Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like -- Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).
Heroes for liberty are not peculiar to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause—that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.
In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at FEE.org. But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.
The subject of this third essay is Bishop Vilmos Apor of Hungary, and the author is Máté Hajba, director of the Free Market Foundation in Hungary.
-Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education
In my hometown in western Hungary, a quaint place called Győr, stands the white tower of the Bishop’s Castle. Its spectacular view complements the history of kindness and heroism in Hungary, but its cellar is soaked with the blood of a bishop who sacrificed himself to protect the innocent. His name was Vilmos Apor.
Hungary during World War II was a place of constant horror. The anti-Jewish laws, Nazi occupation, political turmoil, and pillaging by Soviet troops late in the war plagued the population. In times like that, people need hope, leadership by example, and admirable figures they can look up to and rely on. This is exactly what Vilmos Apor embodied. It wasn’t just his towering height that raised him above his compatriots. His kindness and strong sense of duty led him to save lives, reprimand Hitler openly, and then stand in defense of women threatened with rape by Soviet troops.
Vilmos Apor's Education and Early Life
He was only 26 at the time, making him one of the youngest priests in Hungary to receive such an important post. Born in 1892 into an aristocratic family in Hungarian Transylvania, Vilmos Apor bore the title of a baron. But he often later would recall what his mother used to say to her children: “If you ever get to a crossroad, always choose the harder road, as it will surely prove to be the right one.” He lived and died by those words, not by any comforts or privileges of nobility.
Apor decided he wanted to be a priest at an early age. He dedicated himself to God and the sacred task of helping others. When he was about six, he asked for a chalice for Christmas so he could pretend to be a priest celebrating mass. For another Christmas, ten years later, he asked for his mother’s leave to become a priest, which he received.
As a student, Apor excelled in both intellectual and physical activities. His remarkable kindness made him popular, as well. He was ordained a priest in 1915 and, shortly thereafter, was sent to the Eastern-Hungarian town of Gyula to assist the parish priest. There, he also founded social institutions to assist the poor and others in need. He was always available for people seeking advice or help, and he heard as many confessions as he possibly could.
Then, in 1917, he was called away by the bishop to teach at a college of theology for one year before returning to Gyula to lead the city parish. He was only 26 at the time, making him one of the youngest priests in Hungary to receive such an important post.
His skill, kindness, and leadership were desperately needed. When World War I ended with the defeat of Hungary and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, domestic turmoil ensued. A communist dictatorship briefly took over the country, the first such horrid regime in the world after Russia. It fell quickly, but it left considerable bloodshed, terror, and oppression behind.
Apor Was a Man of Kindness, Generosity, and Faith
In Gyula, the communists banned religious education in schools, an unpopular edict in a deeply religious country. Vilmos Apor wasn’t about to let the ban stand. He led masses of angry people in the streets in protest, thereby stopping the regulation from taking effect. Seeing the resolute crowd with Apor in the forefront, the oppressors relented, and religious education was allowed to continue.
In the interwar period (the 1920s and 30s), the Catholic Church in Hungary determined it should take a more active role in culture and civil society to help heal the wounds of war and calm social tensions. The clergy and laymen worked together to build communities, to support those in need through charity work, and to show that communism and national socialism would do much more harm than good.
Apor was not content to play it safe. He never shied away from expressing a strong opinion. Vilmos Apor was a prominent figure in this new direction in the role of the Church. He helped men, women, workers, intellectuals, and peasants — people of all walks of life — to build strong local communities and institutions. He wrote untold thousands of encouraging letters, donated many of his personal belongings, and spent many of his waking hours giving counsel and comfort. It seemed to many that he was everywhere at the same time, visiting hospitals, prisons, orphanages, and private homes.
When in 1941 he was consecrated Bishop of Győr, war was once again ravaging the world. The government of Miklós Horthy governed Hungary and entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. Győr was an industrial town important to the war machine. On a hill in the town’s historic, baroque center stood a cathedral, a seminary, and the stately Bishop’s Castle with its tall, white tower.
It would have been easy for any bishop there to shut himself away, to wander about the attractive and ancient buildings on the hill, above the noise of the factories and the suffering of the people. Given his high position in the Church and his aristocratic origins in the town, Apor might have lived in protected seclusion. But that was not in his character.
While the country was fighting on the wrong side, Apor was not content to play it safe. He never shied away from expressing a strong opinion, even if it opposed the will of the authorities. Despite all the official propaganda, he knew the war would be lost, and he only hoped that Hungary could negotiate with the Americans rather than with the Soviets. Apor wanted a Western-style, multi-party system after peace. In order to facilitate that, he organized meetings with like-minded people to start building the post-war future.
Apor Was Determined to Help His Jewish Neighbors
By 1944, even Miklós Horthy lost faith in the German war effort and was considering leaving the alliance with Hitler. To stop this, Germany occupied Hungary, bringing on a period of extreme terror. Jews in particular were targets and were herded into ghettos and later deported to concentration camps.
Apor headed an organization representing Jews who had converted to Catholicism. In that capacity, he often intervened with ministries of the Hungarian government on behalf of Hungary’s Jews, whether they had converted or not. He drew the wrath of the regime which increasingly focused its propaganda against the Church. When authorities resorted to property seizures, arbitrary arrests, and torture, he spoke truth to power with ever-greater eloquence and courage.
When news reached Bishop Apor that a ghetto would be set up in Győr to concentrate the Jews, he was on his way to the cathedral to celebrate Pentecost. He immediately discarded his prepared speech and in impromptu remarks, he declared:
Whoever disregards the first and foremost commandment of Christianity, the commandment of love, and says that there are people, groups and races who can be hated; whoever advocates the torture of humans, whether they are blacks or Jews, no matter how much he boasts about his faith, must be regarded as a heathen.
He denounced mistreatment and torture, but he didn’t stop there. After the mass at the cathedral, he wrote a letter to the minister of internal affairs, condemning the government’s actions of punishing innocent people without trials and holding the minister responsible for any deaths, injuries, and diseases following his actions. The angry minister replied that if it weren’t for Apor’s titles, he would be imprisoned for such insolence.
The bishop regarded the fight for what was right to be more important than any threat to himself. He tried to ease the suffering in the ghettos. He lobbied against the cramped living conditions and insisted on visiting the inhabitants, many of whom he knew personally. His request was denied by the Hungarian government which said that, although a priest could go into the ghettos, a bishop could not. Then the Germans took the additional measure of preventing any clergy at all from entering.
Upon hearing this, Apor went to the local headquarters of the Gestapo in Győr and demanded that the officers there convey this message to Hitler: “Even the Führer must abide by the laws of God. The time will come when he has to answer for his actions in front of the court of the world and God.”
It was only a matter of time before the Nazis would have to silence this courageous voice.
When the Nazis began the deportation of Jews to concentration camps, Apor organized a grassroots effort to collect food for them. He utilized not only the assets of the Church, but also contributions from friendly laymen to transport the donations secretly to the suffering people. The atrocities intensified, and it became ever more dangerous to go against the government. Apor, however, openly condemned the regime and disregarded its orders. Despite the threat, he harbored persecuted people in the Bishop’s Castle and provided Jews with forged documents. Every free space in the Castle was filled with people seeking refuge.
First the Germans, Then the Soviets
This was a man who could have lived in comfort, but chose the “harder road” that his mother had advised so long before. Soviet soldiers captured Győr from the Nazis in early 1945. The news of their pillaging, raping, and unchecked murderous activities had already reached the Bishop. The Castle was often visited by Soviet troops, but Apor managed to get rid of them more than once by giving them wristwatches. He sent envoys to high-ranking Soviet officials, asking for protection of the Castle because of the refugees there, many of them women and children. When the Soviets denied the request, confrontation was inevitable.
In early April 1945, Soviet soldiers came to the Castle to ask for women for “household chores.” Everyone knew what fate awaited them. Stories of rape had deeply disturbed the Bishop, so he categorically refused to let the soldiers take any women from under his protection. The soldiers stormed the building, found the women hiding in the cellar, and started to drag them out. Upon hearing the cries for help, Bishop Apor accosted the troops and furiously ordered them to leave. He was shot on the spot and died shortly thereafter at the age of 53. His last words were to offer himself for “dear Hungary and the whole world.”
This was a man who could have lived in comfort, but chose the “harder road” that his mother had advised so long before. He had relentlessly fought for what was right and died a martyr’s death. He was buried in a humble church plot. Later, members of the Győr Cathedral’s congregation raised donations to build an ornate tomb for the Bishop, but the communists would not allow his remains to be reburied there. That didn’t happen until the late 1980s. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Today the whole country of Hungary can be openly thankful for the deeds of the martyred bishop. He bravely stood up against the oppressive regimes of national socialism and communism. He helped people of all walks of life, regardless of their backgrounds or their faith. His kindness and dedication inspired many.
He chose the harder road because he knew it was the right one.