12/06/2024
Norwich, GB 14 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

COUNTESS MARGIT SZECHENYI, aged 96

HUNGARIAN HUNTING HOLIDAYS

Born Margit Hertelendy in Hertelendy Vidornyalax, Hungary in 1925, she was the only girl (three brothers) in an ancient Hungarian family who could trace their lineage back to the 14th Century. They lived in a large castle.

Being younger than her brothers, she was expected to join in their games and grew up as a tomboy. She made up a four in her brothers’ tennis tournaments and she became an accomplished player.

Nevertheless, in a rigid, hierarchical society, her family were regarded as noble but untitled. If you received a Habsburg title, as her ancestors had done, you were not considered part of the elite. Consequently, in high Hungarian society circles, the family suffered from snobbery.

In 1925, the effects of the First World War and the post-war settlement were still being felt in Hungary. The Treaty of Trianon (1920), split the Austro-Hungarian empire and the country was stripped of much of its land, halving the population.

However, life in Budapest was still very glamourous for Margit – despite her father dying whilst she was quite young.

When she was 10, the English writer and aristocrat, Patrick Leigh Fermor, passed through Budapest and commented on her family, saying, “They were groomed in what they thought was the English style.”

Margit failed all of her exams, but as a member of the aristocracy was entitled to go to university as a ‘guest student’. She studied the History of Art and French.

In the 1930s, Fascism swept through Hungary. Margit was converted and became an activist.

When Fascism was defeated in Eastern Europe in 1945, the USSR invaded Hungary and aristocrats were labelled as ‘class enemies’. Nevertheless, Margit was so ferocious in her character and behaviour, that the Soviet authorities dared not touch her.

Margit married agronomist Myklos Birck, but the marriage didn’t last long, and they quickly divorced, although she had a daughter.

Then Margit met the love of her life, Count Zsigmond Szechenyi of Sarvar Felsovidek. He was 30 years her senior. Their union brought together two of Hungary’s most aristocratic families – right at the point of Communism’s deepest, darkest repression of Eastern Europe.

Hunter (courtesy Sokszinu Videk)

The Count had previously been married to Stella Crozier, the daughter of a Yorkshire cotton merchant. His wedding had been presided over by the Bishop of Szekesfehervar in the Park Club, Budapest – Hungary’s finest hotel.

Stella and Zsigmond divorced in 1945.

When Margit married the Count, she insisted on being called ‘The Countess’ by everybody except her closest friends. They were allowed to call her ‘Margi’. The ceremony was very low-key – a contrast to his first wedding.

Under communism, the Count had been imprisoned, tortured and been given ‘internal exile’, forcing him to live in a chicken coop for a while. Many of his friends and family had suffered a similar fate.

Additionally, Margit’s brothers were all arrested and imprisoned. She was officially declared an “enemy of the people.”. She dismissed this as “nonsense.”

The Count had been a notorious big game hunter. He had gone on a hunt in Africa in 1927, with his close friend, the explorer Laszlo Almasy (the model for Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient), and had killed masses of animals – the heads of many lined the internal walls of his castle. The Count had claimed the slaughter was essential to maintain the survival of species. He styled himself ‘Hungary’s greatest hunter.’

However, when the Communists took over Hungary, they banned hunting, saying it was an aristocratic sport.

Margit pointed out that the brutal Stalinist dictator of Hungary, Matyas Rakosi was also a hunter. He dressed up in English tweeds and went bird hunting – once killing 8,000 pheasants in one day. She had photographic evidence of this hunt, that she threatened to release to the West. Rakosi gave in – and allowed the Count to continue hunting.

The Count had a massive library (4-5,000 books) and a museum in his castle. The Communists didn’t shut it, but refused to allow them any staff. The Count took charge of books, displays and artefacts; Margit was responsible for cleaning and boiler maintenance. They called it the ‘Galerie Fortuna’.

The Communists were so terrified of Margit that the couple lived a more privileged life than almost anybody else in Hungary. They were the only two private citizens given ‘free’ passports. The only proviso was that they could only go to neighbouring Austria. This they did – but from Vienna they then flew around the world. They were keen amateur photographers and chronicled all of their trips.

The couple were stunned when, in 1964, the Hungarian government formally approached them and asked them to go hunting in Kenya to replenish animal specimens for the National Museum, which had been destroyed in the 1956 uprising. The Count refused, saying he had given up his gun in 1960. The Communist government bought him a brand new, top of the range, hunting rifle.

He wrote a book about this trip, edited by Margit, entitled ‘The Holiday’. He had written many other books, often including photographs, about his hunting exploits.

Although The Count died in 1967,  Margit kept on travelling. She promptly sold the castle and bought two apartments in Buda – one for herself, the other, next door, for her daughter. She also bought a villa where she kept all of the Count’s hunting trophies. His books and photos went to the apartment with her – a vast library.

As the animal rights movement grew, Margit found herself under increasing pressure. Her villa was attacked with a bomb and 103 of the Count’s trophy heads were destroyed.

Margit continued to be a great advocate of hunting and supported the Hungarian based ‘One with Nature World Hunting’ organisation. It was they who announced her death during their annual exhibition. They said, “The society and culture of Hungarian hunting would have been much worse without her.”

Her husband’s library, photographs and other collections were donated to the nation.

When the Countess died, her life was described as a mixture of ‘Out of Africa’ and ‘Doctor Zhivago’.

RIP – Rifle Intimidates Proletariat

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