A missed anniversary

Memories of the Avarffy trial1

Of course, one hundred and fifty is a dignified and awe-inspiring anniversary and we celebrated it more ways than one. Next to that a mere one hundred years may seem like some object of insignificance, but not this one. And yet, we have skipped by it, forgetting and not mentioning it, although it was much worthy of mention.

The story of the following chain of events began on the 6th of January 1921, when a parliamentary back bencher, one Elek Avarffy, published an article in the National Newspaper (Nemzeti újság), entitled ”A few words about the Galicianers and a bit of statistics.” The word ”Galicianer” referred to those Jews who had flooded into Hungary since the 1880s under anti-Semitic pressure in Russia from the province of Galicia. Which province, by the way, at this time was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and therefore, those refugee Jews were really citizens and not ”migrants”. In fact, up until the early 1920s, most of them were transitory, eventually setting out for America; only a minority remained in Hungary.2 But in the anti-Semitic political climate of Hungary after World War One, even those few were far too many.

In his article, Avarffy claimed that the Jews were a harmful presence in our midst, and in any case statistics had proved the fact that the Jews were not dying on the battlefields of the War in numbers that would have been proportional to their numbers in society.3 In other words, they were malingerers, draft dodgers and were shirking their duty.

Owner and editor in chief of the Jewish weekly Equality (Egyenlőség), one Mr. Lajos Szabolcsi, having read this vile article in outrage, decided that he must sue at once.

Lajos Szabolcsi was an interesting and in many respects inspired figure of the early twentieth century in Hungary. His father, Max, was deceased in 1915, and the care and responsibility of the paper fell on Lajos, the twenty-six year old poet and philosopher son. He was, however, extraordinarily dedicated, gave up all his other interests and spent his remaining life in the service of the paper and his Neolog 4 Jewish community. He needed no more than a week at which time his paper, Egyenlőség, was loudly declaring that Avarffy was lying. He also stated that if the counting method described in the article were applied, barely five hundred Jewish soldiers would have lost their lives, whereas, he claimed, the number of fallen Jewish war heroes was at least ten thousand.

Avarffy replied in four days, stating that if the Egyenlőség’s statements were true, then one hundred thousand Jewish soldiers must have served and one thousand having fallen then, proportionately only half as many Jews had died as ”Magyar” soldiers. He repeated that Avarffy was a liar and invited him to sue.  He, Avarffy, took the bait, and sued for slander and defamation of character. That is how the notable court case, whose anniversary we are marking today, came into being.

Szabolcsi’s position was certainly not without risk, because two irreconcilable numbers had to be compared and proven. But he was collecting the personal data of fallen Jewish solders over the previous eight years, painstakingly requesting them from the Jewish communities  all over the country, then organizing and cataloguing them. By the time he wrote the number ten thousand on a piece of paper, the proof, i.e., the documents, were already in his possession.

Jewish soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire participating in religious service in 1916.

Jewish soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian empire participating in religious service in 1916.(Szombat weekly)

The lawyer conducting Szabolcsi’s defence, Dr. Géza Dombováry, started his work with great dispatch, sending requests to every Jewish community in the country seeking documentation of the dead Jewish soldiers. The Egyenlőség also insisted on detailing the case in articles, keeping the interest alive. On the 5th of December, 1921, by the time the Defense walked into the courtroom, they carried the death certificates of the fallen  Jewish soldiers in two enormous  suitcases. All those thousands of documents were, however, unused really, because the court requested an expert opinion from the State Statistical Office instead.

The president of the Statistical Office, one Dr. Alois Kovács, was a well-known and proud anti-Semite. Until the time of this court case, the real numbers of the Jewish participation in the war effort were kept under wraps. (The Statistical Office claimed that they had been stolen during the short-lived communist rebellion and so, ”unfortunately”, they were no longer available.)5 Only at the insistence of the court were the real numbers finally ferretted out, supporting Szabolcsi’s claims. The court of the first instance proclaimed its judgment on the 22nd of November 1922. In it, the real statistics became publicly known, fully refuting the claims of the anti-Semitic propaganda bandied about everywhere, that the Jews had betrayed the country in the war: they were upatriotic, they were untrustworthy, they had stabbed the army in the back, and they were hiding away from the draft; in fact, shirking their military duty. All that was nothing but a lie. Thus, Lajos Szabolcsi was exonerated  by the court.

The case was appealed to the Royal Tribunal, which dismissed the complaint of the plaintiff, (meaning, Avarffy’s claim was nothing but nonsense), and relieved Lajos Szabolcsi from any liability.

Of course, the plaintiff, not to be stifled, requested the annulment of the lower court’s decision, but in vain. The Royal Curia (in those days this was the name of the Supreme Court) rejected his request for the annulment on the 20th of June 1923. This court case lasted twenty-nine months. And when it concluded it seemed to have effected the easing of anti-Semitic hysteria in the country. This trial was the most important one since the Tiszaeszlar blood libel case6 (1882-83) and had the similar effect of quelling anti-Semitic sentiments, at least for the time being. Lajos Szabolcsi got his ’satisfaction’ – for life, confirmed in the respect of his brethren and of the journalistic community at large and had the great luck of dying amidst respect and dignity in 1943, due to kidney failure.

  1. The story and its description is mostly based on the autobiographical book of Lajos Szabolcsi, Két emberöltő, Budapest : MTA Judaisztikai Kutcsop., 1993 pg. 316 onward.
    URL: https://mek.oszk.hu/17200/17253
  2. American agents were recruiting those Jews for the trip to America, but by 1920 the demand for immigrants dried up in the USA, so, those Jews who missed the cut off date were left behind in Hungary. ↩︎
  3. The Jews living in the ”truncated” Hungary were representing six percent of the population. On that basis was it expected of them to ”supply” six percent of the War casualties. ↩︎
  4. Similar to Conservative Judaism in America. ↩︎
  5. The post World War One short lived communist uprising lasted from 21. March 1919 to 1. August 1919. ↩︎
  6. The lofty assertions in this last paragraph are borrowed from the lawyer, Dr. Ernő Ballagi, who was member of the legal teem of defense and conducted the appeals. ibid. pg. 326. ↩︎


  1. This reminds me of the stories I heard from my mother about her father, my grandfather I never met because he was murdered in Auschwitz. But he never stopped telling his stories about his time in Isonzo.

  2. Thank you for this interesting and fascinating article. I was not aware of the book which this article is partially based on. I also have a photograph of a relative who served in World War 1, which only underscores refutation of the nonsense of past and present antisemites. My family origins in Hungary date back to the 18th century and -yes- some came from Galicia ,once part of Austro-Hungarian empire. I am as proud of those ancient relatives as I am of my current family. The family tavern from 18th century is still standing.

    1. Dear Misi Bácsi, thank you for your comment. Particularly because it provides an opportunity to examen the 18th and 19th century Jewish immigration. This subject is a great source of confusion. I dare to say that if your Jewish ancestors arrived to Hungary in the 18th century, then more likely than not they came from the Czeh province of Moravia. The substantial immigration from Galizia started only in the 1880s. But because this province was an object of tug-of-war between Russia, Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire, it is also possible that they actually came from present day Ukraine.

      1. Thank you Sándor. I can assure you that some of my mothers family came from Galizia in late 18th/early 19th centuries. The village that they cam from is still standing. I was there in 1988. My father -though- came from Ukraine (I have been to the place he grew up).

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