People come to this country from around the world for business and pleasure, but some also made history here with achievements of bravery and ingenuity that saved or improved innumerable Magyar lives. We visit monuments across Budapest that honor the legacies left behind by some of the most admirable non-natives who spent time in Hungary helping its people, reverently remembering their momentous contributions – which were sometimes accomplished at the cost of their own lives.
Like many foreigners who end up living here for years, Gerard was only passing through Hungary when he first arrived – but he went on to play a major role in early Hungarian history. Born in Venice around A.D. 980, Gerard studied at a Benedictine monastery before embarking on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but when traveling through Hungary he met King Stephen (the nation’s founding monarch, who established Hungary as a Christian country), who hired Gerard to educate his only son, Prince Emeric; later Gerard became one of Hungary’s first bishops, converting many Magyars to Christianity. However, a pagan uprising swept across Hungary after King Stephen’s death in 1038, and Gerard became a martyr for the Christian cause in 1046 after being pushed down the steep Budapest hill now bearing his name, where a statue and colonnade honor his holy work.
Saint John of Capistrano (János Kapisztrán)
During the 1450s, the Ottoman Empire began an invasion of Christian Europe, dismaying Pope Callixtus III; to launch a crusade against the Turkish encroachment toward Hungary, the pope sent one of his most powerful orators – John of Capistrano, born in present-day Italy and aged almost 70 by this time – to recruit Magyars for an army to defend the continent. Along with Hungarian military leader János Hunyadi, John inspired huge numbers of Magyar peasants to join the fight before marching with them to the battlefront in Belgrade, fervently preaching to the troops to boost their morale all throughout the momentous clash. Against great odds, the Hungarian-led defenders triumphed over the Turks, but shortly afterwards John died of bubonic plague; today his statue stands before Hungary’s Museum of Military History in Budapest’s Castle District.
Born in Poland in 1794, lifelong adventurer Józef Bem attended military school in Kraków before joining Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, serving valiantly in the defense of Danzig. After Russia took control over much of Poland, Bem joined the November Uprising to lead a battalion against the Tsarist army; again he performed with valor, but was eventually vanquished and fled to Paris – but when the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out, Bem came here to volunteer his military expertise to Magyar leader Lajos Kossuth, who assigned him to defend Transylvania. Although Bem and his Magyar troops skillfully repelled the Habsburg forces, the revolution collapsed in 1849 and he was forced back into exile; this time Bem took refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where he converted to Islam. Today Bem’s statue stands proudly on the Buda riverfront.
When Hungarian statesman István Széchenyi launched a massive effort to improve the nation’s infrastructure in the 1830s, he engaged young Scottish engineer Adam Clark to oversee installation of water-regulating equipment in the Danube; Széchenyi was so impressed by Clark’s work that he then hired him to lead the erection of Budapest’s Chain Bridge in 1839, and in 1847 Clark was appointed as an adviser to Hungary’s National Transport Commission. Just as the Chain Bridge was nearly complete, it was almost destroyed two times during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, but on both occasions Clark managed to convince the military commanders to spare the new span. After the war, Clark led the construction of the tunnel under Buda Castle by the Chain Bridge, and today the square that connects these two monumental structures is named in his honor.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria
After a carefree childhood as a member of Bavarian nobility, Elisabeth was wedded to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1854 at age 16, joining the much more formal Habsburg royal family – an environment that made her miserable for the rest of her life. However, Elisabeth’s marriage meant that she would also become Queen of Hungary (her influence was instrumental to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867), and like many foreigners she found the relaxed atmosphere of this country much to her liking, frequently visiting Budapest and staying at her palace in nearby Gödöllő, and even learning the Hungarian language – all met with appreciation and adoration by her Magyar subjects, who lovingly called her “Sissi”. Nowadays Sissi is remembered in Budapest with a square and bridge dedicated to her, and her statue stands by the foot of Gellért Hill.
Major General Harry Hill Bandholtz
Following many years of distinguished military service in the Spanish-American War, and then in the Philippines, and then in France during World War I, American army commander Harry Hill Bandholtz was sent here in 1919 to oversee the disarming of the Hungarian military and the withdrawal of Serbian and Romanian troops who were occupying Hungary during the Great War’s aftermath. Arriving in Budapest to find Romanian soldiers rampantly looting citywide, Bandholtz prevented them from ransacking the Hungarian National Museum by cordoning off its doors with the only official emblems he had at his disposal – censorship seals that bore the US coat of arms. The Romanians recognized the American insignia and left the museum’s treasures untouched, and so today Bandholtz is memorialized with a dignified statue in near the US Embassy.
In a long career as a talented diplomat, Swiss envoy Carl Lutz lived and worked in the United States and Palestine before his appointment as Swiss vice-consul in Budapest as World War II raged in 1942. Shortly after arriving here, Lutz began issuing Swiss safe-conduct documents so that some 10,000 Hungarian-Jewish children could escape the Holocaust, and following the Nazi takeover of Hungary in 1944, Lutz negotiated a deal with the Germans so that he could issue protective letters to 8,000 Magyar Jews to emigrate to Palestine – but he actually issued tens of thousands of these passes, while setting up Swiss-legation safe houses where thousands of Jewish residents took refuge; at one point Lutz even swam into the Danube to rescue a Jewish woman shot by a firing squad. Today a memorial honors Lutz on Dob Street in Budapest’s .
Unlikely circumstances led to Italian native Giorgio Perlasca becoming a hero in Hungary during WWII. Born in 1910, Perlasca supported fascism in his youth and fought in the Spanish Civil War for Franco – earning him safe conduct in Spanish embassies – but later he grew disillusioned with fascism and anti-Semitic policies. Working in Eastern Europe in 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allies, Perlasca used his status at Budapest’s Spanish Embassy to gain political asylum, granting him freedom within Hungary. He used this tenuous liberty to smuggle Jews out of the country or find refuge for them in protected houses, and later he falsely claimed to be an official Spanish envoy to rescue thousands more Jewish Hungarians during the height of deportation operations. Today his bust stands in front of Budapest’s Italian Institute of Culture.
Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg worked in Budapest during the early years of WWII, and in 1944 he was selected to lead a mission to help Hungary’s Jews through neutral Sweden’s diplomatic corps. Under this mandate, he issued thousands of “protective passports” to Jews while renting over 30 buildings in the Swedish government’s name, using them to provide shelter to some 10,000 Jewish Hungarians. Wallenberg repeatedly confronted Nazi officers to secure the freedom of Jews across Budapest and Hungary, but as the Red Army advanced across Hungary, the Russians suspected that Wallenberg was engaging in espionage, and he was called to the Soviet field base to address this charge; Wallenberg never returned from this meeting. Among several monuments to his brave acts, a relief statue is mounted on the street named after him in District XIII.