This article was published online by the Magyar Nemzet on 29 September 2021.
We believed, with reason, in 2006 that we had reached a turning point in Slovak-Hungarian relations through our common Catholic faith. The presidency of each country’s Bishop’s Conferences signed a joint statement in Esztergom, expressing, in essence: “we forgive, and we apologize”. However, this ceremonial gesture was not followed by any visible changes. Yet, the words of Jesus could be valid here too: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. (John 12:24) A decade and a half has passed during which at times, we thought these seeds may have sprouted. Since September 18th however, we feel that we have reached a breakthrough: Archbishop Jan Orosch of Trnava (Nagyszombat) spoke in favor of the canonization of the Hungarian Count János Esterházy.
Thus far, Slovakia has not seemed very happy that, on the initiative of Poland, their country can enrich themselves with another religious role. The very fact that they did not initiate the canonization process – which was a possibility for them due to Esterházy’s birthplace – indicates their resistance. Esterházy died a martyr in the Czech Republic; the bishop responsible for Esterházy’s beatification only contributed to the affair by allowing the Krakow initiative. Slovak politics on the other hand, directly tried to stop the process.
It is difficult to imagine the dangers they see in anointing Esterházy a saint. Those responsible for his wrongful imprisonment are no longer alive. As if some sort of “calculated fear” has infiltrated the Slovak public’s mindset – even though important figures have stood out to defend Esterházy. Take for example František Mikloško, former Speaker of the Slovak National Council, Dagmar Babčanova, former ambassador to the Vatican, or Ján Čarnogurský, former Prime Minister of Slovakia, who, while Minister of Justice, stated that Esterházy’s conviction had no legal basis. But none of this was enough to motivate Bratislava (Pozsony) to launch its rehabilitation procedure which is performed for all those illegitimately convicted.
The sprouting of the seeds sowed at Esztergom showed in Archbishop Orosch’s speech in Alsóbodok. The sermon began in Hungarian, continued in Slovak, and then concluded in Hungarian. I quote the Slovak section: throughout János Esterházy’s life, as a politician and devout Christian, and later as a political prisoner, convict, and inmate, he always professed his faith boldly and loudly. Thus, the Archbishop set Esterházy as an exemplary confessor and martyr. According to the sermon, the Count’s only (so-called) sin was that he despised the Nazis just as much as the Communists. He hated the genocidal Hitler just as much as the genocidal Stalin. “We stand on a Christian and national basis, but the Arrow Cross (Nyilasok) position is just as alien to us as the Bolshevik’s sickle hammer” – said the bishop, quoting Esterházy.
The speech elaborated on Esterházy’s efforts to protect the persecuted Jewish people, where he also mentioned Sárá Salkaházi (Hungarian Catholic religious sister from Kassa/Kosice who saved the lives of approximately one hundred Jews during World War II). The speech emphasized that both Hungarians and Slovaks should mention these great ancestors of ours in reference to our Jewish brothers and sisters or otherwise. The majority of Slovaks see anything that is Hungarian as foreign. Despite this, the Archbishop emphasized that both of these Hungarians heroes are part of our common past.
The Hungarian nationalists biased against Slovaks would label this common regard of our ancestors as “theft” due to certain political and historical efforts to rewrite Hungarian history – however, this is about something else. This is about togetherness and cohesiveness. A kind of togetherness that few Slovaks recognize or acknowledge just yet; something they omit from educational programs, they deny by removing Hungarian-related statues, rewriting names, and restricting opportunities to use the Hungarian language. In this environment, which is minimally alleviated by increased political cooperation as of late, the bishop’s words bring joy. He said that “the final message of János Esterházy’s prayers while a prisoner was this: he gave himself up to God’s will and offered his life for Hungarian freedom. His inmates said that he prayed regularly on a daily basis, and he never hid this.” The sentence which ended the Slovak portion of the speech: “Dear Brothers and Sisters! As long as there are people who can tell what happened, these are not merely empty words. I myself am glad that as a Lazarist, I am somehow one of them. That the Vincentian fathers respected him despite being Slovak. This politician, this Hungarian saint, János Esterházy.”
These words indicate that the speaker certainly does not consider Esterházy a fascist nor the Hungarians a “sinful nation”. One element is missing from the speech, which would be best for both countries to know: János Esterházy regarded the coexistence and interdependence of the two nations the key to survival and he offered his own life and suffering not only for the Hungarians, but for reconciliation as well. This is the time for this reconciliation to be realized. Five years later, on the 125th anniversary of János Esterházy’s birth, perhaps the question mark in the title of this article may be erased and we can say assuredly, the seeds sowed in 2006 have sprouted.