The Cathedral of Maria Saal is located about 12 miles east of Portschach am Worthersee in a market town of the same name. According to the clerk at our hotel while not the seat of the bishop, it was the center of Christianity in Carinthia as a church has been on that location for the past 1200 years. For centuries it was the Cathedral that the local nobles went to obtain their ecclesiastical blessings. Perhaps it was that connection between faith and rulers that made Uncle Anton had choose it for our meetings. But there were strategic reasons as well.
First, the town of Maria Saal is a market town with many roads leading in and out of it. Anton did not trust us. That is he trusted Paul but not the US Army. That was made clear from the note that he had sent to Paul at our hotel. It said that he knew why we were here and that he would meet with us but we must come alone. If he saw we were not by ourselves or followed all bets were off and he would disappear. This did not please Granville. I was learning that he was the type that liked to command every step of an operation. He wanted to be at point and lead. Not having this control made him profoundly nervous. But in this matter, he had no choice and he agreed to let Paul and I go alone. However, in the lead up to our visit to the church he peppered us with instructions on what to do in certain situations, what to be on the lookout for and how to tell if we were being played for chumps.
It annoyed Paul. He had led an underground life for the past six years, living by his wits and surviving only because in most cases his instincts had been correct. He did not need to be lectured on the subject of stealth and intrigue by anyone let alone a US Army colonel who did not know the territory. And of course, Anton was his Uncle and had been the architect of his original salvation. A man who held a singular place in his and whom he revered. Granville was, by implication, suggesting that Anton was not to be trusted, and that insulted Paul. More than once in the two days leading up to this “operation” I had to talk him down from his anger with Granville by letting him know that while Granvilles instructions may be old hat for him it was helpful to me and reminding him that the Colonel did not known Anton and had no reason to trust him.
It was Granville that suggested the second reason why Anton had chosen to meet at the Cathedral. He explained, a little pedantically, that it was the law of sanctuary. That since ancient times, churches had served as a place for refuge for those being sought by the authorities. The word sanctuary original meaning of “sacred place” had over time developed another meaning: A place of safety. While there were no laws that prevented anyone from entering a church or any place of sanctuary and removing the person being sought it was only done in the most extreme circumstances due to blow back from religious authorities and local population. This would apply doubly the Cathedral of Maria Saal with its history and importance to the region. Anton would feel free to meet here without the fear of being taken into custody by us.
Trying to sound smart after this lecture from Granville I said, “Do you think that the fact the Crown of St. Stephan and its retinue are reliquary of the Catholic Church helped shape his decision.”
He turned to me and gave me a look that a teacher reserves for the dullest of its students and simply said “No.”
It was embarrassing and I decided that in the future I would keep my thoughts to myself. But Paul who had enough of Granville’s lecture at that point said “Well it could be. Especially if the “Holy Right” is locked up in one of those cases.”
“The “Holy Right?” I asked.
“Yes. The right mummified right hand of St. Stephen.” I must have given him a blank look so he continued “When Stephen was named a Saint by the Church his body was exhumed so it could be moved to a more exalted place. When they opened his coffin, it was discovered that his right hand, the Holy Dexter, was perfectly preserved. Supposedly, this discovery caused healing miracles all over Budapest and ever since then it has been considered a holy relic. It even has its own crystal casket and cult like following and is paraded around Budapest every St. Stephen’s day.”
I have never understood the Catholic churches obsessions with bones and body parts. We don’t do that in the Jewish faith. We put people in the ground as quickly as possible and most certainly avoid praying to anything other than the almighty himself. These reliquaries seem far too similar to idol worship for the Rabbi’s. Also, Paul used to delight in making up stories that would make me cringe. I said “You are making this up?”
“No. Absolutely true. For the better part of the last millennia Hungarians have held a severed right hand of an old king sacred.” And with a little too much glee he added “I hear its green and still has the pearl bracelet on it that Stephen was buried in . Right Colonel?”
Looking a little exasperated that the conversation had taken this turn he replied. “Yes. The Holy Dexter is one of the things we believe are in the iron trunks that were delivered to us. But we don’t know. And I certainly don’t know whether it is green or not. Lets get back to the subject at hand.”
“Good one Colonel.”
This earned me another glare and instead of commenting on his inadvertent bad joke he continued on with the third reason that he believed Anton had chosen the Cathedral. He explained that according to the British Army officer he had spoken to about the Cathedral, the place was a fortress. The designers of the church had intended it to be a house of god but they also meant it to be a “keep” where the townspeople could flee to in case of impending invasion. As such, a relatively small group of men could hold out against a much larger force for an indefinite period time. This suited Anton’s purpose because it meant that he and the men he was with would have a strategic advantage should we decided to break our word.
This advantage is also the reason Anton chose the time for the meeting: High noon. I joked with Paul that it felt like a scene out of a Karl May novel where Old Shatterhand and Winnatou were going to face danger. But in addition to appealing to my boyhood imagination the reason behind the time requested by him for the meeting helped ensure his safety. He, and whomever was coming with him, would find a way to slip into the Cathedral under the cover of darkness and have time to surveil all approaches for hours before the meeting took place.
What I did not understand was why he felt the need for the secrecy and security he had arranged. It was not something that I wanted to bring up with the Colonel. For him, and the type of work that he had been involved with during the war, this must have seemed perfectly natural. However, for me, who had been a college student less than a year ago it was a bit baffling. I resolved to talk to Paul about it. Not only did he have the practical experience stemming from the time he lived underground but no one knew Uncle Anton better than he did.
Unfortunately, my duties guarding Pichler and the constant presence of the Colonel or Cookie had made private conversations impossible. It was not until we were walking up the small hill from the town of Maria Saal to the Cathedral (another one of Uncle Anton’s security concerns) that I got a chance to question him about the need for so much security.
It was a beautiful late spring day for a walk. Deep blue skies that you only get in the mountains with only a few puffy clouds and temperatures with temperatures warm enough that I had taken off my jacket and carried draped over my arms. The winding road that led up to the Cathedral had once been paved but now was more pothole than road. It made for slow going as for every step up we had to take two to avoid stepping into one of the craters in the road. But t did give me time to ask my friend the questions I wanted to ask.
“Paul, I understand that your Uncle likes to be cautious, but don’t you think that he is taking his precautions too far. I mean it just seems so elaborate.”
“Not at all.”
“How come? I honestly do not get it. This is just a meeting to see if he knows anything about the keys to the Crown’s trunk.. It is not like there are any big secrets that are going to change the outcome of the war are going to be exchanged.”
“You don’t get it.”
“What the Crown really means to Hungary and Hungarians. Or what it means to the future of Europe or why the American’s are even bothering looking for it.”
Feeling a little insulted, I said “I knew it was important enough that I thought it might get me a six-month deferment. I understand that it is important enough to us to drag me halfway across the world during war time to help us find it. The Crown represents Hungarians sovereignty, and we want it because we feel it will help us settle the peace.”
“All that is well and good, but that is all intellectual. The Crown is not about intellect. It can’t be. It is about emotion. What you said was the Crown represents Hungarians sovereignty. And that is right but it does not go far enough. The Crown is Hungary. It was given to St. Stephen by Pope Sylvester II because he had a dream in which God Almighty told him to give it to King Stephen. It is literally a gift from God to the Hungarian people. It is Hungarian’s Ark of the Covenant. Without it there is no Hungary.”
I smirked and said “When did you get so smart?”
“I always have been. You just have not noticed.”
“Okay I get how important it is to Hungary, but I still don’t understand why Anton has set up all of this security.”
“So you understand that the Crown is Hungary?”
“Well, Uncle Anton was a commander of the Crown Guard. He swore an oath to protect and defend the crown. When I was a little kid, after my father disappeared, he was the only father figure I had. He would come and visit wearing his grand uniform and telling me tall tales of his life in the guard. I absolutely idolized him. I told him I wanted to be just like him. A member of the Guard. Remember I was about six or seven at the time and easily impressed. So when I would tell him this he would say well you can’t be a guard until you take the oath. We would say it together. I still remember it.
“I solemnly swear that I shall protect the Holy Crown incorporating the continuity of constitutional statehood of Hungary in all circumstances, against every danger, and I shall persevere in guarding it, and prevent it from getting into unauthorized hands, even at the cost of my life”, as the oath goes. “In order to meet the strict requirements of the special service, I shall strive to keep my best mental and physical condition and lead an irreproachable life. Guided by the spirit of camaraderie of the HDF Crown Guard, I shall live and die, fighting as a true warrior, in an exemplary way, at all times with honor, as worthy of a Hungarian soldier. So help me God!”
“In other words, he was just living up to his oath.”
“But why is he protecting it from us. We already have it and we don’t really want as much as to protect it.”
“You are going to have ask Uncle Anton about that. But I am fairly sure there is something else at play as well.”
“I don’t get it. What does that son of a bitch have to do with it?”
“Remember what Granville said about Pichler. That you Americans were looking the other way about his past because you had another war to fight. He said it was about the Japanese and the Russians. But it is not really about the Japanese. Coming out of this war there are only two powers in the world the Soviets and the USA and they are going to try to dominate the world. And a part of the front line of that war is likely to be Hungary.”
“Remember Admiral Horthy and his government allied with the Germans not only because they had little choice. They clearly did not want to get invaded by the Germans and lose control of the government. But they also had…have… a pathological fear of communism. I don’t know this for sure, but I am pretty confident the Crown was moved out of Budapest because it was clear that was only a matter of time before the city was going to fall to the Soviets. It was a risk to move it. No doubt the Germans were not pleased. And the Crown could have been lost to opportunists or worse. But anything would have been better than it is falling into the hands of the Reds. Anything.”
“All of this precaution is because of the Russians.”
“Maybe. I am fairly sure the reason they were paying so much attention to me in Vienna is because of Anton. They know who Anton is and they are looking for him. Your friend Major Kudarinsky was clear about it. And when I would provide him an answer, or better said could not and didn’t want to give him answer, he did what he could to make my miserable in the hopes that solutions to my troubles would lead back to Anton.”
“How come you didn’t mention it before?”
“You did not ask.”
I was going to argue with him about that but at that point we turned the last curve in the road and got our first full view of the Cathedral. It was a massive gothic structure with an onion dome clock tower and a matching bell tower on either side of the transept. Atop the narthex there was another dome but that end of the cathedral was defined by thin vertical stain glass windows that added to the soaring nature of the structure. All of this was laid out in a peaceful well manicured lawn that seem to defy the fact that a conflict that had laid waste to most of Europe had just concluded.
As we followed the cobblestone road up to the church Paul said “It is no Stephansdom” referring to the mother church of Vienna.
“True. But at least it still has a roof.” We laughed. More out of nerves than wit.
Our message from Colonel Skoda had told us to meet him outside the Cathedral by a frieze of a carriage being pulled by two horses. It was not evident from our approach, so we began to circle the structure. We found it on the far side of the church almost directly opposite of our approach. It did not appear to me that it was originally designed to be a part of its church. It looked as if it had been borrowed from an older structure and the architects had decided to add it to the edifice for a reason that were not immediately obvious to me. What was clear is that it was a powerful image that was not easily decipherable, and which made both Paul and I lean in to examine it closely. Which is why we were both startled when we heard behind us “It is called the Carriage to Kingdom Come. It depicts a soul being carried to the other world. It was done in Roman times and I think the designers thought it powerful enough to include in the outside of the church. What do you think?”
I turned to see an older priest, standing ramrod straight, wearing a black cassock and biretta with white silver hair underneath.. I was about to ask him a question when Paul exclaimed “Uncle Anton!” As I watched the two embrace each other, I could not help but think of the irony of the situation. Little old, insignificant me was dragged out of OCS and flown a 1/3 of the way around the world like a VIP, in a time of war brought to Europe on the off chance I could identify this man now standing before me. Looking at him now, I realized what folly that was as the Uncle Anton I recalled bore no resemblance to this man. And it was not the priest’s garb that threw me. It was other things. For example, his height. He was much shorter than I remembered. Obviously, some of this had to do with the fact that I had grown almost nearly a foot since I had left Austria. I remembered him as being a tall man and now he was just average.
Also, despite his military posture, he looked much older than I recalled. Where there had been a twinkle, a glint of joy, in his eye when I knew him in Vienna, it had been replaced by a wariness that bordered on weary. The countenance of man who had seen more than he wanted to see and pushed on despite all the forces that tried to bring him to a halt.
But what was the kicker was his lack of a moustache. My most vivid recollection of him was his magnificent imperial moustache. It had reminded me of the photographs my mother had shown me of her brother Rudolph. He had been a calvary officer in the first world war and had sported one a magnificent mustache as well Even though that style of facial hair had been out of style for decades, it had fit Colonel Skoda perfectly. It was if they had both sprung from a different time where nobility and honor meant a little more than they do now. Perhaps that was the reason he had shaved.
After Uncle Anton had finished embracing his nephew he turned to me and said to me with only a hint of irony “Hugi, I don’t think I would have recognized if I had stumbled on you along the street. You seem to have grown a little” and adding with a chuckle “And, you are no longer wearing short pants.”
“Well sir they fed me pretty well in the United States and I think only the British Military issues short pants to its soldiers.”
“Just so Hugi. Just so. It is good to see you have made a good life for yourself. An officer and everything. Perhaps now I need to salute you?”
“Never sir. I still in debt to you for the fifty deutschmarks you made Winter’s pay me. Without it, I don’t think my family and I would have been able to leave Austria. “
Paul added “And, Uncle he is no longer Hugi. He calls himself Sam now.”
“So you both have new names. I guess that is fair. But boys it is getting hot out here. Why don’t we go inside the cathedral where it is cooler and we can chat with a little more privacy. ”
It was not hot outside. At least not in the physical sense. But I understood his meaning. He wanted to minimize the number of people seeing us. He led us along the outside of the church until we reached the doors at the west end of the Cathedral. When Paul and his uncle entered, I hesitated. It is silly. I do not like entering churches. I am sure it stems back to my days in Vienna when the kids at my school used to call me delightful names like “Christ killer” and “baby Jesus eater” and chase me down the streets. Ever since then, I have imagined my entering a church would produce a thunderclap and the parishioners would take one look at my beautiful Jewish face and yell “Jew” where in they would attack me. Of course, that is just my mind playing games with me. It would never happen. I think. But it did make me hesitate a second before entering Maria Saal.
There was no thunderclap as I entered the cathedral. There were no cries of “catch the Jew” as the sanctuary was empty. When my eyes had cleared from going from the bright light of the outside to the relative dimness of inside I was blown away by the beauty of the Cathedral. There was a vaulted ceiling with frescos that I took to depict the life of Mary. The center aisle was flanked on both sides by graceful stone arches that drew the eyes attention to the golden two story alter that was framed by another stone arch and backlit by vertical stained glass windows. Adjacent to it was a raised pulpit that was bedecked with even more gold leaf. While not as grand as my recollections of St.Stephen’s before the war it was beautiful and even for a nice Jewish boy like me it made me feel as if we had walked into a place that touched heaven.
Paul and Colonel Skoda were walking down the green and white tile aisle. When Uncle Anton reached the first pew, he took a knee, genuflected and began walking towards the alter. I noticed that Paul, who had been raised a Catholic did not follow suit. Throughout our time together I had noticed that he had identified more with the Jewish faith of his father than of the Catholic faith of his mother, but I had never talked to him about what had produced this change. I made a mental note to ask him what would make him choose a faith that would get him instantly persecuted when choosing another could have made his life that much easier.
When we got to the front of the church, he made a sharp left turn and led us to a confessional made of dark hand carved wood. It had two doors and Uncle Anton indicated that we were to go into one and he the other. For a person who has a minor phobia of entering churches this felt a bit extreme, but we followed instructions and squeezed or way into the booth. When we had settled onto our knees a sliding panel in front of us opened and Skoda said in business like tones “Tell me why you are here? “
Paul looked at me and said “It is your show.”
I took a deep breath and launched into my story. I began by apologizing to him for breaking his trust that he had placed in Paul and myself regarding the Crown. I explained that I had told my draft board about it because I had wanted to stay in school a little while longer and that I justified it to myself by rationalizing that I was now living at a country at War with Hungary. That whether or not that justification was valid or not I had made a promise to him and I had broken it. For that I was profoundly sorry.
I paused there hoping to gain some absolution. We were in a confessional after all. There was only silence. It made me feel a little awkward, but I continued. I told him that I had been granted my deferment, went back to school and promptly forgot anything about the Crown. That is, until two men from Army counterintelligence had spent a few hours one cold winter’s afternoon in Syracuse interrogating me about it. They had seemed satisfied with my story and again I forgot completely about the Crown until two weeks ago when Army CIC had pulled me out Officer Candidate School because of the Crown.
“Apparently, sir the troops of Hungarian Crown Guard that were in charge of protecting the Crown were captured at Monastery neared Seaham, Austria. That while this appeared to be on the surface an ordinary surrender of enemy combatants it had been carefully arranged through back channels. The Crown Guard had possession of three large iron trunks in which the Holy Crown of St. Stephen and its retinue were contained. As agreed, upon, the Guard and the Crown were escorted to the 5th Army detention center in Augsburg.”
I paused to take a breath and said “Here is where things started to go off the rails. When the commander of the 5Th Army detention center found out that Guard and along with them the Crown had been captured, he sent word to General Eisenhower who in turn sent word onto President Truman. Needless to say, when they arrived in Ausburg the commander was very anxious to see the Crown and its retinue. He demanded the Guard open the cases. From what I have been told sir, the Guard’s commander, a Colonel named Pajtas at first refused to open the cases saying he was forbidden to do so. However, after many hours of interrogation he finally admitted that he could not open the cases because he no longer had the keys to them. He said that when he arrived in Austria with the Crown his orders had been to give the keys to the cases to you.”
“This of course, created quite an uproar. The President of the United States and Supreme Allied Command in Europe, the two most powerful men on the planet, had been told that we had the Holy Crown of Hungary in our possession and were anxious to see pictures of it but we could not provide it for them because we could not open the cases. A moment of glory for Major Kubala, the commander of the 5th Army detention center, had turned to one of major embarrassment. He had egg all over his face and splattered it on Eisenhower who had told the President. Orders were given. At all costs find the keys.”
“Army Intelligence HQ was contacted, and they were instructed to dig through their files for anything relevant. They found the reports on my conversation with them and the next thing I know I pulled from OCS and on an airplane to Europe. When I arrive that I have one mission. Find you and get the keys.”
I paused there. I was hoping that my silence would elicit a response from Colonel Skoda but after thirty seconds or so of quiet it was obvious that it would not. I in the most formal tone I could invoke said “Colonel Skoda, on behalf of the United States Army will you please turn over to me the keys to the cases that hold the Holy Crown of Hungary and its retinue.”
Again, there was a long silence the only sound being Paul fidgeting uncomfortably on the bench we were kneeling on. Finally, Anton after a deep sigh said “I am sorry Hugi. I cannot.”