One problem with the passing of time is that significant events become distant or vague memories and then are eventually forgotten to most of the world. Generations pass and the lessons of history are not learned or appreciated any more. Recently, while looking for possibilities to highlight in the "today in history" segment of school announcements, one word jumped out with immediate recognition. With that came a feeling of sadness in knowing that this was one of those cases of fading memories, but also a feeling of responsibility to use the anniversary date to remind people of someone remarkable. This word was that of a person, a man with a local connection and held dear to those now at least 50 years old. His history includes multiple and prolonged imprisonment as well as torture for refusing to remain quiet regarding the rights of others, particularly religious freedom under the Communist rule in Hungary. This man is Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the namesake of the former high school by the same name that once graced Dunkirk.
It was during these very same days of Feb. 3 to 8, 1949, that this priest, the highest Catholic official in Hungary, was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Communist People's Court in Budapest. No stranger to political persecution, he had also been arrested during World War II for his speeches of the plight and deportation of Jews under the Nazis as well as for his defiance of Hitler by using religious buildings to hide Jews from the Gestapo.
The trial in early February after the war in 1949, was preceded with day and night interrogation without sleep by interrogators working in shifts. The book, Mindszenty the Man, describes how he was forced to stand with arms raised high for days under blinding lights. For the first 15 days he did not make any kind of confession. In January, in an attempt to get rid of his interrogators for a few hours and when on the verge of complete breakdown, Cardinal Mindszenty did sign a "confession," but with the letters "c.f." under his signature. It did not take long for his interrogators to return when they realized that these letters stood for, "I signed under force," which was Latin for "coactus feci."
Cardinal Mindszenty with the Hungarian Freedom Fighters in 1956. The leader who headed the unit which liberated him was later captured by the Communists and executed in 1957. The high school named in his honor in Dunkirk was closed in 1979.
Sadly, the secret police continued with additional methods to break Mindszenty down during his "pre-trial processing." Certain drugs were used when pain was not enough to gain a confession from Mindszenty to be a witness against himself. No one was permitted to see him. At the trial and as told in the book, it was reported that he looked like a broken man physically and mentally. No longer of vigor and independence, he was "awkward, submissive, and slavishly obedient to every directive of the court." Drugs and 40 days of sleep deprivation, psychological and physical torture had taken its toll and he was condemned to life imprisonment. Despite efforts of the Communist Government to control the media, word did reach the Free World, making the mockery of the trial very evident. Pope Pius XII stated at the time that, "This man by nature so extremely vigorous, was suddenly changed into a frail and broken character, so much so that his behavior is an accusation not against the accused, by against the accusers." The United States also was vocal through various avenues, including a resolution from the House of Representatives and there was even a march in New York City of 4,000 Boy Scouts with the banner, "Pray for Cardinal Mindszenty."
Cardinal Mindszenty, under the Communist or "Marxist Democracy" of Hungary after World War II, had been put away. Mindszenty, in his later Memoirs, stated that this government in Hungary "realized that I would persist in the struggle, with God's help, even if it cost me my life." Mindszenty had refused to go along with the Communists nationalizing and secularizing the Catholic schools which made up approximately 65 percent of all the schools in the country. The Nazis were gone, but the new Communist government had taken their place with propaganda that Mindszenty would not be quiet about. In fact, his arrest for treason on December 25 after celebrating mass included 23 squads of police that surrounded his home with 80 in his home. Indeed, he was considered a dangerous threat.
Mindszenty spent several years in prison where prisoners were assured early deaths from "natural causes." Twice, he was near death and weighed only ninety pounds until he was liberated by Hungarian Freedom Fighters in 1956. When Soviet troops attacked Budapest to overthrow the free Hungarian government, Mindszenty took refuge in the American Legation in Budapest with political asylum. This saved him from death and although not in a Communist jail, he was isolated for an additional 15 years. In an "era of negotiation," the United States State Department removed Mindszenty at the age of 79 to Vienna, Austria, in 1971. It was during this time and before his death in 1975, when Cardinal Mindszenty traveled around the world with his message, including his visit to Dunkirk in 1974 to see the school named in his honor. But alas, that is a whole other story to be told.
In closing for this week, think about what this man had to say about faith. Mindszenty referred to the Church, Catholic schools, and family as sacred fortresses and the places where we raise a new generation. He said the faces of fathers, mothers, and children are prototypes of Heaven. "Each time a family sits down to pray together, they can see their own image in the mirror made in Nazareth."
Make it a good week and thanks for reading, Mary and Rosamond
In an effort to honor and remember the sacrifices made by Mindszenty, a yearly scholarship in his name would be appropriate and appreciated by young men who would like to attend Saint Francis High School. Located in the Buffalo area, a scholarship of $2,000 would only require 20 people to donate 100 dollars on any given year. Anyone interested in such a worthy cause, particularly graduates of Cardinal Mindszenty High School, may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.