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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Hungarian Romanians

When talking about Hungarian ethnics in Romania, one encounters a problem of scope and of historical positioning. Most of Romania’s Hungarian ethnics come from Transylvania, where Hungarian tribes arrived from the east and settled in the 9th century, gradually organising the land into administrative units which in the 12th century came to be part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Transylvania was then, for centuries, up until the Great Union we are celebrating this year, either part of that Kingdom, itself later included in the Habsburg Empire, or a Principality of its own under Ottoman suzerainty (16th-17th century).

What then, to make of Hungarian personalities born in Transylvania before 1918, when the land was still not

part of Romania? Since they lived at a time when Transylvania belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, it would be preposterous to regard them as “ethnic Hungarians” that Romania could claim as its own. (A case in point is, for example, famous composer Bela Bartok, who was born before the Union, in 1881, on what used to be Hungarian territory even if it is Romanian today, lived for most of his life in Budapest and has always been considered Hungarian.) Rather, it would be probably more sensible to focus

on those pre-Union Hungarian ethnics who made an important contribution to the maintenance or development of Romanian identity in the land they shared with Romanians and Germans, Transylvania, as well as on the post-Union Hungarian ethnics who contributed to the evolution of modern Romania as Romanian citizens.

One of the very first such contributors was Nicolaus Olahus (1493-1568). Born in Sibiu out of a mixed marriage (his father was a Romanian ethnic, his mother – Hungarian), Olahus studied Latin, eloquence, poetry, astronomy and theology at the religious Chapter School in today’s Oradea between 1505 and 1512, after which he became a page at the court of the Hungarian King Ladislau II. He soon settled for a career in the Church, though, and after being ordained as a priest in 1518 he became the secretary of the Bishop of Pécs, then the canon of that chapter, and subsequently he went up through the ecclesiastical ranks to reach in 1553 the position of Archbishop of Esztergom [1].

As a cleric, Olahus stood up vigorously against the spreading of Protestant teachings, defending the Catholic doctrine and practice, and efficiently resisting change at a time when the Reformation threatened to destabilise Catholicism in the Kingdom. As a humanist, he was in touch with Erasmus of Rotterdam and he wrote theological works, genealogies, monographs, poetry and letters. Of these, his historical writing Hungaria is particularly relevant to Romanian identity, since it comprises significant observations about the three provinces, Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania. “The Moldavians have the same language, rite and religion as the Wallachians,” Olahus pointed out. “Their language and that of the Wallachians was once Latin, as befitting a colony of the Romans.” And Transylvania “is inhabited by four peoples of different origins: the Magyars, the Székelys, the Saxons and the Wallachians” [2]. Thus, just like the Moldavian chroniclers of the 17th century, Olahus ascertains the linguistic unity of the Romans’ descendants living in the three main areas of today’s Romania.

About three centuries later, Hungarian ethnic Varga Katalin/ Ecaterina Varga (1802-1852) also contributed to the affirmation of Romanian identity, but in an activist, rather than scholarly fashion. Born in the present-day county of Braşov, Varga belonged to the lower-rank nobility and the Lutheran Church. She became an orphan at around 10 and was raised by an aunt. When she was 20 she married a wheeler and got involved in his business, hemp trading. The business often gave credit to customers who didn’t pay back. At some point, that was the case of a rope-maker in Braşov, whom Varga decided to sue. The judicial formalities of the case took her to Vienna, and on her way there she became familiar with Ţara Moţilor, an area in the Apuseni Mountains comprising parts of the present-day counties of Alba, Arad, Bihor, Cluj and Hunedoara, in western Romania. After her divorce, around 1840, and a fateful chance encounter with a group of Romanian villagers from that area, Varga started a new life in Ţara Moţilor, settling in the village of Bucium-Isbita, inhabited by Romanians.

At that time, the villagers were experiencing unfair treatment from their Hungarian landlord, who refused to pay them their part of the local gold mines’ income, and asked Varga, who was a speaker of German and Romanian, too, besides her native Hungarian, to help them take legal action. She agreed and in 1841 she drafted a petition which outlined the main complaints of three villages in the area, including Bucium: “harassment by the officers; an increase in forced labor; and a general breaking of the villagers' privileges” [3]. A fact-finding commission was sent to the area which, rather than dealing with the villagers’ complaints, started investigating their allegedly illegal use of the forest, instead. That amounted to an intimidating attempt to silence the villagers’ complaints, and from that moment on Varga, whom the villagers nicknamed “Our Lady” [4], was firmly on the side of the Romanian villagers and their rights, and against the local authorities.

After a series of protests by the villagers, some of them armed, Varga was repeatedly accused of (incitement to) rebellion and, despite the fact that the Romanians ensured her escort and protection around the clock, in 1847 she was tricked into joining Orthodox vicar Andrei Şaguna on a sleigh ride which ended up kidnapping her, taking her to Abrud and handing her in to the authorities. That was how she was eventually arrested on trumped-up charges and held in prison for four years at Alba Iulia without judgment, before a trial finally took place in 1851. At the trial, Varga was sentenced to three months in prison. She served her term and was then sent back to her native village near Braşov, where she died soon afterwards. Nowadays, a monument dedicated to her stands up in the courtyard of the Hălmeag church, a Hungarian secondary school for girls bears her name, and more than 20 streets around Romania are named after her.

Still in the 19th century but a totally different environment, Carol Popp de Szathmári (1812-1887) was born in Cluj, graduated from the Reformed College there and studied painting, while travelling around Europe, in Rome and Vienna, with professors Peter Fendi and Johann Treml. As a lithographer, he made an album of cards from Transylvania (1841), as well as the portraits of the Transylvanian Diet (parliament) members. In 1843 he settled in Bucharest, where he set up a photo studio, being among the first ten photographers in Europe. He was also the first known combat photographer in the world, taking pictures on the battlefield during the Crimean/Russian-Turkish War (1853-1856). In 1855, his war photographs were exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition. That same year, Szathmári collected 200 of them in an album that he gave as a gift to the rulers of the countries involved in the conflict, which occasioned him to meet personally Queen Victoria, Emperor Franz Joseph and Napoleon III [5], and be decorated by them. During Romania’s Independence War (1877-1878) he again worked as a war photographer and later on King Carol I appointed him official court photographer, in which capacity he covered the coronation of that first king of Romania in a special photo report [6].

A few decades later, another king of Romania asked another ethnic Hungarian to get in charge of Greater

Romania’s new coat of arms: Ferdinand I commissioned József Sebestyén de Keöpeczi (1878-1964) to design the country’s coat of arms after the 1918 Union. Born in the county of Cluj, de Keöpeczi went to a secondary school in Bistriţa, studied painting while travelling, in 1902, to Budapest, Munich, Vienna and Paris, and worked as an illustrator for magazines like Pásztortűz, Siebenbürgische Vierteljahrschrift and Flacăra. In 1914 he lived and worked in Budapest, where he gained experience as a painter of coats of arms at the National Museum and the National Archive there. After WWI, King Ferdinand of Romania entrusted him with the making of Greater Romania’s coat of arms, which de Keöpeczi completed in 1921 [7]. Picturing the symbols of the main Romanian provinces (an eagle standing for Wallachia, a bull’s head – for Moldavia, a bridge and lion – for Oltenia and Banat, and eagle and seven castles – for Transylvania, and two dolphins – for Dobrudja), the 1921 royal coat of arms designed by de Keöpeczi was maintained until 1947, when the communist regime replaced it. In 1992 the Romanian Parliament adopted a version of it which leaves out the insignia of the monarchy but keeps those of the provinces. Thus, contemporary Romania’s coat of arms is still based on de Keöpeczi’s work.

Let us stay a little longer in the field of visual arts, with ethnic Hungarian Fekete József/Iosif Fekete (1903-1979). Born in Hunedoara as the eldest child of a clerk’s family, Fekete went to primary school in that city and to secondary school in Alba Iulia, Miercurea-Ciuc, Turda and Odorheiul Secuiesc. Around the end of WWI his family circumstances forced him to work as an apprentice locksmith in a factory in Hunedoara, but in 1921 he moved to Bucharest and enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy, where he studied sculpture with professors Dimitrie Paciurea and Fritz Storck. He graduated in 1927, and between 1928 and 1929, backed by sculptor Ion Jalea, Fekete worked in the studio of artist Lidia Kotzebue, whose winning project for the Monument to the Heroes of the Air in Bucharest, inaugurated in 1935, he helped co-design and finalise [8]. The Monument is by far his best-known work, but there are other fine pieces which demonstrate that Fekete was part of the central-European avant-garde art and can be admired in Bucharest, as well as Budapest, Oradea, Alba Iulia, Hunedoara and Novi Sad: the bust of Mark Twain (in Bucharest’s Herăstrău Park) and the statues of St. Anthony of Padua (today in Novi Sad), of poet Ady Endre (Budapest), sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi, composer Bartók Béla and politician Horváth Imre.

Moving on to contemporary Hungarian ethnics, in the field of music composer Zsolt Kerestely stands out. Born in 1934 in the county of Harghita, Kerestely graduated in 1963 from the “Gheorghe Dima” Conservatoire in Cluj and in 1976 he became a member of the Romanian Composers’ Union. He worked in radio and television for 30 years, composed around 600 songs throughout his career [9] and collaborated with musicians from a range of musical styles, from classical to folk. Some of the best-known light music performers he worked with include Angela Similea, Eva Kiss, Margareta Pâslaru and the late Aurelian Andreescu, whose song “Copacul” / “The Tree”, composed by Kerestely, was very popular in the 1980s. In recognition of his musical contribution, Kerestely was awarded the Cultural Merit Order in 2004 by the Romanian Presidency.

In the field of sports, Emeric Jenei/Imre Jenei comes to mind, first of all, as one of the best football coaches Romania has had. Jenei was born in 1937 in the county of Arad and although his family moved to Slovakia when he was a child, Jenei returned to Arad with his mother after the end of WWII. When he was around 9 and playing football with his mates in the street, he was spotted by a scout and signed with the junior team of the Flamura Roşie Arad Club. Even though as a teenager he was

dreaming of becoming a lawyer, he went on playing football and after he turned 16 he was promoted to his club’s main team and included in the junior national team. In his career as a footballer, Jenei played mainly for Steaua Bucharest, with which he won the Romanian football championship several times, and for the national team, where he won 12 caps between 1959 and 1964 and reached the fifth place in the 1964 Summer Olympics. Having retired as a player, in 1971 he took up coaching first at Steaua, then at FC Bihor and CS Târgovişte. At the national team, he managed to qualify Romania at the World Cup in 1990, and later on, at Euro 2000, he took the team to the last eight. Jenei also coached Hungary’s national team in 1992-1993, when they won the Kirin Cup in Japan, but it was Jenei’s 1986 performance with Steaua Bucharest that will always be remembered by Romanian fans: that year, Jenei’s Steaua won the European Cup, a feat referred to as “the Everest of Romanian football” [10].

A coachee of Jenei’s, footballer Ladislau Bölöni/László Bölöni was born in 1953 in Târgu Mureş and grew up at Târnăveni, where he also made his debut in 1967 at the Chimica Târnăveni Club. From 1970 to 1984 he played at ASA Târgu Mureş, after which he signed with Steaua Bucharest. He was nominated Romanian Footballer of the Year twice, in 1977 and 1983, and he was in the golden team which won the 1986 European Cup. With Steaua he also won two Romanian cups, as well as the Romanian league three times, while for Romania’s national team he won 102 caps and scored 23 goals. Bölöni left Steaua in 1987 and the country the following year, to play for two less well-known clubs in Belgium and France. Whereas he retired from professional football in 1992, he continued to be successful as a football coach: with Sporting Lisbon he won the Portuguese Championship and Cup in his first year there, with Standard Liège he won the Belgian League, and while a coach at Standard he was also named Belgian Manager of the Year in 2009. In recognition of his lifetime achievement, he was decorated with the Order of Sports Merit by the Romanian Presidency in 2008.

Changing sports, in gymnastics coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi were both born in 1942, in Cluj and Odorheiu Secuiesc, respectively. Béla began his sporting career by doing boxing and competing in the 1956 Olympics in the hammer throw, and only took up gymnastics after he enrolled in the Romanian College of Physical Education. In his senior year there he coached the women’s gymnastics team, which included Márta Eross. The two got married in 1963 and moved to a small mining town where they started an elementary-school gymnastics class. The spouses’ initiative was favourably looked on by the authorities, and the two were soon invited to found a national gymnastics school.

That’s how the legendary Oneşti gym started, out of which Nadia Comăneci was going to rise and shine, getting the first perfect 10 in the history of gymnastics at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Although the two coaches are primarily known in Romania as the “makers” of star Nadia, after their defection to the US in 1981 they set up a gymnastics club where subsequent American stars trained, like elite athletes Mary Lou Retton and Julianne McNamara. Béla was, in fact, the personal coach of the former during the 1984 Olympics, while later on he trained four of the six gymnasts in the US women’s team at the 1991 World Championships, and was US head coach at the 1992 Olympics. Márta, on the other hand, was appointed US National Team Coordinator in 2001, a position which she held until as late as 2016. Overall, the spouses coached “nine Olympic champions, fifteen world champions, sixteen European medalists and many U.S. national champions” [11] – an outstanding record of performance.

Last but not least, in cinematography and theatre the Hungarian ethnics of Romania are well represented by

talented actor Levente Mólnar. Born in 1976 in Baia Mare, Mólnar studied acting in Satu Mare from 1990 to 1995 and then again at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj from 1998 to 2002. After he graduated, Mólnar got employed at the Hungarian Theatre in Cluj and became involved in theatre performances choreographed by Melinda Jakab at the “Gheorghe Dima” Music Academy in Cluj, as well as in international performance workshops. Mólnar acted in two award-winning films: he played the character of Ovidiu, a border police officer in director Marian Crişan’s Morgen, which received the Special Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival and three awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival; and he featured as Abraham Warsawski, the main character’s closest friend in Son of Saul, directed by László Nemes, which won the Grand Prix at the 2015 Cannes Festival and the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Mólnar’s performance in Son of Saul seems to be Romania’s first achievement directly related to an Oscar.

So at the end of the day, locally, regionally or internationally, the Hungarian ethnics attained impressive civic and/or professional results which significantly enriched the culture and identity of what today is Romania while fully doing honour to their ethnicity.

Notes & Sources

[3] “Katalin Varga”. Wikipedia. Accessed 17 Nov 2018. <>

[11] “Márta Károlyi”. Wikipedia. Accessed 17 Nov 2018. <árta_Károlyi>

Picture credits

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