By Ronald Suny
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BUDAPEST — “No, young man, you cannot see the library,” the old woman told the eager student. “I am the only one with the key. Even I do not allow the archbishop into the library.” This was the second time that Balint Kovacs, a Hungarian student, had tried to find materials on Armenians in Transylvania. He had hitchhiked from Budapest across the border to the mountain town of Gherla in Transylvania, Romania, only to be turned away by the elders who guarded the Armenian Church in the colony that had been known as Armenopolis or Hayakaghak in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They had sent him on to Elisabethopolis, now Dumbraveni, where he was confronted by the stubborn old woman who refused to let him see the library. But Balint would not give in or give up. Perhaps something could be worked out. The determined woman, whom Balint would later call Marish neni, mentioned that she needed medication for her eyes, and Balint promised to bring it to her from Hungary. A nephew was called; the key appeared; and Balint Kovacs’ life and work changed in an instant.
In the sacristy of the large Armenian Catholic church they opened a metal door with a complicated antique lock, climbed a winding staircase, and came upon six cabinets filled with old books in Armenian, Hungarian, and Latin. But there was more: an archive of early modern manuscripts documenting the past of the Armenians who had come to this town. As if a light turned on, Balint knew that he had found a treasure. No one had seen these books and documents for decades, perhaps longer. He had originally come as a student from Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Budapest to study Hungarian dialects in Cluj Napoca, the capital of Transylvania. Like many other young Hungarians coming of age after the fall of Communism, he was interested in recovering the heritage of the Hungarian people. Inspired by the words of Zoltan Kodaly, who had said that Transylvania is the keeper of treasures, the clean source [of the historical past], Balint won a scholarship to study in Transylvania. His teacher in Budapest, Sandor Oze, had asked him to see what he could find on the Armenians while he was in Transylvania since they were planning an exhibition on Armenian history in the Hungarian capital. Balint had found more than he had been looking for. When he returned to Budapest and told his mentor what he had uncovered, Sandor told him that he had to return and make a catalogue of the materials. Although still an undergraduate, Balint’s life course had taken a new turn, and he would become the principal investigator of the history of the Transylvanian Armenian colonies.
Armenians had crossed from Moldavia, through the Carparthian Mountains, into Transylvania in the seventeenth century. They settled as craftsmen and merchants in four towns: Elisabethopolis, Armenopolis, Sibviz (Szepviz, Frumoasa), and Gheorgheni (Gyergyószentmiklós, Djurdjov). There they converted to Catholicism, using an Armenian rite, singing the hymns in Armenian (to this day), and gradually losing their mother language and speaking Hungarian and Rumanian. Their towns grew wealthy, and along the main streets the rich bankers and merchants built their mansions, many of which have been preserved. Their communities flourished for three hundred years, but by the twentieth century they dwindled to a few hundred members. Locked in closed rooms were the stories of these people, records and books that no one now could read.