2015 Grateful 34

saraAs is my wont, I wandered across the road for 6 o’clock mass to find the church packed to the rafters – standing room only. And I was only a minute late. A quick scan of what knowledge I have of feast days threw no light on this unexpected crowd. Two priests stood on the altar, one who might well have been a bishop. And in front of them, on an easel draped on flowers, was a black-and-white photo of a woman about my age. She didn’t look familiar.

I caught a few words in Hungarian – something is happening in 10 days’ time and the woman in the photo died in 1944. There were other bits and pieces but I couldn’t catch it. Nuns, in habits and in plain clothes wandered around, the tell-tale gray cardigans and white blouses a giveaway. Like the Gardaí (Irish police) you can always tell them, even when they’re out of uniform. So I figured the woman in the photo might be a nun.

I did the unthinkable and skipped the queue, cutting out the priest who was giving out Communion in the half of the church I was in.  I wanted to catch a name on that photo – and I did. Beata (Blessed) Sára Salkaházi (1899-1944). Her birthday would have been tomorrow.

Still clueless, I came home and Googled her and discovered what a fascinating life she had. She was a  tomboy with a strong will and a mind of her own, someone who liked to play tug-of-war with the boys, who liked to joke a lot, who wrote plays and short stories. She qualified as a teacher, learned her trade as a bookbinder, and then became a journalist. And before she signed up, she had been engaged to be married.

From what I read though, she never did get to take her final vows – because she was the 1940s equivalent of a  female dynamo and the sisters of the Sisters of Social Service (an order of nuns I’ve never heard of) thought that all her energy was her way of drawing attention to herself and this wasn’t exactly God-like. She was into everything to do with women and set up the  first Hungarian college for working women near the Balaton. But willfully, and in spite of their narrow-mindedness, Sára lived her life with self-imposed restrictions as if she had taken her final vows anyway. I like that.

She set up a Catholic Women’s Association and three years before her death, was appointed National Director of the 10, 000-women-strong Hungarian Catholic Working Women’s Movement  and edited its magazine, frequently writing against Nazism. She started hostels for working single women and in these hostels she hid those fleeing from the Nazis. On 27 December 1944, the Nazis descended on one of her hostels on Bokréta Street (just across the road from me and I never knew it) looking for Jews. They’d been betrayed by a woman who worked there. Sára wasn’t there at the time and could have stayed away, but she came back. And along with five others, she was arrested, taken to the banks of the Danube, and shot by the Arrow Cross. Together the sisters had saved more than 1000 people; Sára had saved 100.

She has the distinction of being the first non-aristocrat Hungarian to be beatified  and I wonder when she will be canonised.

sara2I can only imagine what the Sisters of Social Service thought when this chain-smoking, in-your-face, live-wire of a woman turned up declaring her vocation. From the little I’ve read, she seems like she was a force to be reckoned with, doing the work of ten, all the while challenging the system and standing up for what she believed to be right. That so many owe their lives to her is testament to the courage she had in her convictions and the beauty of her selflessness.

This week was a blue-arsed-fly type of week week, a good one that never let up,  full of challenges and new discoveries. To end it by stumbling across one of life’s better people is a bonus. I’m grateful that there are women in the world who truly have made a difference and still do. And I’m grateful that I know (of) some of them. I’m grateful, too, that I can include Sára on my list of the dead I’d like to have to dinner. What a woman.

And to Budapest, the city that keeps on giving – ta much.



The other five million

Of the 11 million said to have perished in the Holocaust, five million were not Jewish: they were Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, university professors from the Polish city of Lviv, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexual, political prisoners, artists, 500 teenagers of mixed African and German parentage (the offspring of French colonial troops stationed in the Rhineland in the early 1920s) – in short anyone who wasn’t deemed fit to be part of Hitler’s Germany.

Walking past the House of Terror museum on Andrassy út on Sunday, I noticed a small crowd and stopped to see what was going on. A stage had been  set up outside, underneath the framed photographs of Arrow Cross victims that line the walls of the building. Two groups of musicians sat side by side.

IMG_1676 (800x600)IMG_1670 (600x800)On the left was a group of Romani musicians, running through a sound check. One played what looked like a milk churn, another what looked like a small wooden bath. I was struck immediately by the venue – the street outside the building where many of their predecessors met their end. An estimated 28,000 Hungarian Roma were killed as part of the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust) which is said to have claimed the lives of as many as 500 000.

IMG_1664 (800x600)IMG_1660 (800x600)To their right was a larger group, all wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the words Párafónia Zenekar. The band was set up about ten years ago and now has twelve members who collectively play thirteen different instruments, and most of them have their own musical assistant. They play at home and abroad – Germany, the Netherlands , Austria, Belgium , Poland, Vojvodina, and Transylvania – and are truly amazing to watch and listen to.  Involved with FECO – the First European Colour Orchestraan orchestra of people with intellectual and physical disabilities founded in January 2002 – Párafónia Zenekar is living testimony to what might have been lost, had Hitler had his way.

The mass sterilisation programmes that were a prelude to Hitler’s T-4 Euthanasia programme saw the deaths of thousands mentally ill and disabled people. Institutions were emptied as their patients were gassed. Adults and children alike.

On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.

The mind boggles.

Later that afternoon, I joined thousands of others who took to the streets to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and yet it was those few minutes of music by those two particular groups in that particular setting that drove home to me what was done 70 years ago and what might have been lost.