America usually sides with an underdog, and it detests his persecutors. I have a story about an individual who opposed both Nazis and Communists; saved Jews; suffered imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag and a Czechoslovak Communist jail, where he perished.
A scion of a famous aristocratic family, Count János Esterházy (1901-1957) was born in the Kingdom of Hungary of the Habsburg Empire. His bywords were "My station and its duties" and "We are blessed more than others and, thus, we have a greater obligation to serve the people."
Following the First World War, after the Treaty of Trianon, which truncated the Kingdom of Hungary, Esterházy, without moving house, found himself in a newly created Czechoslovakia. Naturally, he favored the restitution of pre-war Hungary and defended the rights of the Hungarian minority. He was promptly elected to the parliament in Prague.
But then history accelerated. In the late 1930s, Hitler's Third Reich threatened war and demanded a chunk of the Czechoslovak territory, the Sudetenland. The Czechs caved. Their leaders resolved that freedom was not worth fighting for. Soon, Der Füehrer gobbled up the whole of the Czechoslovak state; he turned the Czech lands, Bohemia and Moravia, into an obedient protectorate; and he allowed the disgruntled Slovaks to set up their own "republic," in fact a puppet state of the Third Reich.
Once again, without moving, Count Esterházy found himself a citizen of a new state. He transferred from the no longer existing democratic legislature in Prague, to the rubber-stamp "parliament" in Bratislava. He continued to defend the Hungarian minority, which experienced more severe harassment in the puppet Slovakia than it had in interwar Czechoslovakia. But he also appealed to the Hungarian authorities to desist from persecution of Slovaks on their side of the border.
He further used his perch in and out of the parliament to bring attention to burning issues of the day. For example, in the Spring of 1943 in a fiery speech Esterházy roundly condemned Stalin and the Soviet Union as the perpetrators of the hideous Katyn Forest Massacre, where thousands of Allied Polish POW officers perished.
Yet, arguably, the count's greatest moment came on May 15, 1942, when he stood up in the parliament to denounce the government's plans to get rid of Slovakia's Jews. Esterházy was the only deputy to have cast a dissenting vote against the measure. Everyone knew that "deportation" really meant death in Auschwitz. In and out of the parliament he would repeat: "Our sign is the Cross and not the swastika."
All the while, Esterházy was up to his neck in various illegal activities. He ran an underground railroad for Polish clandestine couriers and fugitives. He also procured false papers and passports for victims of the Third Reich, including Jews. For his opposition to the German rule, he was arrested by the collaborationist Hungarian Arrow Cross government in October 1944. He managed to get out. Then, the Gestapo put him on its wanted list.
When the Red Army pushed the Wehrmacht out of his homeland, the count again intervened with the rampant Soviets against rape, terror, and deportations to the Gulag. In 1945 Stalin's secret police shipped him off to Siberia as a "class enemy." In the camps Esterházy became renowned for his piety and help to prisoners. They referred to him as "padre," and could not believe he was not, in fact, a priest.
In 1949 the Soviets transferred Esterházy from the Gulag to a jail in Prague. He was tortured, tormented, and maltreated for eight years. His health deteriorated and the count died in the prison hospital in Prague in 1957. He was buried in secret in a mass grave.
No one was supposed to remember. Then came the break of 1989 and the case of János Esterházy resurfaced. A clamor went up for justice.
The Russians rehabilitated him for the crimes he did not commit in 1993. The Poles decorated him with the coveted Polonia Restituta Cross in 2009. There is a minor cult of him in Hungary and among Slovak Hungarians. Most importantly, the Vatican pronounced him Servant of God; the count's beatification process is underway. Rome will probably make him a saint before there is any justice in Prague or Bratislava.
Unfortunately, neither the Czechs nor the Slovaks have moved to lift the odium of treason and alleged "Nazi collaboration" from the underdog. It took an informal intervention of a fellow aristocrat, Prince Karl von Schwartzenberg, who served for a while as Czechia's foreign minister, even to get the post-Communist bureaucrats to reveal Esterházy's prison burial place. But both successor governments refuse to rehabilitate him and to clear his name.
Perhaps the best idea to end this nonsense is to enlist Israel's help. Like the Americans, the Jewish people also can identify an underdog. In Slovakia Esterházy was the only one who defended them publicly when it really mattered. And he also saved some clandestinely. That must count for something.
If international pressure is applied, knowing the Czechs, they should cave. This time it would be out of decency, however. If not, the United States should re-evaluate its allies in Prague and Bratislava in light of their continuously mean spirited treatment of an underdog.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of statecraft in Washington D.C.; expert on East-Central Europe's Three Seas region; author, among others, of "Intermarium: The Land Between The Baltic and Black Seas." Read Marek Jan Chodakiewicz's Reports — More Here.
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