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By MIKLOS N. SZILAGYI (With Zoltan C. Szilagyi) Copyright © 2007 by Miklos N. Szilagyi
I cannot tell this to anyone; therefore, I will tell it to everyone. - Frigyes Karinthy This is a true story to the best of my knowledge. All the names are real. Therefore, in case of publication, the names of those who could still be alive at that time must be changed. Note that in the Hungarian language last names come first, but in the text I have reversed them for consistency with English. I have kept the original order in the picture captions. I have not attempted to translate Hungarian songs and poems unless they have personal connotations. Non-personal pictures are taken from publicly accessible sources.
Volume One: Humble Beginnings
According to Thomas Mann, the history of every family is a bottomless well: everyone’s grandfathers had grandfathers too, and so on. In my case, the well is quite shallow: I know very little about my great-grandparents and almost nothing about their parents. Therefore, I can start this story at the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Hungary was a big country at that time. Our story starts at four different locations; two of them are now in Romania, one is in Slovakia, and only one is still in Hungary. The map below shows Hungary before and after the Trianon Treaty of 1920. The star represents Budapest, the two diamonds refer to the Szilágyi family (my father’s side), and the two circles correspond to the Ábrahám family (my mother’s side).
1. Szilágy County
Szilágy was the name of an administrative county (megye) of the Kingdom of Hungary that in 1867 became part of the AustroHungarian Empire. Szilágy County was formed only in 1876, when the counties Kraszna and Közép-Szolnok were united. (At the beginning of our story it did not yet exist.) It shared borders with the Hungarian counties Bihar, Szatmár, Szolnok-Doboka and Kolozs. The rivers Szamos and Kraszna flowed through the county. Its area was 3815 km², population 230,000 (92.8% Hungarians) around 1910. In 1918 (confirmed by the Treaty of Trianon, 1920), the county became part of northwestern Romania under the name of Sălaj.
At a distance of 29 kilometers from the county’s capital Zilah, the town Szilágysomlyó (Romanian: Simleul Silvaniei, Yiddish: Shamloya) is situated under the Magura Mountain, on the banks of the Kraszna River. The view from the heights of the Magura Mountain is quite impressive, and the nearby Lake Cehei is one of the most beautiful natural reservations in the county. The town is famous for its wine and even champagne. In the historical sources Szilágysomlyó was first mentioned in 1251, by the name Vathasomlyowa. The town was also known as Oppidum Somllyo (1429) and Szilágy-Somlyó (1854). Until the formation of Szilágy County it was the capital of Kraszna County. It is a small town: it still has only 16,000 inhabitants. The medieval history of the town is strongly connected to the Báthory family that played an important role in Transylvanian and Polish history. It became property of this family in 1351, when László Báthory married Anna Medgyesi Pók. Throughout its history, Szilágysomlyó was a stronghold and the residence of the Báthory family. It was the site of a battle with the Turks who in 1600 set the
city on fire. During Transylvania’s quasi-independence, five of its Reigning Princes (fejedelem) lived here. One of them, István Báthory, was also King of Poland. The town was also an important center for the Kuruts uprising against the Hapsburg rulers. Jews lived in the town, too, throughout its history, until the Holocaust exterminated the Jewish population. In the picture below you can see the Synagogue. Romania's first Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated here in September 2005. In this town the Izsák (Itzhak) family (Mihály Izsák and Hermina Nach) lived in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. They later moved 13 km to Szilágybagos (present-day Boghis), which was a very small town with several hundred inhabitants. In 1880 there were 21 Jews among them. This is the place The Szilágysomlyó Synagogue where their children were born, but then they moved back to Szilágysomlyó. Hermina was a very beautiful girl. She became the energetic, bossy wife of Mihály, the father of her first two children, Jakab and Albert. They established a pub, which was effectively run by Hermina. The drunken Hungarian and Romanian peasants submissively obeyed her commands. If they did not, she threw them out herself. Mihály Izsák suddenly died of cholera. Hermina soon married a pipe-maker whose workshop was quite successful, but he also died young. A third henpecked husband followed, but Hermina continued to run the tavern and give birth to more children. As a result, Jakab and Albert had many relatives in Szilágy County. Jakab became a successful farmer-merchant in Alpár, a village near Nagyvárad (now Oradea), not far from Szilágy County. He married Eszter, who had a sister by the name of Hani. Hani’s son, Gyula Szilárd (1921 -), worked as a cabinet maker and also wrote poetry. Károly Zsák (1895-1944), the world-famous soccer goalkeeper, was one of Hermina’s many grandchildren. For our story, however, Hermina and Mihály’s second son is important. Albert was born in 1872, had little schooling, and was a daredevil. Once he came home late and no one opened the gate for him. He took a rock, broke a window, and went to sleep in his bed.
When Hermina noticed the broken window in the morning, she threw him out of the house. He was about 12 years old. He went to Zilah, the capital of Szilágy county (present-day Zalău in Romania), then somehow proceeded to Budapest where he learned the trade of house painting through hard work and many slaps on his face by his master. There he changed his last name from Izsák to Szilágyi. One of his motivations may have been a desire to assimilate. Many other Hungarian Jews shared Zsák Károly this desire at that time. Szilágyi is a historical Hungarian name: the wife of János Hunyadi and mother of the great King Mathias was Erzsébet Szilágyi. Therefore, the name used to be protected. The authorities, however, permitted Albert to take this name because he was born in Szilágy County (the name literally means “a person from Szilágy.”) Of course, the fact that he grew up alone had a huge influence on him. All his life he considered himself an unlucky man, tired of life. He was a tall, cheerful, masculine young man with a robust stature, wide shoulders, a big smile, and rosy cheeks. He spoke Hungarian, German, and Romanian equally well. He had a big head, wide face, sensuous lips, outstanding jaw, strong but somewhat short arms, and long legs. His excellent vision served him well in his work as a house painter: he could immediately notice the slightest error on a wall from a large distance. He had broken the little finger of his right hand; the finger had become stiff, crooked, and thin. Because of this crippled finger he held pencils and his brush in a strange way, like a child just starting to get acquainted with handwriting. He walked in a somewhat shaky manner. Although he had not seen much school, his writing was impeccable, his drawings were beautiful, and he had a formidable capacity for logical thinking. In spite of the trauma of his childhood, he made a good impression on everyone, liked to joke, and had fun with the girls.