The Accidental Historian: Balint Kovacs and the Transylvanian Armenian Diaspora


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.

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Balint Kovacs was raised in a small provincial town, Kiscsosz, and first went to a local secondary school in Veszprém. He soon transferred to Pazmany Peter University where he was encouraged by Sandor Oze. Balint was a devout Catholic, who shared the patriotism that Hungarians were permitted to express after Communism. Intellectually curious, he thinks of himself as shy and naïve, but a more accurate description would be modest, innocent, and idealistic. Straightforward and honest, he was disgusted by the careerism and corruption that permeates East Central Europe. Finding these lost archives of the Armenians, he came to believe that he had found his mission in life and began the work of organizing and cataloguing the collection in Elisabethopolis.

Soon the priest and community elder in Armenopolis, who earlier had been suspicious of Balint’s intentions, accepted him as a trustworthy researcher and opened up the riches of their library and archive housed in a room above the main altar in the church. Balint travelled to Germany to Halle and studied Armenian Studies with Professor Armenuhi Drost Abgarjan. He then moved on to Armenia where he studied the Armenian language. He wrote his dissertation at the Peter Pazmany Catholic University in Hungary on the Armenian libraries of Transylvania. Since 2008 he has worked as a research fellow in the Research Centre of the University Leipzig on East-Central Europe (GWZO) under the supervision of Professor Stefan Troebst. Catalogues of the Armenian holdings were published in collaboration with his universities. Through complicated arrangements with the archbishop of the Catholic Armenians, the archives of the four colonies were brought together in a single archive in Armenopolis, where they are now available to researchers — at least to those who can convince the priest that they are serious and worthy of their trust.

For five days in May 2015, as part of our work on the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Balint and I traveled by car through Hungary and Transylvania visiting Armenian sites. After stops at the beautiful Hungarian town of Pecs and the battlefield at Mohacs where the Ottomans defeated the Hungarian king in 1526 and established their rule over Hungary for 150 years, we crossed into Rumania. Our first “Armenian” stop was in Elisabethopolis. The church was closed; the key unavailable; but the now frail Marish neni was waiting for us with the local liquor and cakes. She was thrilled to meet another Armenian and took my arm guiding me into her living room. It was clear that she adored Balint and depended on him. The widowed, childless woman considered him her son.

We spent that night in a hotel in the walled castle of Sighisoara. The area is now living off memorabilia and tourism generated by the figure of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula. The next morning we drove off to Szepviz, where the Catholic priest impatiently showed us a large manuscript in Armeno-Hungarian. A translation from the famous Hungarian book Mirror without Macula, (Makula nélkül való tükör), it was written in Armenian letters but in the Hungarian language. No one had known what this was until Balint discovered it, and having learned Armenian in Erevan, he immediately recognized it as a transliteration, not a translation, of the original Hungarian text, perhaps the only manuscript written in Armeno-Hungarian.

Each of our visits was punctuated by the obligatory lunch of Hungarian or Rumanian meat and potatoes, dumplings or goulash soup, followed invariably by the extraordinary pastries for which these nations are renowned. We moved on to Gheorgheni. The church was open, and dozens of Hungarian tourists had settled in to hear a lecture about the church and the Armenians of the region from the local authority, who proudly considered himself an Armenian, although the only words he knew were bari or (good day). There in the church was a magnificent painting of Grigor Lusavorich baptizing King Trdat. The inscriptions were in Armenian, Latin and Hungarian. The church and congregation clearly were more Catholic than traditionally Armenian, but they clung to their sense of being Armenian. Their identity as distinct from Latin Catholics was strong even though their numbers were small. Both the Hungarian and Rumanian governments, as members of the European Union, officially recognized the Armenian communities as distinct and supported them financially. For some this was a long-awaited business opportunity; for others it was the last hope for continuity and preservation of a fading culture.

Our final stop was Armenopolis. Besides a smaller, older church, the principal church was enormous. The priest, Endre Szakács was gracious and eager to have us stay with him, though we needed to move westward. The head of the local Armenians, János Esztegar, was our guide. Vigorous and enthusiastic, with a sharp sense of humor, he showed us the church, the library and the archive (both of which Balint had organized and catalogued), as well as the Armenian cemetery. Several hundred Armenian Catholics still attend the church and sing the badarak in Armenian from a hymnal transliterated into Latin letters. In the archive Balint did a bit of research in the old baptismal records that had been sent from Elisabethopolis. There he confirmed that Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the infamous Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascists in the 1930s and 1940s, was a descendent of Transylvanian Armenians. His father had been baptized in the Elisabethopolis church.

Our journey ended but the story goes on. Kovacs has become a dedicated investigator of early modern and modern Armenian history. He organized an exhibition about the Armenians in historical Hungary (“Far Away from Mount Ararat — Armenian Culture in the Carpathian Basin”) in Budapest in 2013, and this year he mounted a joint exhibition about the Armenian Genocide (“Tragedy of the Armenians in World War I”) in the Hungarian National Library. In May 2015 h? organized a conference on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide at Pazmany Peter University, bringing scholars from a half dozen different countries (among them myself, Dickran Kouymjian, Yair Auron, Harutyun Marutyan, Elke Hartmann Vahe Tachjian, Yusuf Dogan Çetinkaya, Artem Ohandjanian, as well as Hungarian scholars). He made possible the publication and translation into Hungarian of my book on the Armenian Genocide (“They Can Live in the Desert But Nowhere Else:” A History of the Armenian Genocide [Princeton University Press, 2015]), and put together a special issue of the popular illustrated history magazine Rubicon on the Genocide.

Thanks to the work of Balint Kovacs and his colleagues at Pazmany Peter Catholic University, the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was commemorated in Hungary, and Hungarians can read about the tragic events that brought a new generation of Armenians to Hungary. Two Armenian communities uneasily coexist in Budapest today: the descendants of the Transylvanian Armenians, Catholic but without knowledge of the Armenian language; and the more recent immigrants, who know the language. As in so many other diaspora communities the two sides refuse to cooperate, accuse the other of not being authentic Armenians, and compete for the support of the state. One of the few unifying forces, able to communicate and work with both sides, is the young scholar Balint Kovacs.

(Ronald Grigor Suny is director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan, and Emeritus Professor of political science and history at the University of Chicago. He was the first holder of the Alex Manoogian Chair in Modern Armenian History at the University of Michigan, after beginning his career as an assistant professor at Oberlin College.)


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