by Lt. Col. Dr.
Recently, in a Hungarian journal I read a study
entitled ‘The Memorial Day of Heroes’ by the outstanding war historian Professor
József Zachar. The paper is an excellent, remarkable one and gives rise to
further thoughts for the reader.
It brought back childhood memories when, during the
sixties in my native village, friends and acquaintances paid visits to each
other on winter evenings in order to discuss matters; often to recall important
episodes of their lives. In these discussions, experiences and heroic
deeds from World War II were mentioned
a number of times.
These chats usually stretched well into the night.
At that time adults never forgot to warn the children of the listeners not to
talk to anyone about what they had heard. The adults of that era told us
that they had done what they had to do in those stormy times.
They are still models to me, together with all of those who froze to death on
the Russian snowfields or fell from enemy fire in the defence of our country.
Yes, they are heroes in all senses of the word.
After this introduction, let us examine who is a hero and how long Heroes’ Day
has been commemorated. The Hungarian Catholic Lexicon defines a hero as
follows: “…excellent, generous, noble and often a young man, who is very
energetic and lively by nature, who is an outstanding warrior, a strong and
enthusiastic soldier; in the sense of morals, it is a person who exceeds the
expected standard of virtue.” The same book says a person who is on the
roll of honour is “a soldier who lost his life in armed combat while meeting his
The above are supported by the May 24, 1945
declaration of the Hungarian Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference: “Our heroic
soldiers can be reassured since, although they suffered bad luck and were swept
off their feet, they will not meet condemnation and kicks, but love and respect
on our behalf, and our pious prayer rises into heaven for all the heroes who
have sacrificed their lives for our homeland.” Similar respect for the heroes
of other nations can also be experienced. Laurence Binyon pays tribute in this
way: “They will not grow old unlike those who have survived: old age will not
pine them away and succeeding eras will not blame them. Whenever the sun sets or
dawn breaks, they will be kept in our memories.” These words are read out
for the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who were killed in action on the
Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, where 8,587 died and 19,367 were wounded.
Heroes’ Day has its own traditions in our
country, too. How did it start? In order to answer this question, we have to
go back in time. World War I was still raging when Staff General Baron Ferenc
Abele, who was serving on the Russian Front, sent a letter to Prime Minister
Count István Tisza. He requested that the memory of the soldiers dying for the
defence of their homeland would be honoured by setting up a monument and carving
their names on it in each settlement of the country. Some time had to pass
until the proposal was realized but finally it was submitted to Hungarian King
Károly IV. The King asked one of his Queen’s court ladies of Hungarian birth,
Erzsébet Kállai, to mediate Baron Abele’s proposal to the Hungarian Prime
Minister. Meanwhile, Staff Major Baron Abele kept trying to make his proposal
accepted and, this time informally, with the help of one of his officers who was
a Member of Parliament. They tried to convince Count István Tisza that the
erection of the monuments was necessary. The support by Károly IV and the
efforts by the soldiers were united before the Prime Minister. Tisza
recognized the advantages about the initiative, and that the leadership of the
state had to pay tribute to the population suffering hardships and enormous
So the decision was made and Parliament did not object to it. The idea of
commemorating the heroes reached the phase of realization by an Act passed in
1917. The war operations were still continuing when the first monuments
were unveiled. As the provisions of the Act said, the names of all who had
sacrificed their lives for our homeland were written on them.
Act VIII, 1917 was amended by the Hungarian legislation in 1925. That year
Act XIV was passed, with reference to which the Minister of Defence issued a
circular. It declared that by the name Heroes’ Memorial Day the last
Sunday of May each year should be a national holiday. So Heroes’ Memorial
Day, or as it is called nowadays, Heroes’ Day has been known in Hungary since
May 31, 1925 - with 44 years interruption [due to communism]. These 44
years have faded public memory about this memorial day, so important for the
nation; although the act ordering commemoration was prevailing throughout this
Commencing that day, unveiling heroes’ monuments and national flags as
well as holding other ceremonies were continuing in the country. In the last
year of World War II Heroes’ Day was commemorated on May 27, following that, it
was kept silent. On May 27, 1989 the heroes were remembered again.
This day has not regained its national holiday character yet, but the names of
heroes who were killed in World War II have been written on the monuments and
what’s more, a number of new monuments have been set up.
May they rest in peace.