|Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary|
The "Perfect Magyar":
Lajos Kossuth called Baron Miklós 'Wesselényi "my idol and the source of my strength," while Count István Széchenyi, the "greatest Hungarian," regarded the day he met him a turning point in his life, even though the man was six years his junior. Nevertheless, foreign history books give 'Wesselényi but scant attention, perhaps because he never held a high office. For this there was a tragic reason: at the height of his career Wesselényi became totally blind. His contemporaries referred to him from that time on as a vak óriás (the Blind Giant) or, by the better known epithet a zsibói bölény (the Bison of Zsibó).
The Son of "The Iron Man"
Wesselényi's father who bore the same name, had been called "The Iron Man" because of his enormous strength. The elder Wesselényi's principal trait was fearlessness, and his awesome exploits became legendary. Even the way he had gained a wife was extraordinary. When he learned that his friend's beautiful sister, Ilona Cserei, had been put in a cloister against her will, Wesselényi, like a barbarian, simply kidnapped and married her, though he had never seen her before. After Ilona had become his wife, Wesselényi fell in love so deeply with her that he resigned from the military so that they would not be separated. He withdrew to his castle at Zsibó in Transylvania to devote himself to Ilona and to his other pleasures, horsebreeding and unending revelry. His war-like raid on a neighbor's castle - who happened to be an Austrian aristocrat with great influence at the Court of Vienna -cost Wesselényi a four-year term in the dreaded prison of Kufstein.
Although Wesselényi and Ilona loved each other tenderly,. they were blessed - and cursed-through their children. They were blessed, for Ilona gave birth to ten children altogether, and cursed, because only one of them, their son Miklós, survived.
Miklós was the best possible blend of his father and mother as if nature had wanted to partially recompense his parents for the loss of the other nine children.
The child had his father's robust physique and later grew into a barrel-chested giant with a stentorian voice. He looked like a gladiator with the profile of a Greek god, but under his formidable appearance lay a gentle heart inherited from his mother, full of compassion for human suffering.
A Childhood to Remember
Young Miklós' father implanted him with fearlessness from an early age. The boy was hardly six years old when the "Iron Man" threw him onto an unbridled and unsaddled stallion which, given a lash of the whip, started off on a wild gallop. Ilona screamed at the sight of her son astride the wild stallion and fainted. More than an hour passed before the stallion returned to the yard - with Miklós triumphantly holding on to his mane.
When Miklós turned thirteen, old Wesselényi. ailing and near death, entrusted his son with leading 600 troops in a parade before the Palatine (nádor). The extraordinary sight of a thirteen year-old boy commanding an entire regiment amazed everyone and a great military future was predicted for him - something to which he never aspired.
Miklós development shed a golden light on his father's final years. The "Iron Man" went to his grave confident that his son would bring new glory to the family name. Miklós was thirteen when his father died, and in the decades that followed he surpassed his father's wildest dreams.
Next to his parents it was his tutor the young Mózes Pataki, who was closest to his heart and with whom he spent practically his entire childhood. Mózes was treated as a member of the family and allowed to sit with the Wesselényis at meals. Pataki taught Miklós literature and history, subjects which his pupil soaked up with avid interest.
At the age of fourteen, Miklós was permitted to deliver a sermon he had written himself at the Reformed Church of Zsibó. Four years later he travelled to Vienna with his tutor. On the way home they visited Dániel Berzsenyi, Sándor Kisfaludy and Ferenc Kazinczy, outstanding Hungarian writers and
poets of the age, who were leaders in the nationalist movement. Miklós' face glowed with excitement when he met these men, and Kazinczy in turn was enchanted by his young visitors. In a letter to Berzsenyi, Kazinczy wrote that, it had been a deeply touching experience to see Wesselényi's tears flow whenever the conversation turned to tragic events of Hungarian history.
Berzsenyi replied that "meeting two such fine young Hungarians reconciled me with the humanity I used to hate."
Scarcely a year passed when the beloved tutor died of pneumonia in Kolozsvár Miklós' sorrow was indescribable and he persuaded his mother to have Pataki buried in the Wesselényi crypt at Zsibó.
The Embodiment of Magyar Spirit
Miklós was nineteen when he finished his studies at Kolozsvár. He received further education at home from a professor who returned to his college after spending two years at Zsibó, declaring that he was no longer needed because "young Wesselényi knows more about history and the law than I do."
Meantime, Miklós delved into economic and agricultural studies and turned his huge, 27,000 acre estate into a model farm which soon became known throughout Hungary and beyond. Pursuing a Wesselényi speciality, his favorite occupation became the breeding of thoroughbred horses, and visitors from as far as England came to Zsibó to study the Wesselényi methods of horse-breeding.
Thus the young Baron's castle became a gathering point for high society. The great hunts organized on the Wesselényi estates along with knightly competitions in riding, fencing, shooting and swimming were famous social events. And, invariably, it was the host who outstripped the others in such contests.
Wesselényi's physical talents were matched by his mental skills and by his character as a man and ardent patriot. Even Count István Széchenyi, known as a proud if not haughty aristocrat, fell under the spelt of Miklós' charisma. Until their meeting, Széchenyi could find no one in Hungary who could impress him. but his encounter with Wesselényi in Debrecen made up for his earlier disappointments:
Now he had met a man who, at the age of 23, represented the finest qualities of the Magyar.
The two men soon became close friends. They complemented each other. Wesselényi had a profound knowledge of the conditions and problems of Hungary. His daring soul, unafraid to fight, lifted the spirit of Széchenyi, who was cowed by pessimism and self-torment. On the other hand, Széchenyi introduced Miklós to the world outside Hungary. Together these two aristocrats undertook an unusual journey across Europe on foot that lasted for one year.
Upon his return, Wesselényi rushed to church to partake of the Lord's Supper. Later he wrote in his diary: "I consider this sacred ceremony an occasion to enter into an inner covenant with myself to strengthen my morals and give account of my deeds and thoughts to the Almighty, who fortifies the weak and offers consolation to the sufferer."
As reflected in these words, beneath Miklós' awe-inspiring physical appearance his ardent patriotism was combined with deep religious convictions. While he fearlessly pitted himself against the powerful, he embraced the weak and defenseless with compassion.
Vienna is Upset by a "Newcomer"
Wesselényi's maiden speech at the Diet in Pozsony was delivered in a ringing voice and demonstrated a mastery of the Magyar language unequaled in the Diet. He demanded that the Hungarian language be allowed to take its rightful place in public affairs. This would constitute not a reform but a long overdue fulfillment of national desire. "I hope that the King of the Hungarians would not object to his Magyars' addressing him in their own language," he declared, not without irony.
Among the other causes Wesselényi advocated was abolishing the induction of able-bodied serfs into the Imperial army for as many as fifteen years or even for life. This became the subject of his second speech. He raised his voice for his "fellow-men, neighbors and compatriots" who were literally lassoed by the thousands into the service of the Imperial army. Wesselényi touchingly described the suffering caused by the lawless recruiting practice which "tears fathers from their children, husbands from their wives." He warned the national assembly not to take lightly the vote on the Emperor-King's request to allow 50,000 men to be pressed into military service in foreign lands.
His speech provoked the displeasure of the presiding Palatine who urged the Lower House to ignore the words of this "newcomer."
But the "newcomer" (whose great grandfather had headed the so-called "Wesselényi Conspiracy" in 1660) was not only a master of words, but also a man of action. Upon returning home, Wesselényi sent a letter to higher authorities declaring that he considered it his duty to actively oppose the forceful recruiting of peasants on his estates.
"I would rather shed my own blood in the defense of the law and the King. Should my own fortune be required, so be it... I would rather see the last remnants of my properties go up in smoke than see my
peasants being torn from their families in destruction of their sacred family ties," he wrote. This letter sent, he undertook a crusade against unlawful recruiting.
Needless to say, Wesselényi's actions made him a persona non grata at the Viennese Court. Széchenyi, who was a loyalist and more of a realist, watched with anxiety as his friend rushed headlong into disaster.
But before Széchenyi's fears were realized, a disaster of a different sort struck the "Bison of Zsibó." In December, 1831, his mother died. Wesselényi's love for her bordered on worship and seeing her fade away and die in his arms was a shattering experience. On the day of her funeral, the stricken son hoisted his mother's heavy bronze coffin onto his shoulder and carried it up to the mountaintop where the family crypt stood. Then for eight days and eight nights in the numbing cold of the Transylvanian winter he held a vigil at her grave without food or drink, swallowing snow to quench his thirst.
His letter to a friend about his mother's death was an apotheosis of filial love:
Her cheerful temperament, this most beautiful reward from God as an ornament for advanced age, never left her. Up to her last moment she faced the inevitable without fear, suffering or physical struggle, ready to enter into the other world, where, she knew, eternal tranquillity would await her pure soul.
After her husband had been dragged away to be put between prison walls, his children deprived of their beloved father's embrace forever... she had to bury four children within a year and with no prospect of ever seeing her husband again. The flowers of her life torn asunder and its fruits struck down... she suffered alone and abandoned like a tree stripped of its leaves and damaged by the cruel winds of autumn... Oh why was it that my fate and my human frailness did not allow me to render her the joy she deserved!
"My Road is the Straight Road"
After burying his mother, Miklós, at the age of 35, continued his ascent in public life. His behavior showed courage and as an individual he spurned caution, wiliness and fondness for intrigue - the traits of many diplomats. "My road is a straight one," he used to say, and he abided by this motto throughout his entire life.
As he began to grow apart from the more cautious Széchenyi politically, he drew closer to Lajos Kossuth, who wrote of him in glowing terms: "I always counted Wesselényi among the great sons of our country. But I have to admit that the precision of his judgement, his ability to perceive the most complicated problems with lightning speed and point to the right course to follow, surprised me to a point of astonishment."
At that time, Wesselényi was leading the fight for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the lack of which prevented the public from learning about the Diet's debates at Pozsony. Challenging the government, he purchased a printing press and began distributing records of the Diet's proceedings because, as he said 'The deed marks the man; action is the duty of the patriot."
Wesselényi's courageous actions created a sensation, and the youth of the country began to lionize him, feting him with torchlight parades in Pozsony and Buda-Pest. On one such occasion László Lovassy, the leader of the students, delivered an enthusiastic speech extolling Wesselényi. Wesselényi wrote in his diary, "It was the most beautiful day." However, that day cost the 22 year-old Lovassy ten years in an Austrian prison - from which he returned to spend his remaining forty-two years mentally insane. It was a terrible price to pay for a patriotic speech.
A Memorable Duel
Wesselényi was very much in the limelight in 1836 due to a memorable duel he fought with Count Wurmbrandt, an Austrian colonel and the most famous fencer of the Imperial Army, over a provocative remark the colonel had made about him. Because Wurmbrandt was slightly near-sighted, Wesselényi thought that it would be unchivalrous to insist on pistols for weapons, although he himself was one of the best shots in the Monarchy. It was a mark of his character that he chose to duel with a
cavalry sword, despite the fact that his right arm was ailing at the time and was hardly able to hold a sword. Knowing that he had put himself at a great disadvantage, he wrote out his last will and testament.
The whole country shared his anxiety about the outcome of the duel. At its outset Wurmbrandt's ferocious attacks repeatedly wounded Wesselényi in the chest and in the neck so that the duel had to be suspended momentarily to control his bleeding. When the clash between the two resumed, Wesselényi collected whatever strength remained in his arm and in a surprise attack he delivered such a heavy blow that the colonel's sword fell from his hand - together with four of his fingers. Wesselényi's surprise victory stirred the imagination of the youth of Pozsony. Thousands surrounded him in adulation on the street, many trying to touch him or kiss the hems of his garment.
As a result of the duel, Wurmbrandt became unfit for military service. When Wesselényi heard of the colonel's plight, he offered him a position on his estates.
The Boatman of the Flood
The Viennese government, however, was not impressed with Wesselényi's valor and he was indicted twice on trumped up charges of disloyalty to the Crown. He was scheduled to stand trial first in Transylvania and then in Hungary. To avoid arrest, Wesselényi fled from Zsibó to Hungary, where the final government crackdown was delayed for political reasons. This delay gave Wesselényi a last opportunity to shine once again in the service of his nation.
In mid-March of 1838, the Danube swelled to floodstage and. its waters blocked by ice barriers, broke through the embankments of Buda-Pest. The icy flood waters raged through the city, completely destroying 2280 of Pest's 4,80 houses.
The flood had come so suddenly that many thousands sought refuge on the roofs of their homes or even on windowsills from where they cried desperately for help. One after the other weak walls collapsed, burying hundreds under the ruins. In most cases a boat spelled the difference between life and death.
Wesselényi happened to be in the city when the flood waters rushed in and, luckily for many victims of the flood, he had a boat. Without any sleep or rest for 72 hours he crisscrossed flooded areas again and again to rescue the weakest: women, children and the elderly.
During the three days of uninterrupted rescue work, Wesselényi saved six hundred people from certain death. On the third day, the Austrian General Bratfeld flung his arms around Wesselényi in a gesture of gratitude and admiration for what he had done. And so did all of Hungary in spirit as news of his heroism spread. The greatest Hungarian poet of the time, Mihály Vörösmarty, gave his deeds lasting fame in his ode titled Az árvízi hajós (The Boatman of the Flood).
From Glory into Darkness
Wesselényi may have rescued hundreds in the flood, but he could not save himself from prosecution by the Austrian government. His only reward for his heroism during the flood was a three month grace period to restore his health, which had been damaged by the icy waters of the Danube.
His trial began that summer. In vain were the best efforts of his defender, Ferenc Kölcsey, the noted poet and author of the Hungarian National Anthem; in vain were Ferenc Deák's (the Wise Man of Hungary) pleas on eighteen occasions; and in vain were the twenty-three resolutions of the Lower House of the Diet to protest Wesselényi's prosecution. On February 9, 1839, barely one year after the great flood, he was sentenced to three years in prison.
He never served his term, because during his detention he lost his sight in one eye and was released for treatment at Graefenberg, where he became totally blind. Although he was allowed to return home to Transylvania, he refused and settled down instead at Freywaldau, considering himself "civically dead."
He may have lost his eyesight, but not his clarity of mind. In 1843, during his self-imposed exile, he wrote a book titled Summons on Magyar and Slavik Affairs (Szózat a magyar és szláv nemzetiség ügyében). Devoted to problems of national identity, his book warned against the threat of Russia, and supported the opinion that if everyone living in Hungary - minorities included - would have equal rights guaranteed by a liberal amendment to the constitution, the nationalities would not lend an ear to the agents of Absolutism. His book later turned out to be prophetic, but his warning went unheeded.
The same year Wesselényi decided to return to Zsibó. By this time he was accompanied by sixteen-year-old Anna Lux. an Austrian master weaver's daughter whom he later married. The two sons she bore brought sunlight into the eternal darkness surrounding the "blind giant."
His castle became a place of pilgrimage for the greatest men of contemporary Hungary: Kossuth, Deák, Széchenyi, Vörösmarty and others. In a letter, Kossuth expressed his admiration for Wesselényi with these words: "I draw strength from your example. You may be blind but you are still the greatest champion of the country. Do continue to be our
leader in the future, double the flame of your soul to make up for the loss of your eyesight; do become a shining beacon as was the column of light which led the wandering sons of Israel from bondage."
In spite of these beautiful words. Wesselényi felt that his time was up. However, when he visited Pest a throng or thirty thousand inundated the streets - the streets from which he had saved hundreds of lives during the flood - to pay him homage, repeating the adulation with a torchlight parade the following night.
He delivered his last speech on April 30, 1848, in Pest at the outset of the War of Independence. He said in part:
Misfortune has barred me from carrying a flag and throwing myself into the heat of the battle where the danger is the greatest and fighting is the most worthy... It is God who will decide whether our nation shall live or perish, but it is we who hold in our hands the honor of Hungary. Let us live for it or die for it, but we must remain Hungarians and a free nation up to our last breath.
Kossuth's revolution that year realized Wesselényi's cherished dreams: the union of Hungary and Transylvania, the abolition of serfdom, and an independent Hungarian government.
But by then. his time was indeed up. The "Blind Giant" was struck down by a lengthy illness in April of 1850.
* * *
A granite statue of Miklós Wesselényi protectively embracing an old serf stands in Kossuth Square in Zilah,. a town in Transylvania.
The memory of Wesselényi's deeds and character represents a spiritual monument more lasting than any statue could be. As one of his biographers stated: "He possessed all the traits of true greatness, in body and soul... He was never afraid to love his country and act for his people. He was a hero of heroes whose heart knew no fear. His was a warm heart, ever so compassionate toward suffering and misery. His hands which could bend iron were softer than velvet when it came to wiping away tears...
(Wesselényi's statue was vandalized by Rumanian chauvinists in the winter of 1990.)
|Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary|