Weeks before the Soviet government snuffed out religious life in Hungary, 21 Cistercians fled the Abbey of Zirc in a daring escape to the West. The trouble started after they crossed the stagnant Einser Canal.
Above: The murky water of the Einser Canal defines the Austrian-Hungarian border in this sparsely populated corner of eastern Europe. The photo was taken from the Bridge at Andau, 10-20 miles from the spot where the 21 Hungarians crossed in 1950. Note the remnants of a Soviet guard tower at left.
Across the plowed stretch of killing field on this cool, humid September night in 1950, they ran as fast as they knew how. Forest at their backs, barbed wire fences just ahead.
A sliver of a moon shone through the moist darkness and cast a soft light on the 21 sprinting Cistercians. Br. Moses Nagy sported his best suit and polished black shoes. Br. Daniel Csányi wore shorts and a red, open-necked shirt. A Boy Scout jacket flopped around the neck and shoulders of Br. Philip Szeitz.
Once across the 30-yard-wide clearing, they huddled at the fence, certain that snipers in the nearby guard towers were preparing to pick them off at any moment.
⚫ Part One
One by one, each Cistercian ducked and stepped through the barbed strands of the first fence, held open by one of three armed people smugglers. Each carefully placed his foot on the other side, as he was directed, to avoid triggering a land mine. Then Ernö, the stern, heavy set leader of the smugglers who had led them to this point, stretched open the strands of the second fence.
After stepping through, Br. Moses — the last of the Cistercians — inspected the fresh rips in his suit. He planned to wear it one day in the city of his dreams, Paris.
Ernö turned toward Br. Pascal Kis-Horváth, a fellow native of this part of Hungary with whom the smuggler appeared to share a degree of trust.
“After you cross the canal,” the smuggler told the 27-year-old monk and a few others nearby, “head for the lighted window over there. They are waiting for you.”
With that, their guide for the past six hours briskly made his way back through the fences.
Before dashing into the darkness, Ernö turned back.
“Well,” he said to the lost-looking seminarians hovering on the patch of earth between the fences and the Einser Canal, “what are you waiting for?”
Wading across the canal — some clothed, some (like Br. Moses) carrying their clothes above their heads — the Cistercians emerged on the far bank in Austria, coated in murky, stagnant water. It was around 4 am.
The narrow waterway defines the western border of Hungary in this sparsely populated portion of Austria known primarily for its vineyards. But the centuries had washed waves of ethnicities, cultures, and languages back and forth over this stretch of Europe and blurred all but the arbitrary political boundary. (Most of this part of Austria, known as Burgenland had, in fact, belonged to Hungary prior to World War I.)
The Cistercian refugees were aware that Burgenland and Niederosterreich (the largest Austrian state to the north, and home to Vienna) belonged to something called the “Soviet zone.” But none fully appreciated the implications of this post-war Allied arrangement in Austria (which would end in 1955).
As the Cistercians emptied the water from their shoes, dried off, and dressed, the long journey caught up with the 19 seminarians and two priests. Having traveled for nearly 20 hours straight, all agreed to snooze in the nearby haystacks until dawn. Their Austrian adventure from here to Vienna’s friendly Allied zones would have to wait until first light.
“It hit me after we crossed the canal,” remembered Fr. Benedict Monostori years later, “that I had just left my country, and that we may never in our lives be able to return.”
Thoughts of the momentous nature of their trip must have crossed the minds of the other Cistercians as well.
As Fr. Benedict drifted to sleep, however, unsettling and persistent fears began to annoy the 31-year-old monk. He felt the mantle of leadership for this group now fell to him, despite having played no role in the planning of the escape.
Even more troubling, he acknowledged later, “I had no idea where we were going.”
Up until now, few in the group were concerned with who among them had organized the impressive breach of the Soviet’s formidable border, which Winston Churchill had recently christened, “the Iron Curtain.”
The plan to escape the Soviet’s suffocating grip on religious life in Hungary — and the crowded and deteriorating conditions within the Abbey of Zirc (pronounced zeertz) — had hurried from concept to execution in a matter of seven days.
Despite the short notice, the plan to reach the Austrian border had been meticulously conceived and executed.
Word of a possible escape had been spread from one monk to the next. Only a select few had been authorized to initiate discussions of it. Those who made the decision to escape had pledged not to impart word of it to anyone, including their parents.
Abbot Wendelin Endrédy, leader of Hungary’s once powerful Abbey of Zirc, had entrusted the lives of his treasured brothers to Br. Pascal Kis-Horváth, a 27-year-old native of western Hungary who had joined the abbey three years earlier. The abbot and the brother were first cousins once removed (Br. Pascal’s mother was the abbot’s cousin) and both grew up products of working-class parents from the countryside near the border with Austria.
But they had taken divergent paths.
The abbot’s academic prowess had earned him a scholarship to a Benedictine gymnasium (grades 5-12) in Győr that propelled him to university studies, the priesthood, and a brilliant teaching career before being elected abbot.
Kis-Horvath lost his father as a young child and later contracted tuberculosis in his hip, leaving him with a severe limp for the remainder of his life. Unlike his academically blessed relative, Kis-Horvath possessed skills more suited to the farm than the classroom.
And, at age 25, he was finding those skills under-appreciated in his job as a porter in the Cistercian residence house in Budapest.
So when Kis-Horváth discerned a priestly vocation, the abbot eagerly worked to help make his dream come true (a task that included preparing him to pass Hungary’s difficult high school equivalency exam, despite a spotty high school education).
Now the abbot hoped Kis-Horváth’s skills with practical matters and people — as well as his knowledge of western Hungary — could save some of the abbey’s brothers from the oblivion of life under Soviet rule.
So the abbot sent Br. Pascal to his hometown of Petőháza (adjacent to the abbot’s hometown of Fertőszentmiklós) to scout out a reliable smuggler who might help the Cistercians navigate the dangerous border crossing into Austria, then travel to a seminary located in the American-occupied zone of Vienna, and eventually to Rome.
Br. Pascal carried the vast sum of money to pay the smuggler. It was, according to some, nearly all the cash left in the abbey.
When the scope of the escape plans grew suddenly, Br. Pascal adapted — absorbing, organizing, planning, and directing the larger-than-expected numbers.
Br. Pascal managed the entire process without assistance. For obvious reasons, the abbot and other officials of the monastery did not want to know the specifics.
Breaking the group into pairs, Br. Pascal planned their train and bus schedules, armed them with directions (which instructed them not to interact with other Cistercians they might encounter, including the abbey’s many priests, who were to remain ignorant of these plans).
They would take a variety of routes to their rendezvous point in Bősárkány, located 5-6 miles from the border.
Br. Pascal carried the money to pay the smuggler (an enormous sum equal to approximately four times the monthly minimum wage of a Hungarian worker, per Cistercian). It was, according to some, nearly all the cash left in the abbey.
The Cistercians owed their safe passage through the Iron Curtain as much to the planning and leadership of Br. Pascal as to the skills of the people smuggler, Ernő.
As light began to fill the September sky on Wednesday, September 6, 1950, the 21 Cistercians awoke one by one and began to congregate — the stench of the canal clinging.
It seemed natural when Fr. Benedict began to discuss the group’s next moves, smoothly assuming command despite the uncertainties he entertained.
Most of the seminarians were accustomed to the cadence of the 31-year-old. For the last several years, he had served as the prefect, or superior of the abbey’s 40 or so brothers (those who had completed their novitiate).
Even the seven youngest of the group — those who had spent just one year in the monastery — had come to know Fr. Benedict. (Due to the growing oppression, Rome had provided dispensation to allow them to profess their vows in June, rather than the customary August.)
It quickly became clear to Br. Pascal that Fr. Benedict had somehow misinterpreted Ernő’s words. He pondered his options.
Had the abbot sanctioned this transfer in leadership to take place at the border and simply failed to inform him? Could he dare question the authority of his superior?
He swallowed hard.
Instead of heading to Andau, the village to the north where a contact was waiting to direct them on their way to Vienna, the dirtied group began moving through the fields in a more southerly direction, toward Tadten, a smaller village where Soviet authorities had spent the previous few days patrolling.