Is oral history worth the paper it is printed on? Does it not hint at facts missed by historians? Could it serve as a footnote in their chronicles?
Two of my sources – thoughtful men with minds more at home in a distant era than I ever will be – have offered tantalising details of a story three centuries old and still alive in Szabolcs County, in Hungary’s north-eastern extremity. The sources lured me into the Age of Enlightenment they loved as a glorious niche of time when heroic nobles walked the Old World and demanded such earth-shaking reforms as the abolition of serfdom, the end of state censorship, freedom of religion, and the removal of bigoted kings.
History records that in 1703 Ferenc Rákóczi became the leader of a mostly peasant army to regain the independence of his homeland Hungary and to dethrone the reactionary Habsburg dynasty seated in Vienna that never earned the loyalty of the Hungarian people. A handsome scion of Hungary’s first family and Prince of Transylvania, Rákóczi waxed eloquent in Hungarian, Latin and French. For eight years his ragtag irregulars fought the Austrian empire, then a great power on the continent, and came close to victory.
But in the end, in 1711, his forces lost several battles and surrendered. Prince Rákóczi fled to Poland, the first stage of an exile that took him and a remnant of his court to England, France and eventually Ottoman Turkey. He believed that his people would again rise against Habsburg tyranny. He counted on military intervention by Sultan Ahmed III and thought that France’s Sun King Louis XIV and Russia’s Peter the Great would offer him at least diplomatic support. All three sovereigns corresponded with the Prince – and the French king even granted him a generous annual retainer. Up until his death in 1735, the Prince radiated confidence that with the God of Justice on his side, he will return home and restore Hungary’s independence.
At this point I take my turn to spin a yarn. I cannot prove in the high court of historians that my family’s alleged connection to the Prince is the truth and nothing but the truth. But eyewitnesses have certified that he spent a great deal of time in my ancestral Szabolcs County where the great majority hoped to see him crowned king of Hungary.
„Prince Rákóczi had many ardent followers in Szabolcs County”, an admirer from a noble family that fought on his side in the rebellion told me in the early 1960s. “It makes sense that he would leave there a treasure chest – and perhaps even more than one – so upon his return from exile he could reclaim it to feed, arm, and pay a new army of liberation.”
The admirer, Zoltán Algya-Pap, was a lieutenant-general in Hungary’s infantry during the Second World War who spent ten years as a prisoner of war in Siberia. He was transferred to a Budapest prison during Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw shortly before the Hungarian people rose up against the Stalinist dictatorship in 1956. When the Soviets crushed the revolt that freed Algya-Pap along with other political prisoners, he fled to the West where his old connections – he had served as a military attaché in Washington and London in the 1930s – secured him a job that made use of his mastery of six languages. When I met him, he was the senior researcher in the Theosophical Society’s archives in Adyar, India. Tall and athletic, he cut an impressive figure presiding over rituals of that international group that honoured him as a lifelong member. I could not picture him as a general issuing orders to his troops. He was also one Second World War veteran who did not like to discuss what he called “that deepest pit of in humanity”.
As a graduate student at Madras University, I was collecting data for a PhD thesis on Hindu folk legends, a project never completed. Zoltán bácsi – Hungarian for uncle as I called him in deference to his age and encyclopaedic knowledge – advised me on books to study and experts to consult. But I soon found out that what mesmerised him was Prince Rákóczi’s time. He defined himself as “a man from the European Enlightenment” and he talked about Rákóczi as if the two had met.
One afternoon, over tea and vanilla-scented cookies baked by his soul mate, a Dutch baroness, Zoltán bácsi asked if my ancestors in Szabolcs County were Rákóczi loyalists. I said I would approach my family historians, my mother’s oldest brother Shumi in Budapest and their cousin Shamu in Beersheba. They responded that “our ancestors had contacts” with the Prince and endorsed his cause enthusiastically. But they were not privy to the content of those contacts.
„I am not surprised”, Zoltán bácsi said when I reported back to him. “The Prince sympathised with Jews and also had close Protestant friends, both unusual for the time. Though a devout Roman Catholic who attended Mass every day, he trusted quite a few Jews in those treacherous times when people from all classes and communities switched their loyalties, some of them more than once.”
Zoltán bácsi said that he could well imagine that on the advice of his Szabolcs County supporters, the Prince invited the head of my family for a conversation. “The Prince always looked for people he could trust and he tested them by asking how they made a living and what they thought about the Habsburg enemy”, Zoltán bácsisaid. “He would have been interested how the only Jewish family in the village of Derzs kept its faith and got along with Christian neighbours. The Prince must have found out that your family was as poor as other peasants in the village and, like them, opposed Habsburg oppression. And, most important, your ancestors had a reputation for honesty.”
I neglected to ask Zoltán bácsi how he knew about such a reputation. He channelled opinions from Rákóczi’s era as if citing a great-great-grandfather.
Inspired by Zoltán bácsi’sexample, I stepped into the boots of my forefather so distant that my uncles did not know his name. I imagined that he, as the head of the family, discussed with the Prince the wheat harvest he and his fellow villagers expected. I was sure that as an Orthodox Jew, he also referred to the Talmudic passage he had studied the previous evening. He must have expressed hope that the day will come when the law allows Jews to own land. No doubt, he pointed out that his ancestors had lived in Derzs for many centuries and will remain there as long as the Almighty keeps the Jewish people in exile – and that may take generations, even many generations. I could almost hear him say: “In the meantime, I am not interested in moving to a bigger and wealthier location. Derzs is my home. This is where my ancestors were born and buried, and I expect to join them in our family cemetery, next to my parents’ graves. God willing, our descendants will follow in our footsteps.”
Zoltán bácsi’s eyes brightened as he listened to my reverie. “The head of your family was learned and deeply religious”, he theorised. “Prince Rákóczi must have been favourably impressed. I think he concluded that he found a man he could trust as a custodian of a chest filled with silver coins and precious stones that he planned to reclaim upon his return from exile. The Prince was a good judge of character. He was a good man and he knew how to tell a good man. He trusted people and in turn he generated trust.”
When I went to say goodbye to Zoltán bácsi before my return home to the United States, he asked if I wanted to listen to the Prince’s proclamation that in 1703 summoned his nation to take up arms against the Habsburgs. Of course I did.
Standing by the railing of the porch of his apartment overlooking the Indian Ocean, Zoltán bácsi recited the statement, first in Latin, the language of educated Hungarians for centuries, and then in Hungarian. His diction matched the high drama of the message. Not once did he stumble on a word. As he was getting to the end, the sun dipped below the horizon and the tropics’ curtain of total darkness descended suddenly.
Neither of us spoke for a minute or two. Then Zoltán bácsi recalled that he memorised the proclamation in grammar school – about the time the First World War erupted and he became a professional soldier. “I have never been afraid of death”, he explained his career choice. “Even as a youth I had a premonition that I would be buried abroad. But I never thought that where the body is left to fall apart has any significance. As far as I am concerned, only the soul matters because it is eternal. Now, actually for quite some time, I have been preparing myself for my next incarnation.”
At 89, Zoltán bácsi died in the Netherlands in 1984, his soul mate informed me. He had gone blind and feeble, she wrote, but at peace with himself and the world.
Since then I learned that in 1944 the Hungarian government appointed Lt. Gen. Zoltán Algya-Pap as its high commissioner to the sub-Carpathian region where the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began, including some of my cousins. According to Jenő Lévai’s book published shortly after the war, Algya- Pap protested the inhumanity of their treatment, and he was ordered to the front to fight Stalin’s Red Army. However, Lévai, a highly regarded journalist and an observant Jew, did not shed light on the link between the two facts.
In a recent email responding my query, Krisztián Ungváry, now the leading authority on Hungary’s military in the Second World War, first pointed out that Algya-Pap was the only general who received the state’s highest medal for personal bravery, gold of course. Because of his previous assignment, Ungváry went on, he had to have been involved in the discussions about the roundup of Jews, and he must have learned from refugees from German-occupied Poland about the death camps in their country. As Algya-Pap was earlier stationed on the Polish border, Ungváry concluded, “it is completely impossible that he could remain blind and deaf” to German atrocities in Poland. But Ungváry’s sources – he too came from a military family – assured him that Algya-Pap had no extreme Right sympathies; in fact, he stayed out of politics.
Now I wish I had pressed Algya-Pap on that sensitive subject important to me. But to each man, his own ghosts. His were from the eighteenth century, it seemed to me.
When in 1989 I first visited Derzs that my widowed grandmother Róza Schwarcz and her seven children had left in tears in 1927, I met Mr Barta, an amateur historian who worked in the local Calvinist church. We shook hands, then he studied my face for a few seconds, identified me as a Schwarcz descendant, and hazarded a guess whose child I might be. He got it right, which pleased us both. He said he was born in the same year as my mother – 1908 – and they played together as children. “Is Anni still lively and chubby?” he asked. He beamed when I answered, “Oh yes.” I was amazed that he also recalled the names and personalities of my mother’s siblings and several of her cousins. “They are still with us as far as my family is concerned”, he said. “We often talk about the Schwarczes and the good people they were. Their bankruptcy was a tragedy for the village as well. And we mourn those who did not return from Auschwitz.”
Mr Barta pointed at a knoll by his church. “This is where at age 18 your great- grandfather Samuel listened to a recruiter’s speech and joined the revolutionary army in 1848”, he said. “Our village remembers him. The Austrians killed quite a few of our people but Samuel returned alive from the battles stronger and smarter than he was before that particular one of our foredoomed rebellions. My grandfather, who fought in the same battalion, later worked for him, spreading cow manure on his fields every fall.”
Mr Barta did not wait long to focus on a subject that captured him as a child, he said. He asked: “Do you have any knowledge of the famous treasure hidden somewhere in Szabolcs County, possibly here in Derzs? It belonged to our Prince Rákóczi and its contents included plenty of brilliant red rubies he loved.”
I replied that my uncles did not tell me anything about such a treasure.
Mr Barta was not discouraged. He asked: “But weren’t your ancestors followers of our Prince Rákóczi?” I said that I heard that they were but that was all I knew. He pressed on: “Didn’t your great-grandfather Samuel suddenly become rich in the second half of the nineteenth century?”
Yes, he did, I said.
Mr Barta mused if it ever occurred to me that Samuel might have found the treasure chest – or, more likely, he knew where it was hidden because the Prince entrusted Samuel’s great-grandfather as its custodian. Mr Barta asked: “Don’t you think that after our Prince died and his two sons left no heir, Samuel decided to dip into the treasure to buy land which was legal for a Jew by that time?”
I replied that my grandfather was not Samuel’s eldest son and the secret of the treasure is unlikely to have been passed on to him.
“Yes, I remember Lajos bácsi, the eldest son”, Mr Barta said. “I suspect he inherited what was left of the treasure that he took with him across the country, to the west bank of the Danube. He was the only one of Samuel’s seven sons who did not stay in our Szabolcs County. Do you know that Lajos was by far the richest of Samuel’s children?”
I said I heard that Lajos lived in a fancy manor and his servants wore livery, with white gloves.
A faint smile crossed Mr Barta’s face. He said, “But Lajos was not as popular as his brother, your grandfather.”
“I am grateful that you have kept so many memories of my family”, I said. “But tell me, what do people in Derzs believe about the Prince’s treasure?”
“Our village tradition suggests that our Prince chose your ancestor as the treasure’s custodian and in every generation the eldests on inherited that responsibility”, Mr Barta said. “But people here are sure that your ancestors would not have opened the chest as long as they thought that the Prince’s heirs might be alive. But none was known to have survived.”
Mr Barta sighed. “Our Prince should have become our king”, he said. “Our national history would not have been so dismal.”
“Prince Rákóczi was a great and good man”, I said. “It is a pity that he did not have an heir who could have taken up his cause.”
I told Mr Barta that digging up a buried treasure has been a recurrent dream of mine ever since I remember remembering. He smiled. But I could tell that he would have preferred that I add a little weight to the local lore about my ancestors’ role in guarding the treasure chest. Nevertheless, he was still pleased to suggest at the end of our conversation that I am a true son of Szabolcs County where dreams matter more than reason and reason’s often disappointing bastard son, reality.
In 2012 I was delighted to read in Géza Komoróczy’s magisterial new book on the history of Jews in Hungary that Rákóczi had Jewish friends and on one occasion he was hiding from the Habsburg emperor’s soldiers in the Jewish quarter of a Polish town. But most of the chapter on Rákóczi’s era dealt with documents, written in Hebrew, on his soldiers robbing and killing Jews. Like other historians, the professor pointed out that the Prince failed to stop his soldiers from robbing and killing Jews – as well as Christians who had valuables. Komoróczy concluded that the rebels might have been patriots but many of them were bandits, as well.
“Rákóczi was a Hungarian grand seigneur”, Komoróczy wrote to me in an email. “A good sort of grand seigneur even if all the negatives I as a historian can say about his vanity and questionable political schemes is true. His relationship to Jews was ambiguous. Like his mother and stepfather, he hired Jews to run large chunks of his properties. He was in touch with quite a few Jews, and was even friends with some, and not only with Samuel Oppenheimer who advanced him unbelievably large loans.” But, the professor added, Rákóczi never repaid his debt to the firm of that leading Viennese banker and financier.
“In Jewish memory, affection surrounds Rákóczi’s name „,Komoróczy noted, “though like other Hungarian aristocrats, he was merciless in squeezing for money Jewish merchants in eastern Hungary, Poland and Turkey – wherever he owed money for supplies and services.” Yes, the professor found it “possible” that the Prince and a poor Jewish villager could develop mutual trust. But in his view, the legend of a Jewish custodian of a princely treasure in Szabolcs County does not rise to the level of a historical fact.
BACK TO A PRIMARY SOURCE
In Prince Rákóczi’s memoirs published in Hungary in 1872, there is no reference to a treasure trove and only one Jew is mentioned, briefly and without identifying him by name or character. According to the paragraph, as the Prince and his small party approached the frontier to cross into Hungary to unfurl the banner of the rebellion in 1703, people from the Polish village of Szkolya blocked their way. “However, in the midst of hostile exchanges, one Jew recognised me, and the bickering and tussle changed to joy and courtesies”, the Prince recalled in his memoirs penned in exile in a stone house in Rodosto, a day’s horseback ride from the sultan’s resplendent palace in Istanbul.
Clearly, the grand seigneur would not surrender his right to expect “joy and courtesies”.
ORAL HISTORY LIVES!
I saddens me when the dust of time gradually buries a good story. “Time is dust”, a poet wrote, “and dust is time”. But a story’s survival over centuries attests to the vitality of its protagonists and the enduring power of their passions. Oral history has a life of its own. It talks to us, challenging us to define ourselves as believers or sceptics. It prompts us to argue and to advance theories.
A story is a living organism. Let it evolve, I say, let it live its own life, appeal to new audiences, and inspire conflicting interpretations. The truth of a bedtime story may be confirmed when a lucky researcher stumbles upon a surprising piece of information in a parchment lining the covers of an old book fallen apart. Or an accepted fact may be radically revised when a letter misfiled long ago turns up in a little known archive.
The publisher of the Prince’s memoirs, Kálmán Thaly, noted in his preface in 1872 that the Prince kept a diary that disappeared as he fled Hungary in great haste, dodging the emperor’s forces ordered to hunt him down. I suspect that someone absconded with that unique document and sold it to the Habsburgs – or the Ottomans. From time to time, similar finds surface in the imperial archives of Vienna and Istanbul that overflow with the secrets of past centuries. But it is not easy to look for information on one particular subject. As a poet put it: “Like dragons of old / Archivists guard their gold.”
While we look forward to reading new data, a good story may still be recycled by a Schwarcz who entertains his grandchildren by conjuring up their humble ancestor befriended by a fabled prince. In answer to a grandchild’s question, grandpa says, oh yes, the Prince’s treasure has become ours – even if we spent it in the nineteenth century on buying land that we lost in the twentieth. Or it may be that the treasure is intact, still waiting to be dug up. In any event, as descendants of a man the Prince once trusted, we may press our claim each time we tell the story.
You, gentle reader, be the judge which option has more validity than any of the others.