergő. There is also a third point of connection: half a century after him I was a student at the same grammar school where Ferenc Koszorús had studied. Later I became a teacher at, and eventually the Principal of, this institution, the Debrecen Reformed Grammar School.
Imre Varga’s sculpture of Ferenc Koszorús was unveiled on 7 July 2015 in Buda Castle. To be more precise, the bust is located where Tóth Árpád Promenade ends, in a deserved place of honour in front of the Museum of War History, at the bastion called Esztergomi Rondella. Emphasising the importance and prestige of the unveiling of this statue speeches were delivered by László Kövér, President of the National Assembly, Csaba Hende, Minister of Defence, and Ferenc Koszorús Jr, a lawyer living in Washington. The event took place in the presence of the army’s ceremonial units with celebratory customs, and placing of wreaths. High- ranking members of the military were also present, led by General Tibor Benkő, Chief of Staff of the Hungarian Military.
Colonel Ferenc Koszorús was an exceptional hero of the Second World War. He was commemorated in the US Congressional Record by the late Rep. Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, and he is buried at the Arlington cementery of US military heroes.
Many authoritative accounts are published about his decisive role in saving the Jews of Budapest from deportation in a recent book titled July 1944. Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled. This was an unprecedented incident in the history of the Second World War. What I can add to that book is my personal knowledge of the decisive family background and the early career of this brave soldier and super strategist.
In his speech, László Kövér recalled: Ferenc Koszorús was born into a Hungarian Reformed family in Transylvania. After finishing the Debrecen Reformed Grammar School, he became a student of the Ludovika Military Academy, from where he graduated with the grade of lieutenant. His first colonel was István Tisza, later Prime Minister of Hungary.
The Koszorús were a Transylvanian noble family, deeply rooted in the life of Debrecen from the beginning of the 19th century.2 Since they were Calvinists, a Puritan influence was present in their lifestyle and public life in a very significant way. Title, rank, and wealth were always second to one’s honour. The Colonel raised his only son in the same spirit:
The Koszorús family has not used their title of nobility since the Revolution of 1848. They were led by the same liberal principles which, according to the 1848 laws, saw every man having the same rights and responsibilities. […] In no case do I want you to find any reason in these words, to be haughty, contemptuous or unsympathetic to any man. […] Only a foolish man can be haughty. But in any event, the merits of one’s ancestors do not entitle one to anything, definitely not to privileges. Your forefathers received their rewards for their merits – if they had any – and with this the case is closed. Therefore children have no right or responsibility other than to know and respect their meritorious ancestors and to follow their example.3
Ferenc Koszorús was born in Debrecen on 3 February 1899. His father, Ferenc Koszorús (1859–1938), was also a native of the “cívis” city,4 and a soldier himself, eventually becoming a lieutenant colonel. His mother, Katalin Tóth (1871–1944), was born in Szabadszállás into a pastor’s family and later studied chemistry. On the Koszorús side of the family, the Colonel’s grandfather was Lajos Koszorús (1823–1910) whose wife was Julianna Kiss (1837–1924). They were probably both “cívis”since they owned both land and property in Debrecen. Lajos Koszorús, a lawyer, was one of the founding members of the Debrecen Red Cross Society, established in 1883. His son, the above-mentioned Lieutenant Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, was commander of the military hospital created by the Red Cross in 1918. The family home was only a few steps away from the Great Church and the old Debrecen College.
The prosperous and highly respected Koszorús family was an earnest supporter of the Reformed Church. Young Ferenc Koszorús studied in the famous Reformed College. According to the school registry of the time, he attended the Grammar School from 1909 to 1916. In his last year he also studied at the Royal Hungarian Military Ludovika Academy and on 18 August 1918 he was promoted to Hussar-Lieutenant in a cavalry regiment. He served first in Debrecen and then in Nyíregyháza as a hussar. At an early age, he had decided to follow a military career, following his father’s footsteps. He decided on this path and never wavered from it. Anywhere and in any situation, he always manifested a captivating, serious and patriotic behaviour. In the Military Registry, in the History of War Archives, Attila Bonhardt summarised his life in these words:
In the autumn of 1926, the young and talented officer who received an outstanding service rating was accepted into the Ludovika Academy’s officer service training programme. In the 1920s this was the cover name for the clandestine school for military staff, the Military Academy. After graduating, he was promoted to general staff and thereafter served in various positions, mostly in the Cavalry’s headquarters. In 1940 he was awarded the Hungarian Order’s Officer Cross for his previous activity. From June 1941, he took part in the Ukrainian campaign as Head of Operations for the rapid deployment units. In 1941, he was awarded the Hungarian Order’s Knight Cross on Military Bands with Swords for his successful work in the field of operations. On 1 October 1941, he became Chief of Staff at the newly formed 2nd Armoured Division in Munkács. In May 1942, he was assigned to active military position. Until October 1942 he served on the front as Chief of Staff for the 1st Armoured Division at the military operations along the Don River. There he actively took part in the August– September 1942 battles of the bridges. In acknowledgement of his services, he was awarded the Hungarian Order’s Officer Cross on Military Bands with Swords and with the 2nd Class German Iron Cross. On 1 October 1942 he was promoted to the rank of colonel and moved to Budapest, where he was nominated Chief of Staff of the 1st Armoured Corps.5
This summary clearly shows the absolute trust his superiors placed in him, as he was an officer who took his military vows – literally – dead seriously. His memoirs collected by his son Ferenc Koszorús Jr in 1987 testify to his deep patriotic commitment:
[N]othing exempts an honourable soldier from the promises he made in front of God, in his military vow but death or the one he made his vows to. Anyone who denies the duties he swore in the vows with any reason is an oath-breaker and a dishonourable person.6
From the Thirties, Col. Koszorús immersed himself in military science while becoming a professor at the Ludovika Academy. From 1938 he gave lectures at Pázmány Péter University under the title Modern Military Defence. In 1940 and 1941 he was Head of Education and Deputy Commander at the Ludovika. In the 1930s, he had pursued studies in several Western countries.7
Koszorús’s above-mentioned position – Chief of Staff of the Armoured Corps in Budapest – was a military secret of key significance for Regent Horthy’s inner circle. We know from Ferenc Koszorús’s memoirs and other insider testimonies that this Corps was hidden from the Germans, as an inner military backup, to provide support for the planned Hungarian break-out from the War. As a cover-up, the unit was dispersed and re-deployed continuously around Budapest in Aszód, Vác, Esztergom, Zsámbék, Páty and Tök.8 To be the Chief of Staff of this Corps was clearly a very confidential position. This military unit played a unique and significant role in the events that took place in Budapest on 5 and 6 July 1944. Based on historical evidence, a book, edited by Zsuzsanna Hantó and Nóra Szekér and published in 2015 by the Ferenc Koszorús Foundation under the title Páncélosokkal az életért (“Fighting for Life with an Armoured Divison”) presents in detail how the so-called “Baky coup” was thwarted in Budapest.
The bottom line of the story is that Hungary lost its sovereignty from 19 March 1944 because of the German occupation. Nominally Miklós Horthy was still Regent, but his authority over the country was weakened considerably. His orders were no longer followed. The most obvious example of this was that during the Cabinet meeting of 26 June 1944 the embattled but determined Regent gave orders to fire pro-Nazi Secretaries of State László Baky and László Endre at the Ministry of Interior and to stop the deportation of Jews,9 but his commands had no effect.10 Baky and his cohorts were planning a coup against the Government with the intention of fulfilling the desires of the occupying Nazis and deporting all the Jews of Hungary to concentration camps in Germany and occupied Poland. Horthy had already given the order to remove a vast number of pro-Nazi gendarmerie who were already deployed in Budapest in order to carry out the coup. Unfortunately, this order was not followed either, and with the support of the German military the specially selected gendarmerie units under command of the pro-Nazi Interior continued preparations for the cou and the deportation of the Jews of Budapest.
It was at this point that Col. Ferenc Koszorús stepped in and acted on the Regent’s order he received through Lieutenant General Károly Lázár, his patron for a long time.11 With his fast moving armoured units he occupied strategic points in the capital by early morning, and summoned the gendarmerie units that were already deployed in Budapest to leave the city. It was a brave and – from a military viewpoint – risky course of action, but in the end, thanks to his well-planned and determined intervention the coup failed: the gendarmerie left the capital.
For a long time, this event – the only case in Nazi-occupied Europe when an “unwilling ally” thwarted German orders by military force – was not even mentioned in history books written under the Communist regime. Only in the 1980s did it emerge thanks to the ice-breaking interviews of Péter Bokor, in wich the true stories of the Second World War began to transpire. No wonder it was only under the newly elected democratic goverment of 1990 that the “Koszorús Action” was publicly aknowledged and honoured in Hungary. On 15 March 1991 the President of the Republic of Hungary posthumously promoted Ferenc Koszorús to Colonel General.
We would like to present here what happened through a testimony that has been unknown until now. This is the letter from Ferenc Koszorús mentioned in our title, and was found among his family letters in the autumn of 2015. I quote from this letter,12 beautifully handwritten, in ink, and dated 23 December 1962:
With the encouragement and help of the occupying Germans, the “Hungarian” Nazis brought party units to Budapest (where they already had seven battalions). Their goal was to destroy the lawful order in Hungary, to create a Nazi government that served the Germans 100% and to send approximately 300,000 people from Budapest, who were already selected, to German death camps. The Regent ordered the removal of these party units in vain, since no one followed his commands, because the ones who were supposed to, were cowards, traitors and oath breakers. They were afraid of the occupying Germans. I had courage and will: on 6 July 1944, on the orders of the Regent, with my armed division I drove out all the party units from Budapest against the will of the Germans. With this I saved the lawful order of Hungary, the constitution and the lives of 300,000 people. For this, the Germans wanted to shoot me – which I knew would happen – but I did not give myself up to them, nor did I cringe before them because my troops stood by me. They could not touch me after I had recaptured Arad from the Soviets with my own units, but they re-directed me to the battlefield, where it was easier to separate me from my units. Now I was defenceless against the Germans. I found shelter at the Budapest Military Hospital, but traitors directed the German Gestapo to me. By the will of God, they were still unable to arrest me because when the Gestapo officer came for me he could not find me in my room. I was in my ailing mother’s room and the head nurse told them that I went into the city. They did, however, capture my friend, whom they shot on the back of the neck in the car not far from the hospital and threw his body out into the street. I had to leave the place, so, on 3 November, I left my mother there. It would not have made any sense to stay, because they would have captured me. They were after me as if I were a mad dog. I stayed in the neighbourhood, but I could not even be at the funeral service of my mother, because they were waiting for me at the city entrances. Oh, the indescribable, powerless and unforgettable pain! I tried to write to you in a few words, since you did not know anything about this. From this, you can see how the weight of responsibility may force one to do things that you foresee will only end bad for you personally.13
If we compare these sections from the family letter with earlier writings, statements and conclusions, they agree with everything and support each other. Historians can make good use of them in their monographs, and it might even be a further possible subject of research for them. Let me share some more of Col. Koszorús’s testimony here, just by highlighting a few lines:
For the operation I asked and received in a lawful way a lawful command, from a lawfully authorised person, therefore the actions of the soldiers who carried it out cannot be a political issue. […] Last, but not least, originally no one, no politician or other person asked me to prepare or carry out this operation. For me, the more likely failure would have meant death, and the small chance of success promised nothing.14
As we read about Col. Ferenc Koszorús’s life, statements, battles and about the opinion of his soldiers, we discover a person who was persistent, honest, and a strict soldier who thought of his military oath as his profession and his life calling. From the style, mood and wording of his letter a kind, humane but determined personality shines through. Even more, we see a Christian man, with biblical faith, whose guiding principles were not derived from philosophy hardened into ideologies, but were deeply rooted in the Christian faith.
This was with him through his life and gave him strength in the struggles of his soul. His school reports on the civil registry pages show that he had straight “A”s in religious studies, and it seems that this subject left deep imprints on his sensitive soul. He believed strongly that his country needed him, and that God had a plan for his life to benefit his beloved Hungarian nation. He was persecuted by both the Nazis and the Soviets, and his fate calls to mind the well-known line of Kölcsey’s Hymn: “he couldn’t find his home in his homeland!” Before the end of the War he managed to flee to Germany, where he was captured by the Americans as a prisoner of war and handed over to the authorities in newly occupied Germany. He gained employment, and married Gabriella Felsőeöri Fülöp (1916–2008) who was a painter and a sculptor. They had one child, Ferenc Koszorús Jr, born in 1947. He with his wife and three children still take care of his father’s legacy.15
In 1951 the family moved to the USA from Germany. They settled in California, where they worked hard to get by and to pay back the price of their trip. The Colonel got a job on a farm, and he worked nights servicing train cars. The mother made some money as a laundry worker. They were only accepted in the US because Col. Koszorús was known to the authorities as an honourable man. This fact, unknown to him, only emerged in hindsight as his papers were only declassified in 2006. The report made by the Americans on 6 December 1951 states: “This man was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Hungarian army, he has a clean past, neither Nazism nor Communism stain his honour.”16 The American Government offered him a job in Washington, where the family moved in 1953. His family still lives there. The Colonel worked in the field of geodetic engineering until his death in 1974. His resting place is in Virginia, at the Columbia Gardens cemetery in Arlington. We visited his grave with my family in 1991.
Ferenc Koszorús kept his faith until the end. As he thought of his military vows in terms of justice and honour in the eyes of God, the same way he put his whole life into God’s providence and love. In his family letter we quoted from below, right at the beginning he talks about the strength of faith, and sends (home) the words of verses 38–39 of chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ferenc Koszorús also joined the church while he lived in the US. He was an elder, and for a while he was the chairman of the American Hungarian Reformed Federation, established in 1896. His son, Ferenc Koszorús Jr, was chosen by the Hungarians living in the US to be the chairman of the Hungarian American Federation, created in 1906. It is worth noting about his family that both the local Hungarian Reformed Church and the American Presbyterian Church in the USA helped them when they arrived in Washington in 1953, and because of this the family became a member of both churches as a sign of thankfulness. Ferenc Koszorús’s descendants have followed this tradition ever since.
The Colonel’s letter reminds us of the beautiful lines of János Arany, about Erzsébet Szilágyi’s famous letter to his son Matthias, the future King Mathias Corvinus, when he was a prisoner in Prague. The ending of Ferenc Koszorús’s letter is just like the poem: it is full of pain and sorrow. And the words apply to him too: “swiftly wrote a letter; it was moist with loving tears”. In the end, he does open up about the pain of being far away from his country: “Surely I am bored with this long visit here, and this bad joke that I do not have a place in the homeland for which I have selflessly sacrificed so much. The only comfort is, which I not only believe but know, that above human justice there is God’s justice…” Until the end he felt a deep longing for his home country, but could never return because as a former military officer he was a persona non grata in the eyes of the Communist regime in Hungary. In 2015, when his bust was unveiled in Budapest, I was thinking about the fact that this true-hearted Hungarian could only “come home” to his Hungarian homeland in the form of a statue.
In conclusion, let me quote some trustworthy commentators from the recently published American book, whose voices give even more weight to everything said before since their opinion carries no family bias:
Former Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Géza Jeszenszky: I can state with confidence: it is an undoubtable fact that on 19 March 1944 Nazi Germany occupied Hungary and with this deprived our country of its sovereignty. It is an indelible stain on the honour of our country that some Hungarians committed terrible sins against their fellow citizens. When Col. Koszorús prevented the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people to concentration camps, in July 1944, he did not only save many lives, but also our honour.17
Former US Congressman Tom Lantos:
Col. Koszorús’s unprecedented deed is the only known event, when one of the Axis Powers prevented the deportation of Jews with military force. This is an outstanding and risky act of heroism, which was executed in uncertain circumstances, but resulted in a three and a half month delay in the total occupation of Budapest by the Nazis. This made it possible for thousands of Jews to find refuge in Budapest, or to flee from the certain destruction[…] For all of this, it is a big honour that I can speak about Ferenc Koszorús, and his brave, patriotic endeavours. Many thousands of families are alive today who can thank their life to the heroic deeds of this one man; one man who held onto his convictions in uncertain and dangerous times. His faithfulness to his country and his humanity encourages all of us, who are fighting against oppression and blind racism.18
Former Hungarian Minister of Defence Csaba Hende:
He was a commander, one of the best of the best indeed: he prepared and led the soldiers entrusted to him, took care of his men, and at the same time he never, not even for a minute, forgot the goal and meaning of his mission: for our homeland until death!19
Chair of the Hungarian National Assembly, László Kövér:
Col. Ferenc Koszorús was a soldier who did not let us lose faith in national loyalty, who helped humanity to be more humane, and Hungarians to be truly Hungarian.20
Two years ago, the Debrecen Reformed College made a Hall of Fame plaque, where they engraved the names of 100 of the most famous students from the school. Since a lot of people are missing from the list who would be worthy of it, perhaps it is time to make a second plaque with the names of the next 100 meritorious students. Among them there should be a well-deserved place for Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, who was posthumously promoted to Colonel General, the highest rank in the Hungarian Military. On 3 July 2014 his memory was honoured with the highest award that can be given by the Minister of Defence, the Hazáért Érdemjel (For the Homeland Medal of Honour), which was received by his family. This former student of the Debrecen College truly deserved the statue erected for him in Budapest.
* Géza Jeszenszky (ed.), July 1944. Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled. Saint Helena, Helena History Press, 2018.
1 Dr Sándor Czeglédy was an elected and appointed Professor of the Chair of Practical Theology at the Debrecen University in 1940.
2 As attested by a marble obelisk at the Koszorús family’s grave site in Debrecen.
3 Ifj. Koszorús Ferenc: Koszorús Ferenc emlékiratainak és tanulmányainak gyűjteménye (“Memoirs of Ferenc Koszorús Sr”, edited by Ferenc Koszorús Jr). Magyar Történelmi Kutató Társaság – Universe Publishing Company, New York, 1987, pp. 7–8.
4 A nickname for the rich farmers living in Debrecen and possessing lands and farms near the city, endowed with a burgher’s status, and practicing civic virtues.
5 Attila Bonhardt: Koszorús Ferenc ezredes szerepe a budapesti zsidóság deportálásának megakadályozásában (The Role of Col. Ferenc Koszorús in the Prevention of Deportation of Jews in Budapest). In: Páncélosokkal az életért (“Fighting for Life with an Armoured Division”), edited by Zsuzsa Hantó and Nóra Szekér, published by Koszorús Ferenc Emlékbizottság [Koszorús Ferenc Commemorative Committee], Budapest, 2015, pp. 28–40, 35.
6 Cf. Ifj. Koszorús Ferenc[Ferenc Koszorús Jr]: “Koszorús páncélosai: tények és a „legenda”(“Koszorús’s Tanks: the Facts and the Legend”). Élet és irodalom, 1 May 1998, p. 4.
7 Op. cit., p. 36.
8 Op. cit., pp. 35–36.
9 Cf. Páncélosokkal az életért, p. 21.
10 Cf. Páncélosokkal az életért p. 20.
11 Cf. Páncélosokkal az életért, p. 20.
12 This letter is in the possession of Dr Mária Czeglédy. It was written to her mother, Mrs Dr Sándor Czeglédy, née Aranka Molnár, by Col. Koszorús from Washington in 1962, on 23 December.
13 Páncélosokkal az életért, p. 27. During a private meeting with Lieutenant General Károly Lázár described on page 20 of the book, Koszorús, as Chief of Staff of the 1st Armoured Corps, offered – without being asked – his services, if he received an order from the Regent. This proves that Col. Koszorús’s decision preceded this order.
14 Cf. Páncélosokkal az életért, pp. 21–25. We find multiple similar memories in the book.
15 We have mentioned Ferenc Koszorús Jr, who is the only son of Col. Koszorús. He was born in 1947 during their stay in Germany, but from 1951 he grew up in the USA and still lives there with his family. His wife is from a Hungarian family – but was born in America –, called Marianne Rigler, who retired after working at the National Geographic. They have three children: Gabriella M. Andrea (1978), Ferenc Gergely (1983) and Gergely Endre Richárd (1988). These are their official names; but the family calls the daughter Marianna and the youngest son Gergő. In fact, we should call their second child, Ferenc Gergely as Ferenc Koszorús Jr because his grandfather already died in 1974.
16 Páncélosokkal az életért, p. 22.
17 Páncélosokkal az életért, p. 7. Géza Jeszenszky is a former Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
18 Páncélosokkal az életért, p. 231. Tom Lantos was a Congressman in the USA.
19 Zsuzsanna Hantó’s notes, privately shared. Csaba Hende is a former Minister of Defence in Hungary.
20 Zsuzsanna Hantó’s notes, privately shared. László Kövér is the Chair of the Hungarian National Assembly.