I was too stunned to respond. I had thought that once I explained the situation to Colonel Skoda, he would unquestionably give us the keys. I did not think he had an option. The Crown was in its possession and no doubt the greatest army ever assembled could find someone to break into them. It was only respect for the Crown and our strong desire to win the peace along with the war that kept us from doing that. But patience was wearing thin. Perhaps I didn’t explain it correctly. Perhaps if I explained to him what would happen to his precious Crown if he didn’t hand over the keys I could convince him to turn them over.
I was about to set foot down this path when Anton said “Honestly, I would give you the keys if I had them but I don’t.”
“But Pajtas told us you had the keys. He said he gave them to you per his orders.”
“He did not lie to you. He did give me the keys but I don’t have them any longer. They were passed down the line to someone else.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That is a bit of a story. Too long to tell in here. The priests have a room on the other side of the alter where they change into their vestments. Lets go there. We can have a smoke and I can tell you the rest of the story.”
We exited the confessional and walked down a short hallway to a door with a hand carved depiction relief of Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount. We entered and found a small room lit by a stain glass window with several closets full of various vestments and several stamped metal folding chairs that looked very out of place in this ancient church. We pulled three of them together so that Anton faced Paul and me. We sat and pulled out a pack of Lucky’s and offered a cigarette to Anton and Paul. The Colonel took a deep drag off the cigarette and began telling us his story.
“In late March of 1938, just a couple of weeks after the Anschluss, I received a telegram from from Baron Perenyi one of the two permanent Guardians of the crown inviting me to a special meeting on Good Friday, April 7th. Hugi, in case you do not know, The Guardians are given the right of determination of the Crown by the Hungarian constitution. Each is given one of three keys to the “trunks” in which the Crown and its retinue is kept and they swear a secret oath to protect the crown. I knew Perenyi from my time as Captain of the Crown Guard and knew him to be a good man, a real Magyar, and a patriot. He would not ask me to come to Budapest unless he had something serious to discuss and I decided I must go.”
“When I arrived at his home, I was shown into the Baron’s study. In addition to the Baron there were three other people in the room: Baron Radvansky, the other permanent Guardian; Pai Teleki The Prime Minister of Hungary who due to his position in Government a Guardian and Admiral Miklos Horthy, The Crown Regent. I was of course taken back by this. Why would four of the most powerful men in Hungary ask me, a former member of the Guard and now just a glorified clerk in a department store to such a meeting.”
Pereyni got right to the point. He said “Do you remember your oath you took as a member of the guard?” I told him that I did. He asked me to recite it which I did. He then said he asked me to recite it. When I finished, he reminded me that it was a lifetime oath and that the Crown needed my service once again. I told him that I would always live up to my oath to protect the Crown. This seemed to satisfy him and he said “Admiral Horthy has a request of you. I will let him explain.”
“Horthy gave a little speech about how important it was for Hungary always to be free and independent of outside powers. That the German annexation of Austria had threatened that independence. He had high hopes that he would be able to negotiate an alliance with Hitler that would keep Hungary independent. However, any prudent leader needed to make contingency plans. He wanted to make sure that no matter what happened to him or the Nation that the Crown needed to be protected at all costs. Hungary could not be ruled without the crown.”
“As a part of that emergency planning, the Guardians and he had decided to enlist the help of loyal former Captain of the Guard who would, when called upon, help shepherd the Crown to safety. Would I be willing to serve him and the Crown in such capacity?”
“Had we not been in a private setting I would have stood and saluted him but instead I told him I would happily serve in any way that is requested of me. For the next hour or so they outlined the contingency plans they had devised for a variety of different scenarios that could befall the country and the role I would play if such things should take place. Included in that planning were ways in which we could contact each other to activate the plan.”
Anton paused and said “Of course much of this you know already. It is what we discussed that day in the car. It is the reason you’re here Hugi.”
“Hugi is who I was before the war. Before I went to the United States. I changed my name when I got there. A new life deserves a new name don’t you think? But I didn’t mean to interrupt. Go on.”
“Returning to Vienna I felt tremendously honored by the trust placed in me by these august men. For months after, I awaited the call that my services were needed but that call never came. Horthy had managed to walk the tight rope and he was welcomed by Hitler in August 1938 and treated as a head of state. His loyalty to Germany was further solidified with the First Vienna Accords where Hungary was granted sovereignty over parts of Slovakia and Ruthania. It made me think that the plans we had made on that Good Friday were what we had hoped them to be: merely a precaution. By the time I talk to you two about in 1939 I was all but convinced that the contingency plans would never be executed. That is why I didn’t think it would do any harm sharing those tales with you.”
“For a long time, things went very well. No one could stand up to the Reich. Not the allies. Not Russia. And Hungary was safe. And despite the trouble young Paul managed to get himself into and the subsequent trouble that got me into, I was living a fairly good life. I had savings and a pension, so I had money. Years before I had bought an old farmhouse not far from here and I spent my time renovating it. There was a widow who lived nearby who would come and visit. I began writing a history of The Crown Guard.
He paused his story and got a faraway look in his eyes as if he were reviewing a mental picture of those times. Sighing he continued. “And then the tide turned. The American’s got into the war. Operation Barbarossa stalled outside of Moscow which led to the disaster at Stalingrad. And of course, D-Day. But none of it much bothered me. I lived in the country far away from the bombing and the war. The world may have been at war but I was at peace. That is until I got a visitor one warm August evening in l944. Just after dusk I was sitting on my porch smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of Tokai when a car came roaring up the driveway and pulls to stop right outside my door.”
“I was a little alarmed. I was not expecting any visitors and I had not forgotten the trouble I had been in with the Gestapo. I was relieved and surprised when Captain Pajtas, wearing mufti, stepped out of the car. He and I had met over the years and I knew he had recently been made the Captain of the Crown Guard so the minute I saw him I knew what had brought him here. As it was a warm night we stayed out on the porch. I brought him a glass of whisky, some pears I had picked that morning from a tree in my yard and some farmer’s cheese. After he had satisfied his hunger and his thirst, he told me what had brought him to me.”
“Hungary was caught between a rock and a hard place. The Red Army was on the move and that it was just a matter of weeks before they reached the Hungarian border. The Germans were exerting more and more pressure on the Horthy to be a more active member of the Reich. They had invaded the country earlier in the year and while Horthy remained nominally in charge the government was now being run by the Arrow Cross or Hungarian Nazi party. This was an anathema to Horthy and a violation of his oath as Regent. When Romania withdrew from the Axis Horthy took this as a signal to be more aggressive. He replaced the prime minister Sztojay and other Nazi favorable ministers with his own people. He also began secret peace talks with the Allies. He had concluded that a peaceful settlement with the Russians, despite be an adamant anticommunist, was a better fate for Hungary than an invasion and the consequent destruction.”
“Pajtas told me that Horthy was under no illusions. If his peace talks with the Soviets were successful and a separate peace achieved the Crown would need to be moved to keep it out of the hands of the communists. If the move failed and the Germans reasserted itself then the Crown would have to be moved to keep it out of their hands because he did not want it to become war booty or worse lost to vagaries of war. To protect the crown, he had initiated a bold plan. He had become friendly with Nicholas Roosevelt, a cousin of the President, when he had been Ambassador to Hungary in the early thirties and had reached out to him through our embassy in Switzerland. Using that back channel, it had been arranged, should the need arise for the Crown to be moved, it would be placed into the hands of the advancing American Army.”
“I was stunned. Placing the Crown in the protective custody of any foreign government at best could be called daring. At worst reckless. Couldn’t the crown be buried or hidden as had been so many times in the past when it had been threatened? I questioned Pajtas about this. He said that the plan had been discussed with the “Guardians” and that while the debate had been heated with some objecting strenuously it had been agreed that this was the course of action the largest chance of success.”
“He then went on to tell me what had brought him to my front porch. The Guardians and the Regent wanted to know if it should come that the Crown needed to be moved would I agree to be its escort?”
“I told him that I vowed to do so and would live up to my vow. He then proceeded to outline the plan. When the word came, I would meet the Crown when it passed into Austria using the Semmerling Pass. From there it would be my job to guide the Crown and the troops guarding it from there to a Monastery in Attersee. We discussed the best ways to do this for a little while and agreed on a plan including how the Crown Guard would get word to me when they were on the move. Then he left as quickly as he came.”
“You know what happened next. In October, the Germans, hearing of Horthy’s plot, kidnapped his son and forced him to appoint a new Fascist government. Recognizing that this was the beginning of the end of Hungary, the Guardians decided to put the plan in action. In early November The Crown in its protected iron trunks left Budapest with a contingent of Crown Guard under the command of now Colonel Pajtas. Over the next few months, The Crown and its entourage made their way west stopping at a variety of different way stations only moving on when it was safe to do so.
“I had spent the months since my visit from Pajtas reconnoitering the roads that led from Semmering to Salzburg. I had a suspicion that by the time the Crown made its way to Austria that the German forces would be in retreat. It meant that the major roads would be full of Wehrmacht troops and transports in a bad temper and with prying eyes. Things we needed to avoid if wanted to get the Crown to Attersee undetected. This was particularly time consuming because I could only cover a small portion of roads at a time to avoid suspicion. But eventually I was able to map a route and several alternatives that would allow us to make the journey quickly and with the least chance of being detected or stopped.”
“I was waiting for the Crown and its entourage on March 27th. I remember the day because it was two days after my sister’s birthday. As I had suspected the main road was jammed with ill-tempered and battered retreating German troops. Even though the weather was lousy we diverted off the main road per my plan. This slowed our progress considerably as these secondary roads were muddy and rutted. But I hadn’t planned to go far. Only to Murzsteg where I had found an abbey to give us shelter for the night.
So it went for the next week. We would travel the back roads of Austria during the day and stop in Abbeys, Convents at night. We went to Seeberg and turned north to Marizell. Once we cleared Linz we found that the main roads were cleared as the Germans were fearful of a Russian attack from the north so we made quick time of it arriving in Attersee on Easter Monday April 2nd. Our final move, to Matsee NNN was on April 7th, where the Crown Guard and its precious cargo had been told to wait for the advancing American troops.
That night there was a small celebration among the troops and officers of the Crown Guard. After nearly six months of being constantly on the move, constantly in danger, they had reached their destination. Somehow, they had managed to purchase or requisition a pig which they roasted whole and with the aid of some local beer and schnapps and proceeded to blow off some steam. Colonel Pajtas and I enjoyed the revelry as well but both of us refrained from drinking except for a few toasts made to the Crown. As the evening degenerated into the singing of Hungarian folk songs, Pajtas pulled me aside and asked to speak with me privately.
“He led me to the priest study and told me that the plans had changed. The Guardians and Horthy had agreed that while they were going to turn over the trunks with the Crown and its retinue over to the American Army that they would not turn over the keys. They believed that they could convince the Americans that breaking into the trunk was a violation of Hungarian Sovereignty. They hoped would not break into the trunks. Instead, they would search for the keys. The thought was that the delay would give the Catholic Church enough time to negotiate with the Americans for the custody of the Crown and in that way it would not become a lever of power or war bounty.”
“While I didn’t agree with the deception. I have always believed the best policy is say as you do, do as you say, I understood it. Which is why when he handed me the keys to the trunks, heavy and ancient, and asked if I would keep them safe, I agreed to do it. He then provided me with a code phrase. He said that if someone came to me and provided the code phrase that I was to do what was requested of me. Again, even though I thought this a little too much intrigue I agreed.”
“The next day I returned home. This took nearly a week as I was going against the grain of troops fleeing the Eastern Front and feared having my little Skoda seized by the retreating Army. When I finally reached my little farmhouse on April 13th I was exhausted from the nearly three weeks of constant threat and looking over one’s shoulder. But despite my exhaustion the first thing that I did was hide the keys. I had been thinking about where to do this for the three days and found what I considered a secure place. A location even a dedicated searcher would be reluctant to investigate. Underneath the seat in my outhouse. This required a little bit of carpentry and some malodorous work but when it was done, I felt as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders.”
“That night, I build a fire and settled into my favorite chair with a glass of Peach Palinka and turned on the shortwave in the hopes of listening to some soothing Mozart Lizst or even Bartok. Instead, I got the BBC broadcasting news of President Roosevelt’s death and in honor to him that they played dirges. It reminded me too much of the death and destruction the war had caused. And for what. What really had been accomplished? Nothing! I found it far too depressing. I went to bed and slept for twelve hours.
“Over the course of the next few weeks I resumed my normal life. I built a new chicken coop so that I could have fresh eggs. I repaired my front porch where a number of the floorboards had rotted. I had the occasional dinner with the widow who lived down the road. And with my return to normalcy the trip with the Crown faded. Then one evening in early May I heard a car pull up to the house. Concerned by an uninvited desk so late at night I pulled my Walther P-38 from a drawer and went to the door. Cautiously, I pulled it open revealing unshaved man wearing a dark Homborg Hat and a suit that looked as if it had been slept in for a few days. He bade forgiveness for disturbing me so late, but he had been sent by Colonel Pajtas with a message and with that provided me with the code phrase.
Over the course of the next hour, and a meal of salami, cheese, and peasant bread he introduced himself as Captain Enroe Gombos. He was the son of the former Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Gombos and now was an aide to the Ferenc Szálasi, the Arrow Cross Prime Minister of Hungary. Szálasi and his cabinet had fled in front of the advancing Soviet armies and like the Crown had hunkered down in Mattsee safely out of reach of the advancing Allies. Before surrendering to the American Army, they held a final cabinet meeting whose chief topic was the Crown. It was agreed that the keeping the keys with a single person would it make it too easy for the Crown to be compromised. He provided no explanation as to why this decision was made, although I got the impression they were to be used as a bargaining chip with the Allies. I have no doubt they realized that the Arrow Cross Government would be arrested in mass and they needed to dowl out information to exact leniency. It was Gombos’s assignment to take the keys and distribute to trusted allies of Szálasi and loyal Magyar.
“I felt as if I was caught between a rock in a hard place. On one hand, the demand for the keys was coming from the son of one of Hungary’s true patriots and from what had been the government of Hungary, it had not come from one of the Guardians or Horthy. But there were things I did not know and Gombos did have the code words that the current commander of the Crown Guard had given me. Did I have any right to refuse the order? In the end, I had I felt I had no alternative but to turn over the keys.
“The next morning, May 8th, I turned the keys over to Gombos. Before he drove away he thanked me for being a loyal servant of the Crown and reminded me of my oath and warning me that revealing any part of our conversation or what happened to the keys would result in undesirable consequences. Of course, later that day the Germans surrendered to the allies and I have worried ever since whether my decision to turn the keys over to Gombos was the right one.”
“Which is why I am talking to you Sam. I have come to regret my decision to give the keys to Gombos. While he had the code words that were given to me by Pajtas I have no idea how they were obtained but more importantly I concluded that the Crown is not a bargaining chip. It should not be used for one’s personal gain or to secure a person’s freedom it is bigger than that. It is Hungary. That my duty was to protect it and I have come to believe that the only entity able to do that right now are not desperate officers of defeated regimes. It is only something that the American Government can do.”
“After consulting with some old friends, former member of the guard and others I had reached the decision to approach the American Army and discuss what I had known. And I would have had you two not come along. Telling you allows me to relieve my conscience while not exposing me to the wrath of my fellow countrymen who will no doubt consider my act of conscience as an act of treason.”
There was a silence after Colonel Skoda finished his story. Part of my silence had to do with the fact that I had been flown halfway around the world to find this man and obtain the keys of the crown. The army had dedicated time and resources to find him. I had left OCS and engaged in espionage and deception to find him only to come up with nothing. What was I going to tell Granville?”
The other element that was causing paralysis of the tongue was trying to take in the scope of his story. It spanned from a length time that encompassed my entire journey to the United States and return to Vienna. Put another way, it covered a 1/3 of my life, the time it took a poor immigrant boy to become an officer in the Army. But it was also a remarkable story of devotion to an ideal that is bigger than oneself. I know that I felt the same dedication to my adopted country. I had sworn to “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” But that had been for an ideal a concept. Skoda’s dedication was to an object in an addition to an ideal. And it had placed him in an impossible situation of having to interpret what was right for it, regardless of what he believed his orders to be.
I asked “How do you make a decision like that? How do you make decision between the orders your receive and what is the right thing to do?”
He shared a benevolent smile with me. One that might be exchanged between a senior officer and a junior officer that he was trying to instruct. “Sam, that is an unanswerable question. Sometimes to uphold your oath you have to break another. In the end, you can only try to do what you believe is right and hope that you have made the right decision.”
“Is that what you have done now? With this decision about the Crown?”
“And how do you feel about telling us. Don’t you fear retribution in some way.”
Again, the benevolent smile. “No. I will let the future take care of itself. I made my decision to the best of my ability as I have made all the decisions in my life. I was chosen to protect the Crown based on my ability to make the correct judgment. Others can judge me any way they want. I cannot stop them but whatever the consequences I am comfortable that I made the right decision. “
I nodded in an understanding I did not truly have. He then added “But you have not asked an important question.”
“Where is Gombos.”
“I assumed that you didn’t know.”
He wagged a finger “Officers don’t assume.”
“Do you know where Gombos is? “
“I do. According to my sources shortly after he left my home an advance party of the American Third Army captured him. Why they detained him I don’t know but they eventually find out his identity and put him a detention center outside Salzburg called Camp Macus W. Orr.”
Paul and I exchanged a glance and then a small chortle. Col. Skoda looked confused not understanding why this would even be remotely funny to us. I explained “Uncle Anton, forgive our laughing but you see our next stop was going to Camp Orr. It is where the army is holding prisoners, they don’t know exactly what to do with and we have a person in our custody whom is going to be detained there.”
The Colonel’s face lit and he too let loose a small laugh. “Then I suppose it is destiny.”
“I suppose it is.”
Colonel Skoda rose and looking at his watch said “Boys, I am running late. I need to leave. Walk me outside. We walked out of the church the same way we came, Uncle Anton again genuflecting before he walked down the central aisle. Just before we left the church he excused himself and walked over to bank of votive candles that were nearby. There, after put a few coins in a wooden box, he used a taper to light a candle and then bowed his head in prayer.
Outside the sun was still very bright made more so by the dimness of the church. I put on my sunglasses and then offering my hand said “Thank you Sir. I appreciate you taking the time to meet with us. Perhaps the next time it will be under easier circumstances.”
“It was good to see you Hugi…Sam. You have come a very long way from the boy in short pants who brought his mother’s ties to Winters. Serve your Army well and with honor.”
“I will sir.”
He turned to Paul and wagging his finger “And you my favorite troublemaker, try to stay out of trouble.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Be good to your mother and give her my love. Tell her that I hope to be able to come back to Vienna before too long. “
With that they hugged and we parted company. Paul and I headed back to the road which we had used to come the church and Colonel Skoda walking towards the Vestry. We had gone maybe a hundred meters when we heard the snap of a rife shot. Training took over and I yelled to Paul “Get down. Get down!” and tackled him.
When after thirty seconds we heard no other shots, we raised our heads. There only a few yards from the Vestry’s door lay the body of Colonel Skoda his biretta laying face up on the ground next to him.