In 2019, remembering the 30th anniversary of the events of summer 1989, the Hungarian and German press made frequent references to the role of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (MMSZ). It was thanks to the political courage and enterprising spirit of two of its founding members, Baroness Csilla von Boeselager and Father Imre Kozma, that the flood of East German refugees transiting through Hungary found shelter on the grounds of the parish church of Zugliget in Budapest, and was attended by MMSZ with the help of the German units of the Order of Malta. This camp eased living conditions for more than 48,000 refugees during the long, hot weeks of waiting: but even more importantly, its ample mediatisation focused the attention of political leaders and the European public on the crisis, and contributed to the historic decision to open Hungary’s western border on 11 September 1989.

This paper will not delve into these events. Instead, it will explore the little-known “foundational history”: what made it possible for MMSZ to rise to this challenge. MMSZ had been in existence for barely a few months: it had been registered on 10 February 1989, six days after the promulgation of the law that legalised independent civil society organisations for the first time after forty years.1 Its 1989 baptism of fire – the East German refugee crisis in the summer, and a few months later, the large-scale relief operation it undertook in the wake of the Romanian revolution – laid the long-term basis for the corporate consciousness of MMSZ, and for its reputation in Hungary and in the region. To this day, it is the biggest and most experienced Hungarian civil society organisation, with diverse funding from the Hungarian Government, the EU and a plethora of other donors, operating hundreds of health, education and social assistance institutions and projects in Hungary, as well as in neighbouring and far-away countries.

MMSZ, and its capacity to carry out the historical tasks of 1989, did not arise from nowhere. What happened is that in 1987–1988, two “streams” met:

– Years of quiet, increasing humanitarian interventions in Hungary on the part of the Hungarian Association of the Sovereign Order of Malta working from emigration: openly from 1987, sometimes with active help, often with behind-the-scenes support, or at least toleration by key offices within the Hungarian Catholic Church and Government; and towards the end, vitalised by one remarkable lady;

– Years of activism by a dynamic Catholic priest in Hungary, Father Kozma, who against all odds, built up a vibrant youth community in his parish in suburban Budapest, imbuing it with the spirit of Christian social activism, a near-unknown concept in the centralised statist world of Communist Hungary.


History. The Order of Malta (or to give it its full name, the Sovereign and Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta) is one of the oldest institutions within the Roman Catholic Church. It began in the late 11th century in Muslim-occupied Jerusalem, as a group of dedicated men and women who ran a hospital and pilgrim hostel, primarily to serve Christian pilgrims to the holy sites, but open to everyone. After the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 by the Crusaders, the operation grew exponentially under its efficient leader Gerard (later Blessed Gerard); it became an independent monastic organisation by papal charter in 1113, and soon later – having been joined by significant numbers of ex-Crusader knights, whose military training was an indispensable asset for the Kingdom of Jerusalem – was assigned a military role, in addition to that of caring for the sick. The Hospitaller Order of St John became one of the pillars of the military force of the Crusader kingdoms, while the knights maintained their monastic vows and their role as hospitallers. Following the re-conquest of the Holy Land by Islamic forces in 1291, the seat of the Order moved to Rhodes, where it operated as a vanguard force of Christendom against the rising Ottoman might until 1522, when it was expelled by Suleiman the Magnificent. It then settled on the island of Malta, and played an important part in stemming an Ottoman sea-invasion of Europe from the south. The Great Siege of Malta (1565), and the Order’s participation in the battle of Lepanto (1566) were the two highpoints of this role. Subsequently, it successfully battled Ottoman sea trade and Barbary pirates.

In 1798 Napoleon occupied the island of Malta and expelled the Order, which in any case, with the waning of the Ottoman empire, had lost much of its military importance and power.

The Order today. During all the centuries that highlighted its military role, the Order nevertheless maintained its original hospitaller vocation. Both in Rhodes and in Malta it built and maintained large, state-of-the-art hospitals. In Malta, it established one of the earliest medical universities. Every knight, even the Grand Master, was obliged to take turns “to be servants to our Lords, the Sick”: an expression that prefigured by centuries the modern emphasis on client-centred, communication-focused social work. So, after its expulsion from Malta and the end of its military role, the Order was able to regroup with a new seat in Rome, and survive by returning to its original vocation. Most members no longer took monastic vows, but lived as committed Catholic lay people. Today the Order of Malta has over 13,000 members, as well as 120,000 staff and permanent volunteers worldwide, dedicated to medical and social work, and to humanitarian assistance during wars and catastrophes. It has retained a form of sovereignty: it has an extraterritorial base in Rome, it has diplomatic relations with 108 countries, and it issues passports to its diplomatic staff. This status is important when carrying out humanitarian and mediation missions, especially in sensitive political contexts, where the Order enjoys the reputation of a politically neutral player, aligned only with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Order is decentralised by country, with its members organised in national associations. Most of its charitable work is carried out by locally registered “auxiliary services” that operate under local laws and standards, employing volunteers and paid staff, many of whom are not members of the Order. These auxiliary services operate under the name and logo of the Order of Malta, which supervises them and provides their spiritual and corporate identity and guidelines. MMSZ is one of the largest of these auxiliary organisations of the Order worldwide, and by far the largest in relation to the size of the country it serves.

The Order of Malta in Hungary. The Hospitaller Order had a presence in Hungary already in the 12th century. Several medieval kings of Hungary were affiliates of the Order and contributed to its operations in Jerusalem. The Order lost its influence and personnel in Hungary during the Turkish invasion, to the point of disappearing completely. Until the end of the 19th century, Hungarian knights were grouped in the Grand Priory of Austria and Bohemia.

After the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a separate national association was established in Hungary: the Hungarian Association of the Order of Malta (MMLSZ2). After the Second World War, the existence of the Order was made impossible in Hungary. MMLSZ was disbanded, and those members who did not seek refuge in the West faced heavy hardships, both as members of the despised “feudal class” and as practising Catholics: they were imprisoned, deported to remote villages, relegated to menial jobs, their possessions confiscated, their children barred from education.

MMLSZ in exile. Those who fled to the West remained active in the Order and loyal to its Hungarian unit. They re-established MMLSZ “in exile” from a seat in Rome, with members spread all over the Western world. They joined in the works of the Order in the country where they lived; additionally, they helped Hungarian refugees abroad – most notably through funding university studies – and they financed discreet charitable work in Hungary itself, mostly individual in-kind aid packages to needy families, which were permitted even during the harsher early years. In later decades, when travel to Hungary became more frequent, medicines and medical supplies, as well as cash assistance, were provided through informal, personal channels.3 (MMLSZ, and the Order of Malta itself, were blacklisted in Hungary, thus anonymity had to be preserved.) These operations grew during the 1980s, as the annual newsletters and reports of the Hungarian Association attest, occasionally extending to Hungarian communities in Transylvania and Slovakia.4 Consignments from the French warehouse of the Order, totalling in the tons, were sent to the Hungarian charities patronised by Cardinal Lékai.5 In 1985, the first pilgrim from Hungary joined the annual pilgrimage of the Order to Lourdes. One of the most important contacts within Hungary for these operations was László Dessewffy, a Budapest journalist who had been close to the Order through personal contacts for many years.



Dessewffy had been friendly, since the early seventies, with Father Kozma, his daughter’s catechism teacher.6 Father Kozma was a young and dynamic chaplain in central Budapest, where he gathered an enthusiastic following of children and young people. This did not go unnoticed by the anti-clerical authorities of Communist Hungary, and in 1977 Father Kozma was transferred to the Holy Family parish of Zugliget, a quieter suburban parish in the hills of Buda. It was there that he established the “legendary” youth community that became the seed of MMSZ.

Father Kozma was exceptionally good with children and young people, and at the same time he was a committed social activist. In his catechism classes and youth groups, the focus was less on theological principles than on the practical side of Christian love. One of his famous mottos was: “Christianity is not theory, it is praxis!” – Accordingly, his parishioners, and especially the  youngsters, were challenged to take on social work on a level that was highly unusual in a Communist country, where the state was supposed to provide for all. First, he developed a sense of community by organising the repair and restoration of the crumbling church building, on a volunteer basis by the parish. Then he did a mapping of the parish families who needed help due to ill health, poverty or other social problems. He tasked his youth groups with helping pensioners with housecleaning and shopping, childcare on behalf of single parents, care and transport of handicapped people. Such activities were a compulsory part of his catechism classes.

In short, the parish of Zugliget became an exemplary community of Christian social activists, and the young people he mobilised during those years helped significantly to spread this spirit in a society in which it had been stifled by forty years of centralised statist control. Some moving testimonies of these early years can be read in the memories collected by Marianne Dobos in A szeretet önkéntesei (“The Volunteers of Charity”).7



In October 1986 MMLSZ held its annual retreat in Venice. As always, this was the opportunity for members, gathering from all over the world, to hold their annual informative and decision-making meeting. In the historical context of glasnost and perestroika, the agenda contained an important point: a decision to appear openly within Hungary, operating with the Ministry of Health and with Catholic Church structures. The primary vocation of the Order was to help the sick: the health system in Hungary was in a state of profound crisis, and it was felt that the Order could mobilise significant help. This decision had of course been preceded by informal contacts through friends and affiliates of the Order within Hungary, as well as a positive meeting between Kristóf Kállay, President of MMLSZ, and Bishop Gyula Szakos of Székesfehérvár, president of the Hungarian Catholic Charity Service, during a visit by the latter to Rome earlier that year. Dessewfy was invited to the meeting: he proposed Father Kozma as the local “operational arm”.

Members of MMLSZ began to mobilise sources of possible donations: the earliest sources were the large auxiliary associations of the Order in the West, which operated transit warehouses collecting donated medicaments and used medical equipment, for forwarding to countries in need of them. The French Association had such a warehouse in Versailles, the Swiss Association had one in Bern, and the German Association operated several. Members of MMLSZ living in those areas took up the necessary contacts. In January 1987, Kristóf Kállay wrote an official letter to Bishop Szakos, declaring the Order’s intentions.8

The official breakthrough came in February–March 1987, when the Order (represented by János Thierry and Peter Piazza) together with Dessewffy and Father Kozma, met Bishop Szakos and obtained the Hungarian Catholic Charity Service’s formal agreement to work with MMLSZ. The Hungarian Catholic Charity Service was in fact purely an internal relief organisation of the Catholic Church in Hungary for its own aged priests; but now it would act as the local “agent” for the Order for all relief consignments to be channelled to Hungary. It was agreed that all shipments would be unloaded in the warehouse of Zugliget parish, inventoried by Father Kozma’s community and distributed from there; Father Kozma and Dessewffy were accredited as the local representatives of the Order for this operation.9 They then met the Deputy Minister of Health in order to set out officially the offer of assistance by the Order of Malta, to inform the Government of the proposed institutional arrangement, and to ask about the Ministry’s most urgent needs in terms of supplies and equipment.10 The Ministry agreed that the state health service would accept donations of medicines and medical equipment through the Catholic Charity Service, knowing that they were donated by the Order of Malta. It was also agreed that two health officials from the Ministry would travel to Versailles, as guests of MMLSZ, to select required supplies and equipment from the warehouse of the French Association of the Order. This visit took place in March 1987,11 and the first truckload, 7 tons of medical equipment and supplies, was dispatched in April 1987: transport was provided free of charge by the Hungarian state transport company Hungarocamion, thanks to the professional contacts of Imre Ugron, Head of the German-territory working group of MMLSZ.12

Ugron – who was based at the time in Germany, as commercial director for Eastern Europe with a US company that marketed medical and hospital equipment – together with other Hungarian knights living in Germany, began to mobilise the large resources available in Germany, through the Order of Malta and other channels. It was then that Baroness Csilla von Boeselager joined the action at his invitation. The first consignment from France showed up several difficulties with bureaucratic procedures and with local distribution (see further below), which resulted in some delay with further consignments, while various attempts were made to iron these out. During one of these attempts – a direct visit to Cardinal Paskai in October 1987 – Ugron and von Boeselager, upon asking the Cardinal’s help, were told: “Pack your donations into a suitcase and bring them to me, I will take care of their distribution!” Both have recorded this amusing and illuminating anecdote in their reminiscences.13

However, the action continued. In October 1987, the first shipment arrived from Germany – von Boeselager accompanied it – and before the end of the year, three more shipments came in, two from Germany and one from France, thanks to the efforts of several MMLSZ members.14 Von Boeselager was proving to be by far the most dynamic, and showed significant results right from the time she joined the action. By November 1987 she had established an informal “Action Help Hungary” in the name of the German Auxiliary Service of the Order, was distributing leaflets and making the rounds of German health institutions and other potential donors, and was assembling her second truckload.15 About this time, she met Father Kozma, and the two developed an excellent rapport and working relationship, which characterised the operations of MMSZ until her untimely death in 1994.

Father Kozma and his youth team at the Holy Family parish in Zugliget rose to the challenge in a spectacular way. “During catechism classes, if a truck had just come in, László Dessewffy or László Adányi would come in and say: Come on, we need you for unpacking! Or they would phone me: Szepi, get some youngsters, we need to unload!” – remembers one.16 The entire action would not have been possible without the energy and commitment of these youngsters, inspired by Father Kozma. They became the hard core of the future MMSZ, and some of them – middle-aged by now, but still committed activists – are its current leaders and managers.

Transport was an early bottleneck. Hungarocamion could not provide free transport in the long run, as it had done in April 1987, but by November, an agreement was in place that it would charge half-price for all Order of Malta consignments.17 The bills were paid by the Hungarian Catholic Charity Service, which was reimbursed to the extent feasible, post-facto, by the recipient organisations. Until the end of 1988, Hungarocamion invoiced a total of 740,000 forints to the Catholic Charity Service, of which beneficiary institutions reimbursed just over 500,000 forints, the rest – 240,000 forints, worth about 10,000 dollars at today’s value – being absorbed by the Catholic Charity Service.18 It is worth noting that the Hungarian Catholic Church – far from distancing itself, as some believe – invested significant hard resources of its own in the action, over and above its legal commitment and human resources.

The operation met, as could be expected, with several difficulties. The first major difficulty – which contributed to the hiatus of seven months between the first and second consignments in 1987 – was non-observance of the agreement regarding control over the distribution. The first consignment was forwarded directly by the Hungarian Catholic Charity Service to its own institutions, causing a tense exchange of letters between the leadership of MMLSZ and Bishop Szakos’s offices in May–June 1987.19 The goods were subsequently redirected in a mutually agreeable way, later consignments went as agreed to the warehouse in Zugliget parish, and the issue did not come up again in later correspondence and reports. The second difficulty concerned bureaucratic procedures. “The Catholic Charity Service is seen by authorities as being on the border between a private individual and a public institution, with the result that all the bureaucratic procedures of both categories are applied to it.”20 Luckily, there were several sympathisers in civil service positions who helped enormously to short-circuit the blockages. The complex processes of obtaining the permits from the Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs (Egyházügyi Hivatal), the customs authorities, the National Bank, the Pharmaceutical Institute and the Medical Institute were gradually smoothened, thanks to personal contacts, continuous efforts and the goodwill of these officials. (Several later received written accolades and formal merit awards from the Order. A few even joined the Order.) Import duties were waived. State authorities did work – quietly – together with the Order of Malta throughout this period: the operation could not have been carried out without their cooperation.

Thirdly, the operation inevitably drew jealousies and mutual accusations by the various institutions and individuals who felt neglected in the distribution plans. There is a set of correspondence on record in this regard, going up as far as the Cardinal Primate.21

Special mention should be made of the problem of refugees. By mid-1988 Hungary was hosting over 20,000 recent, mostly ethnic Hungarian refugees from Romania. The efforts of state and church structures were not enough to settle and integrate such a large number. The consignments also included a significant amount of used clothing, furniture and miscellaneous items, some of which were distributed to these refugees, mainly through the Zugliget parish and its volunteers, who transported them countrywide. Cash donations were solicited from members of MMLSZ to purchase tools for refugee artisans and technicians, to enable them to start anew.22

Two detailed reports exist about the operations of these early years, both written by Dessewffy and addressed to Bishop Szakos. The first covers the period March 1987 to February 1988; the second, 1 March to December 1988. The gist is as follows:

March 1987 to February 1988: ten truckloads of medical and hospital equipment, medicines, plus considerable quantities of used clothes arrived in Budapest: two from the Order’s Versailles warehouse, six from its German warehouses. Three were transported free of charge – one by Hungarocamion, one by a private company and one by the German Order of Malta; the rest at half-price by Hungarocamion. In-kind donations came not only from the warehouses of the Order of Malta, but directly from a number of West German institutions, mostly thanks to the activism of Baroness von Boeselager: the German Red Cross and Lions’ Club, the Frankfurt University Clinic, the Dortmund Municipal Hospital, the Heidenheim provincial hospital, and many others.23

1 March to December 1988: thirty truckloads arrived, one from Versailles, one from Switzerland, and the rest from Germany, mostly through the efforts of Ugron and von Boeselager. They contained hospital equipment (e.g. 400 modern hospital beds, two X-ray machines, a tomograph) and supplies, a ton of medicaments, which were distributed to 12 state institutions; large amounts of powdered milk, baby food and vitamins, which went to Romania; general relief goods (mainly second-hand clothing, furniture and household appliances) that went to numerous public and church institutions.24

It was a particular joy for the Order that a number of the state hospitals who benefited from its large-scale donations, were induced to re-open long-closed hospital chapels (or open new ones) and once again allow visits by priests and religious to serve the spiritual needs of the patients.

While the medical supplies action was the signature project of the Order of Malta in Hungary during the pre-transition, it marked its presence in other ways too: Hungarian pilgrims took part openly in the Order’s annual Lourdes pilgrimages in 1987 and 1988; in 1988, on the national feast-day of King St Stephen, at the first public open-air festive mass held in front of the Budapest Basilica after more than 40 years, a large delegation of the Order attended, wearing the Order’s church robes. A number of positive, informative reports about the Sovereign Order of Malta were carried by the Hungarian press,25 making the organisation known for the first time to the Hungarian public, and setting the scene for the arrival of MMSZ. More importantly, the principle of charitable social action by non-state actors, especially religious organisations, came into focus. And on the political side, it is worth mentioning that the first visit of Archduke Otto von Habsburg to Hungary in 1988 – precursor of the famous initiative of the Pan-European Picnic of August 1989, which was of no little import in the events of that summer – was at the invitation of Miklós Kállay, then the only (in pectore) member of the Order living in Hungary.26

In mid-December 1988 an organisation called Ungarischer Malteser Caritas-Dienst was set up in West Germany jointly by MMLSZ and the German auxiliary service of the Order,27 to consolidate the financial workings of what was becoming a large-scale operation, and in particular to facilitate in-cash transfers, which were increasingly needed to finance the transport and logistics.28

Less than two months later, on 10 February 1989, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat, MMSZ) was registered in Hungary, six days after the relevant law was promulgated.29 Father Kozma became President, with special authorisation from the Order’s headquarters, since he was not a member of the Order at the time, as well as being a priest, both points being against the practice of the Order.30 From that point, MMSZ operated on its own, with ongoing large-scale support from the resources of the Sovereign Order of Malta in Germany, Austria and other Western countries, mediated by MMLSZ members.31 Within a few months, it became involved – following bold, politically and personally risky decisions by von Boeselager and Father Kozma, and the wholehearted support of Father Kozma’s legendary parish community – in the events of summer 1989. But that, and the events that followed, are another story.


1 Legislative Act II/1989.

2 Magyar Máltai Lovagok Szövetsége [Association of Hungarian Knights of the Order of Malta] (MMLSZ). Not to be confused with MMSZ, the acronym for the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat), introduced earlier. Both acronyms will recur often in this paper.

3 One such example, involving “since 1983 … considerable quantities of medicaments of a high commercial value … to be distributed to needy persons in Hungary, Transylvania and Slovakia in the name of the Order” is quoted in Peter Piazza’s letter of 5 Jan. 1987 to the President of MMLSZ, proposing the donor for a merit award. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

4 Biography of Endre Atzél, in Életsorsok [Life destinies], Vol. II, p. 22 – MMLSZ (2019). See also a report by Peter Piazza, January 1987. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

5 Annual circular letter by Kristóf Kállay, November 1986. Archival fonds of P. Piazza.

6 Fr. Kozma to L. Dessewffy, 5 May 2000; reply by L. Dessewffy, 15 June 2000. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

7 Dobos, Marianne: A szeretet önkéntesei [The volunteers of charity]. Fórum Rt., 1990.

8 Kristóf Kállay to Bishop Szakos, 6 Jan. 1987. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

9 Peter Piazza to Canon Virányi, Head of the Catholic Charity Service, 11 May 1987. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

10 Bishop Gyula Szakos to Deputy Minister Lajos Juszt, 6 April 1987. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

11 Back-to-office report of Dr Endre Bóna and pharmacist György Németh, 2 April 1987. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

12 Report on 1987–February 1988 activities. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

13 Dobos, Marianne: op. cit., p. 39; interview with Imre Ugron in Máltai Hírek [News of Malta], September 2016.

14 The names of György Károlyi, Vilmos Erődi-Harrach, Dr Ottó Perjés and András Kállay are those that come up most often in the documentation, but it was an intensive effort by many members.

15 Csilla von Boeselager to Peter Piazza, 16 November 1987. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

16 Dobos, Marianne: op. cit., p. 129.

17 Draft of a letter of 17 November 1987 from Canon Virányi to Hungarocamion, referring to a meeting held the day before, and setting out the terms of the agreement (drafted by L. Dessewffy). Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

18 Financial report by the Hungarian Catholic Charity Service, 17 January 1989. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

19 Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

20 Report on 1987–February 1988 activities. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

21 Correspondence dated mid-1989. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

22 Circular letter from Kristóf Kállay, May 1988. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

23 1988 annual report of the German working-group of MMLSZ. Archival fonds of Peter Piazza.

24 Report on March–December 1988 activities. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

25 E.g. “Máltai Sólyom – demokratikus Ispotályosok” [Falcon of Malta – democratic hospitallers], MAGYARORSZÁG Politikai és Társadalmi Hírlap, 6 May 1988; interview with Kristóf Kállay in Képes Hét by Dr Ágnes Ságvári, April 1988; article in Új Ember, 29 May 1988; article “Segít a lovagrend” [The order of knighthood helps] in Népszabadság, 21 Jan. 1989

26 Biography of Miklós Kállay in Életsorsok, Vol. II, p. 142 – MMLSZ (2019).

27 This has been mistakenly referred to, by some sources, as the origin of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta. It was in fact a separate organisation. It was dissolved in the mid-1990s, having achieved its objectives.

28 Interim report to Bishop Szakos on 1988 activities, dated 17 November 1988. Archival fonds of L. Dessewffy.

29 MMSZ was the first auxiliary organisation of the Order of Malta registered in a Comecon country.

30 Personal communication from Imre Ugron.

31 MMLSZ itself was still operating from Rome, and until mid-1990 it had only one member resident in Hungary.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email