I realize that this humor is born from nervousness. I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the past few years trying to understand The Crown, its journey, and my father’s role in its recovery. When I first decided to take on this task, I thought this would be a relatively simple easy. A few forays in Google. Perhaps a letter or two and if worse came to worse a visit to an actual library. Little did I know that I was encountering a Churchillian proverb: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. That the secrets of the Crown’s journey, its recovery and eventual return would be denser than a neutron star and more convoluted than a paranoids fear.
While I believed my father had told me the truth about the Crown, that he was involved in its recovery in some way, I knew I could not take what he said at face value. It needed to be proved. I was also convinced that he was mistaken about the “mission” to recover the Crown was still classified. I found it hard to believe then that an incident as minor as the recovery of a 2nd tier monarchy’s royal retinue would still be classified 67 years after the act. It was an arrogant and ignorant thought. What I did not know then is St. Stephen’s Crown is the most important crown jewel in the world but one of the Catholic church’s most important relics.
It is with the obliviousness of the ignorant that I wrote the National Archives, Department of State, The Army and even the CIA requesting information on the Crown and its recovery. The response to my enquiries were uniform if not enlightening. Each organization had told me that information regarding the Crown was still classified and what information that was public was available could be found on Wikipedia.
I was gob smacked. 67 years had elapsed. Hungary had undergone massive changes including eliminating the monarchy, rejecting communism, become part of the European Union and joined NATO. Three generations had been born since the Crown’s recovery. Why was information regarding the recovery of the crown still classified. Could it be as my father mentioned that the families of those who participated needed to be protected. The importance of the crown cut such a wide swatch in the Hungarian zeitgeist that knowledge of how the Crown came to be in US hands would ruin peoples lives even seven decades later? It was an idea that was hard for my fully Americanized brain to wrap its head around.
I had come to Budapest not because I thought that I could find the answers to my most important questions. What did my father have to do with the recovery of the Crown that was so important that he could not discuss it, even on his death bed? What was so important that he lied to my mother and his children for as long as we had known him about his service in the Army? Why had thought the Crown so important in his life that his last gift to the family was a medallion that bore its image?
I had come to Budapest to see the Crown. I wanted to get a sense of what the Crown meant to the Hungarian people beyond words on a page. To see if it could inspire me in some way to find a further truth. Perhaps seeing it in person I might be able to see what my father had seen as a 19 year old boy. An event he believed had charged his life with luck. And, as a consequence, changed my life as well.
And now I was going to see it. And I was nervous and making jokes to cover it up.
The first thing I noticed as I entered the room were the four hussars standing guard over the Crown. They looked as if they had walked directly out of the 19th century or out of the box of toy soldiers my brother and I were so fond of as children. Grey trifoil hats with silver piping, a grey tunic with silver brocade across the chest from left to right and top to bottom. They are full dress attention with their highly polished sabers at salute against their right shoulders. We are told that if we approach to closely to glass enclosure in the center of the room that holds the Crown and the regalia of orb, scepter and sword that the guards will not hesitate to lop off whatever body part that is most convenient. As a consequence, I keep my distance despite an overwhelming desire to get as close as possible.
Our guide goes through a prepared and highly sanitized statement about the Crown. If I had any hope that she would provide new insight to my understanding of the Crown they aredashed. Her presentation was short on facts and long on the hyperbole of what the Crown meant to Hungary and the only comment about the Crown and 2nd World War was that “The crown was returned to Hungary in 1978 by Jimmy Carter after being held is safe keeping by the US since the 2nd World War.
When the guide asks for questions I raise my hand and ask “How did the Crown get into US hands at the end of the War.” I think it a rather simple question and I have asked only because I want to hear the official answer and I am rather surprised that her response is akin to a deer in the headlights. After a moment’s pause she replies “I don’t have any of the details” and then adds much to my surprise “Why do you ask?”
I am embarrassed. I don’t really want to say why I am asking but I reply “Well, my father was a part of the recovery of the Holy Crown and was just wondering if you could provide any additional information because I never heard the full story.”
She responded by saying “Well, it is likely you know more than me because I am new. Perhaps you can share with us what you know…
I think about what to say. Over the course of the past few years I have gained a decent understanding of the recovery despite some of the information still being classified.
In November of 1945 the siege of Budapest by the Soviets had begun and it had become clear to the Wardens of the Crown that the crown and its retinue consisting of the orb, scepter, crown, sword, coronation robe, and Holy Hand (the hermetically sealed and preserved hand of the first Hungarian king and saint) needed to be moved to avoid capture by the Red Army. Under the protection of Crown Guard and command of a Col. Pajtas The Crown, orb, scepter, and sword were placed in a special iron box with three locks and along with the rest of the retinue moved to the town of Veszeprem about 120 km to the SW of Budapest. There, the precious goods were placed in a Bank Vault for safe keeping. In early December, a decision was made to move further west to the town of Korzeg where the guard and their cargo sought and were granted refuge in a monastery. On the day after Christmas a further move was ordered to an air raid shelter in the town Velem on the Austrian frontier.
By the middle of February Budapest had fallen to the Red Army and by March they had begun their march west towards Vienna. It was no longer tenable to keep the crown in Hungary and March 17th it was moved across the border to Austria and by the 26th they arrive at the small town of Mattsee on the Austria/Germany border. There too had gathered the Hungarian Cabinet, in exile, who on April 25th gathered for the last cabinet meeting. How to keep the Crown safe was certainly discussed at that meeting with the result being the Col Pajtas and two of his most trusted men buried the Crown, scepter and orb in an old barrel near a rock wall.
On May 2nd, the colonel and his guard moved the now mostly empty chest to Zeldorf 100 km or so north east of Mattsee. One reason was likely to gain distance between them and their secret cache but the other was to turn over the Holy Hand of St. Stephen to Father Superior of the mission there. The following day, an American Army unit entered the village and on May 6, Col Pajtas communicated to those troops and asked for a patrol to call. Late that afternoon a Lt. Greenwald, an officer who spoke fluent Hungarian, called on him and took the Colonel and his troops into custody. When Greenwald was informed by Pajtas that Holy Crown was in his custody, Greenwald informed his commander and the entire entourage was led under strong armed guard to the 7th Army Interrogation Center in Augsburg Germany 300 kilometers away. The officer in charge, Major Paul Kubala, provided a receipt for the chest to Pajtas and then telegrammed General Eisenhower and President Truman that the Crown had been secured.
However, the surrender of the Crown and its retinue to the American’s was more likely a surrender to the inevitable. No doubt the Hungarians hoped to buy time with the hope that some way would be found to get the Crown into the hands of those who were sworn to protect it. This became obvious when Major Kubala went to open the trunk and seeing the case that held the crown had three locks asked Colonel Pajtas for the keys. Pajtas told them he did not have the keys and he did not know where those keys were. As the Americans did not want to break the trunk an all-out investigation into the whereabouts of the key was launched. They were eventually recovered in late July. However during the 10 weeks between finding the trunk and the recovery of the keys Pajtas did not tell his captors that the Crown was not in their possession but buried near a stone wall in Matsee Austria. He did, communicate secretly with the Regent of Hungary, Horothy to let him know what he had done with the Crown and was relieved to find out that it met with his approval.
While the 7th Army was looking for the keys to the royal trunk a Lt. James W. Shea of the 242 Infantry Regiment, 42 Division, a part of Army counterintelligence, was conducting a search in Salzburg is told be two cooks to Hungarian Officials that a large stash of valuables was being held by a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Stasser. A search of his church turned up nothing but in his private residence they discovered that his couch was actually an elaborately constructed hiding place with separate areas for the Holy Dexter and the coronation gown.
On July 24, Major Kubala called senior officer, war correspondents, and photographers to the 7th Army Interrogation to witness the opening of the chest. Much to his embarrassment, consternation, and no doubt anger, the case only contained St. Stephens sword. Lt. Greenwald was sent to retrieve Pajtas. Pajtas later claimed that the interrogation that followed was rough and it was only after extreme threats that he told the Americans where the Crown was buried.
This presented yet another problem for Major Kubala. The Crown’s burial site was located within an area that was controlled by the American 3rd Army. Kubala was a part of the 7th Army and according to Army regulations would have to seek permission to enter 3rd Army territory. Lt Worth B. Andrews solved this problem by volunteering to recover the Crown. Kubala refused to authorize such an expedition, no doubt with a wink, because later that day, under the cover of darkness Andrews, accompanied by Pajtas, led a team to the rock wall in Matsee and recovered the Crown, Orb and Septer.
All of this flashes through my mind as I consider the guide’s question but ultimately decide that what I know is probably too much for this group and for some reason I am a little embarrassed about how much that I know. So I respond to the guides question by saying “It’s a long story and if anyone really wants more detail that can come and ask me at the end of the tour.”
No one sought me out at the end of our tour for which I was grateful. For reasons that were somewhat confusing to me I felt that the information I had gathered on the crown were mine. That sharing them with people I didn’t know were seemed too intimate. I tried to explain this to my wife a short time later as we recovered from the stress of the tour by having a snack at patisserie conveniently close to the Parliament. We were both eating palatschinken, the crepe dish my father so love, mine stuffed with apricot jama and hers with chocolate and nuts. She said, in her delightful Brazilian lilt “My darling, why did you feel it was too personal?”
I didn’t answer immediately because at that moment my mouth was full of whipped cream and apricot jam. After I swallowed I said “I don’t know. I think part of the reason is that this is about something that my father might have been involved with. We don’t know he was involved. I mean after 2 years of digging we have not been able to figure out if he was involved or not. All we have is his nebulous statements about his involvement. And if I shared this with people they would almost certainly ask what his involvement was and all I can say is I don’t know…”
“And, that would embarrass you? My darling you have whipped cream on your chin.”
I wipe away the offending dairy product and reply “Embarrass is probably the wrong word. Maybe I feel it would lead to having to tell the story of how I found out about my Dad and the Crown. Deathbed confession and all. And just seems a little bit too intimate. And maybe a little crazy. I have been searching for answers for two years to no effect. At times, I feel like Don Quixote pitching at windmills.”
“You will figure it out.”
“I wish I had your optimism. ”
She smiles and squeezes my hand and at least in that instant I feel that I will be able to crack the code on my father’s role, if any, in the recovery of the Crown. I see that she has finished her espresso and her palatschinken and say “Are you ready for phase two?”
“Yes, my love.”
We set off on foot through the narrow streets that line that part of Budapest. The streets are lined with buildings that look as if they were built in the latter part of the 19th century but it is hard to tell because much of this city was destroyed by allied bombing. Regardless, the low slung architecture, the narrow streets, the quaint shops provides a feeling of prolonged human habituation that so many European capitals possess. This feeling of profound age somehow makes an understanding of how a people venerate a crown easier to understand. Every day they walk through a city that is a living history and the crown is the bow that ties that package together. It is, in the truest sense, the jewel of Hungarian History.
As I am about to share this epiphany with my wife we come across a small park. This is by design so instead of telling me my wife about latest brainstorm about the crown I explain about why I wanted to visit this park. I tell her that when I was preparing for this trip I had read about how a controversy had erupted when the current government had erected, under the cover of darkness, “The German Occupation Memorial” that was at the far end of this park. The hullabaloo over its creation had come from many quarters not the least of which was the Jewish community. They felt that the whole concept of a memorial to German occupation was a farce. The government of Hungry during the war, led by the Regent Miklos Horothy, had played footsies with the Nazi’s until the Nazi’s occupied the country in March of 1944. Then in just 56 days, the Nazi’s deported over 400,000 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau. All in all over 550,00 Hungarian Jews were murdered (only the Ukraine and Poland had more victims.) This happened with the aid and help of the Hungarian government and people. They chose to ally with the Nazi’s and in the end capitulated control of their government to them. To claim now that they were victims now is the ultimate false narrative.
The controversy about the memorial only grew worse when it was discovered that the monument’s Hebrew inscription had mistranslated the word “victim” for “sacrificial animal.”
I explain to Elaine that the reason I wanted to come this way only indirectly had to with the monument. I had no real desire to spend any time in front of an edifice designed to white wash history. What I wanted to see was across the street. After the monument had been erected, a spontaneous outpouring of outrage had ensued and the Jewish community had created a “counter-memorial” across the street. I tell Elaine that this is what I want to see.
It is more gesture than monument. What appears to be barbed wire has been strung over several steel stanchions that were originally placed there to block traffic from entering the walkway. The wire has clipped to it a mélange of images of victims of the holocaust, testimony to the events that lead to the death of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews. One piece of paper, wrapped in plastic, says “ Say no the falsification of history, the national memory poisoning, the state-level Hungarian Holocaust Denial.” Under the wire are stones, some written upon, others unadorned, the traditional offering of Jews when they visit a grave, Intermingled with the stones are pots of flowers, and bouquets along with more written testimonies and photographs.
Despite, and perhaps because of, the simplicity of this memorial I am very moved. I am inspired by those who are protesting this “shanda” across the street whose only goal is to contort history into something that is more comfortable for them. It pleases me to see that the citizens of Budapest have decided to honor the “peoples” monument and treat it with respect as it gives me hope that the vow “never forget” still resonates here.
But I am also ashamed of myself. I have brought no stone to place among the others lying beneath the barbed wire. I have no picture or testimony to place on the barbed wire. And while I know I have in a computer file somewhere the names of my father’s uncles and aunts who lived in Hungary I cannot recall them at this moment…I have vowed never to forget yet I can’t remember their names. And beyond knowing the first couple of words to the mourners Kaddish, I don’t even know how to say a decent prayer for them.
My wife has the uncanny ability to sense what I am thinking. It goes far beyond sensing what I feel. Her mind reading often delves so deep that she says exactly what my inner voice is whispering. She’s says “Those of son of bitch bastards.” I smile not only because she is saying what I feel but because I know how she delights in swearing in English. I kiss her and holding hands we begin to walk out of the park when I see in one of the flower beds a small rock barely bigger than a pebble laying in one of the barren flower beds. I ask my wife to hold on and pick up the stone and walk to memorial and add to collection of rocks at the base of memorial.
I feel better for my tribute and my memorial and we resume our walk to St. Stephens Basilica the home of St. Stephen’s holy right hand.
When Stephen died in 1038 he was entombed in the Basilica of Székesfehérvár. His death was followed by a long period of civil unrest, pagan uprisings and foreign invasions and no consideration was given to his canonization until the reign of King Ladislaus. As a part of that process his tomb was opened and it was discovered that the body of the king had completed disintegrated with the exception of his right hand which was miraculously perfectly preserved. Along with the miracle of preservation concurrent with the Kings disinterment was a spate of healing miracles that were explained by the discovery of the soon to be Saint’s right hand. Eventually, the hand was placed in a hermetically sealed glass container to preserve it for the eons.
Since that time, the hand was to the religious, what the crown was to the social and civil. It was emblematic of the Hungarian Catholic church and the Holy Dexter, as it was now known, was integral to the spiritual psyche of the Hungarian people. Which is no doubt why, as the Crown and the Hungarian government fled west to avoid capture by the advancing Red Army, St. Stephen’s Hand was included in the entourage. However, the hand was not buried with the Crown. Instead it was secreted away in the home of a Roman Catholic priest in Salzburg by the name of Strasser. There it was uncovered, in a cleverly designed couch, along with St. Stephen’s coronation robe by Lt. James Shea and his unit.
My interest in seeing the hand was that while my father had told me that the discrepancy between his service record and what his oral history of his time in the Army had to do with the Crown of St. Stephens, I couldn’t rule out that he was also involved in the uncovering of the hand. And to be completely honest I had never seen anything this gruesome…the perfectly preserved hand of a man who lived a millennium ago… and was morbidly curious about it.
I let my wife lead us into the church as she is the Roman Catholic in the family and as a Jew I always feel as if I will be immediately identified and denied entry or something worse. I know that this is completely irrational and probably dates to some childhood experiences that I am not willing to investigate but it is what it is. When I am not seized at the door and pilloried for murdering the Christ child, Elaine and I walk slowly through the church. It is impressive not only in its neo classical design and ornate fittings….the tiled floors, gilded marble pilasters but it is also spotlessly clean with marble and bright work literally gleaming. Part of that gleam comes from the lighting of the church. Unlike many of the cathedrals that I have braved throughout Europe it has wonderful naturally light owing in no small part to the large windows set in the dome. Another impressive feature are the beautiful stained glass windows of St. Margit and Elizabeth seem to stare at you no matter where you stand. I would have been paranoid about it except I overhear one of the guides tell their tour that this is a distinguishing feature of the art.
We make our way to the reliquary in the back of the church where we have been told that we can find the “incorruptible” hand of St. Stephen. In isn’t what I expected. First, the hermetically sealed box is kept in what looks to be a large armoire without doors that would have been right at home in an Ikea store. I had imagined the “hermetically sealed box” for the hand being a simple affair with crystal all around for easy viewing. Instead, the container built for the hand resembles a gothic church made of silver and gold with large crystal view ports where stained glass would be on the sides and in the back. This makes it very hard to see the hand. In fact, it takes me more than a minute before I can make out an outline of the dexter out and frankly then it is a little disturbing as the hand has a greenish hue.
I think about making a Hulk joke but for once make the decision not to make the joke. I look at my wife and nod my head towards the door. She nods back and we are heading towards an exit when I see a plaque of a wall. It read “The Holy Right Hand/ History of the Relic, Hand of Saint Stephen Founder Of State/ King Stephen died on 15th August, 1038. On 15th August 1083 he was canonized in Szekesfehervar. His right found intact has been highly esteemed by the nation ever since. It has had an adventurous fate: It had been kept in Bihar (Transylvania), Ragusa (Dalmatia, now Dubrovnik), then Vienna, from where it was brought to Buda in 1771. In 1944 it was carried away to the west, it was returned to Hungary on the 19th of August 1945.”
I understand that a plaque in a church cannot tell the whole story of the “The Holy Right Hand.” It would be too long and people would not read it. But the last two lines I find profoundly lacking. They even piss me off a little. “It was carried away to the West” doesn’t mention that it had to flee the onslaught of the Red Army due in no small part to genocide committed by Hungarians in the name of the Hand and of the Crown. Nor does it mention that the US Army had returned the relic to Hungary as an act of goodwill. This white washing of history, the cleansing of the lessons we should have learned from the WW2 I find horrifying and maddening. But I know that something else is bothering me about the sign because my reaction to it is far greater than what it deserves.
That night, I sit in the darkened hotel room. My wife is sleeping gently under a fluffy down comforter but I have remained awake to answer some emails with the lights off so as not to disturb her. Through the window, the Buda Castle, sitting on the hill above the Danube is illuminated and majestic. Below us the Danube, an inky serpent flows to the south as freighter moves north past the Chain Bridge. It is hard to write business emails with such a view and eventually I just give up and enjoy the view I am so lucky to see.
I have enjoyed our time in Budapest. It is a magical city in so many ways. The people are friendly. Every meal we have had has been good and the pastries almost as good as Vienna. And, as someone who loves history, it is hard not to love a city that has existed at the cross roads of the world for more than millennia.
I have seen the Crown. An object that I have been thinking about almost daily for the last 2.5 year. And while I had an intellectual understanding of the importance of the Crown, seeing it in person has provided me with something that no book can give…those cues and clues that you can only get from being there that allow you to understand its meaning to the people of Hungary. It is Hungary.
Which is why I was surprised that so little was mentioned during our tour of the Parliament. Why would they say so little about how it was captured and held by the Americans for so long. And then it hits me. The Crowns flight from Budapest and Hungary is the shameful family secret of Hungary. The one no one wants to discuss. They want to cover it up and sugar coat it so that we just move on without thinking too much. It reminds me of something that Pops had said to me when I was pressing him on why he thought that what he had done with the Crown was still classified. He told me that it was to protect people and their families. That if information was released that implicated them it could destroy them. Being here. Understanding how this is a shameful family secret has helped me understand that.
It also raises the question about who told who what. So many secrets that I don’t know and don’t know if I will ever know. I am frustrated that in this day of instant information and data I can’t find out what I want to know about the Crown.
All these thoughts of brushing painful and damaging facts under the rug makes me realize what had made me so angry at the Plaque at the Basilica of St. Stephen. It was the same thing that had angered Budapestians at the construction of “The Memorial To German Occupation.” What was it that the sign said, “Say, no the falsification of history.” The plaque was falsifying history by omitting facts. The tour guide was falsifying history by barely acknowledging American possession of the Crown for 31 years and then by saying that it was given back after it was held for “safe keeping.” The Crown was not held for safekeeping. It was held because the American’s thought it would control the world after the war and it was held so long because the USA and Hungarian expats had no desire for it to be in the hands of Communists.
I have no desire to uncover shameful family secrets. I have no desire to put anyone’s family in harm’s way. I am not on a noble mission to uncover the secrets of the Crown. This is personal. My father had created a myth about himself. A poor immigrant boy who went from eating butter by the bar to an officer in a conquering army. But as true as that story was it also omitted facts, altered dates, and changed the narrative. I felt cheated by his falsehoods. It was important to me, that we, his family know the truth and create the myth about the man from that.
My father used to get my brother and I to fall asleep by telling us stories about Hugi and Thad. Two friends who upon discovering an old rowboat and undertake creating a submarine to drift down the Danube and refuge from the war. 5 decades later, a new story of intrigue on the Danube had emerged. The only difference was that instead of Pops telling me the story I had to write it myself.
Where to begin?