rezső becht sopron and its people
edited excerpt from the presentation held on 17 March 1942, at the House of Hungarian Culture, Budapest
It is not the multitude of houses that turn a place into a town; it is not the streets, squares, and number of floors in the buildings. It is the unique quality of its elements, the harmony and concord between these elements; it is its chiselled spirit and intellect that will illuminate everything with the light of culture; its buildings, its residents and their union.
Not every place can be regarded as a town that was granted such a privilege at some royal’s mercy, or by its residents’ ambitions. There are some enormous throngs of houses full of fervent dwellers that might only deserve to be called cities a 100 years on, and there are more modest communities, with soft and quiet heart-beating that have been towns, in the genuine sense of the word, for long centuries.
Sopron, this humble and quiet little town is a genuine one. It is one of the few towns that correspond with the semantics of the word. It is perhaps our most westernmost town, not only from a geographical point of view but also from a European aspect, both in terms of her physical and spiritual character. Her closest relative is Bratislava, a former twin city.
Towns are built by their people. They turn them into more complex organisms. They evolve from a single hut — the first cell of a body —, and it is the residents that fill the stone walls with life. And when the walls are penetrated with the feelings of the people, generation after generation, their joy, their despair, their desires and their suffering, the screams of birth and the shrieks of dying, and when the town becomes a being and develops a character, then the roles are swapped without anyone noticing. Now it is the town that shapes its natives in its own image and makes its people take after it. Every local has the town’s mark imprinted on them, it is a giant birthmark, which denotes its offspring, and it does so for life.
People from Kecskemét are different from those living in Cluj, but even someone from the Buda side differs from those living on the Pest side of the capital. It is so even if they share the same mother and belong to the same big family. This family has several diverse homes. And depending on whether you live in the embrace of mountains, among gently rolling hills, or on plains surrounded by only the broad horizon, you and your soul will be shaped, coloured and shaded differently.
The people of Sopron are just as different as any other fellow citizen living in the same country. What are they like? They are like their own town.
Sopron is situated on the periphery of the country and this fact, located near the border, is true not only in the geographical sense of the word but also in terms of language, landscape and intellect. Except when walking towards the east, every other direction will take local residents to a place inhabited by foreigners in the matter of a few hours. Transition, however, is not only signified by the milestones on the border, the landscape also changes as we leave the country as if by magic: horizontal becomes vertical, the affluent tranquillity of the Rábaköz region transforms into rugged Alpine rocks, two of whose easternmost snow-covered summits, the Rax and the Schneeberg, glitter in the distance.
They remind the locals of Sopron how to look beyond their immediate vicinity, to be receptive to the magic lure of distance, and to keep broadening one’s intellectual confines.
Sopron’s closer vicinity that embraces the town itself and provides a framework of the landscape against the backdrop of the Alps is a gently curving basin flanked by three hills: the Sopron Hills, the Bécsidomb and the Kurucdomb, the latter reminding us of a citadel. The inner town of Sopron is located in this picturesque basin and looks like a strudel with several layers rolled up, with gardens, parks and neat residential buildings, and the town climbs up the surrounding hills where parks evolve into vineyards and orchards, houses into huts and shacks. Finally the groves, chestnut trees, oak and pine trees take over, and conquer the landscape.
The landscape of Sopron and its vicinity, the lyrical scenery woven from all those gardens, forests, flowery meadows is the second teacher locals learn from. We learn from this natural environment, how we should appreciate silent joy, prolific observation, fertile tranquillity, spiritual cleanliness; the power of rejuvenating walks, patience and piety, and the art of understanding the rules of nature and the equilibrium of love. The greenness of trees cross-stitch the town, the emerald light even sneaks into the cracks of the old town wall tucked away in the backyards. Human blood and vegetable sap circulate in the old stones in sweet harmony. The people of Sopron will never learn what it feels like to be an outcast of nature, because you can see the woody mountains from every street, you can feel a cooling breeze ruffling the polluted air around the houses and making way for the fragrant breath of gardens and woods.
This is what labels Sopron as the healthiest town of Hungary and this is what makes children’s lungs tougher and the elderly’s vigour fresher than anywhere else.
But what can we say about the homes and the schools of Sopron?
They seem to have a dual character. This character is rather old and demands respect; it has eyes with grey eyebrows that have seen quite a lot in the past, while the other face looks ahead into the future, with a youthful and enthusiastic expression. It is like an exclusive coin with two sides. Its head reminds us of the eagles of Roman legions, Mithras the goddess of sun, mediaeval Hungarian warriors, Gothic embellishments and Baroque angels, while its tail shows us houses with modern facades, spacious parks, contemporary factories, a long line of school buildings, several thousands of students, and throngs of foreigners with Leica and Rolleiflex in their hands. This is a coin whose two sides have been linked inseparably and are laid out on the green velvet of Sopron’s landscape.
Sopron has evolved into a town from a fortification. In its coat-of-arms there are three bastions guarding the town gate behind which the citizens have all been feeling safe: those working for the local industry, commerce or science. The houses with lanky walls have been crammed into this narrow frame and were confined by walls, like a flock into the pen, and among them there were the towers protruding to the sky like the shepherds of trust and faith wearing tiny copper caps. The meandering streets have occasionally been interrupted by slender squares endowed with ungenerously measured proportions and, below the batteries; over the water-filled moats a few residential houses speckled the space until you reached the town’s outer walls.
The downtown area of Sopron pretty much looks like this even today. Some great fires have gobbled up the majority of the mediaeval buildings, but the Baroque and the Empire have made up for the loss and added noble palaces with colonnades, archways decorated with banners and coat-of arms, and also filled the gaps with elegant homes with ornamental gates and frescoes on the ceilings. We even have the inner town wall here and there covered only buy a row of residential and commercial buildings, two or three stories high, a few metres wide, and clinging to the walls.
Today’s town centre looks like the area between Matthias Church and the Vienna Gate in the Castle District of Buda. If there was a cautious giant who could gingerly bend Úri Sreet, Fortuna Street or the Mihály Táncsics Street without denting the delicate little palaces, then a Sopron citizen now living in Buda could almost feel at home. Of course, he would still miss the watchtower, this heroic steeple with a stocky but still ethereal frame that lived through the age of Hungary’s first ruling dynasty and survived the Renaissance, the Baroque and supplemented with the Gate of Loyalty it is still as the town’s symbol. Likewise, a new resident of Buda would also miss the delicately carved Gothic Goat church and the Holy Trinity Statue of Sopron’s Main Square with its twisted column, stone angels, and carved clouds.
Sadly, the old town hall was pulled down because our otherwise so cautious predecessor had unwisely condemned it to demolition in their preparation for the Millennium. Since then, the town has been taking great care of her listed buildings, with the only exception of the old Empire theatre building which fell victim to the locals’ “Tulip Movement” in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the ancient buildings flanking Kolostor Street, Templom Street and St György Street, and also Orsolya Square have been spared from the fate of destruction. With a pinch of imagination anyone can picture or great-great-great grandparents strolling down these streets in their virtuous attires. We can imagine the one-time residents making their journeys in carriages or in delicate sedan-chairs, ascending the stairs of the Zichy-Meskó Palace or the Bezerédi Mansion and walking through the splendid wrought-iron gates. In their homes decorated with chiselled archways, they are awaited by antique pieces of furniture.
In these streets, every courtyard is a must-see. In one you can find a Roman tombstone, in the next one a Baroque statue. In the Fabricius House you will find an arcaded colonnade accompanying the stairs along the way up to the second floor right up to the roof garden; in the backyard of Eggenberg House you can still see the stone pulpit in the centre of the pillared corridor from where local Lutherans were preaching their new tenets during the years of the Counter-Reformation in the presence of foreign protestant diplomats on a fleeting visit from Vienna to Sopron. There are a large number of incredibly beautiful buildings such as the Kmetty House, the Sax House or Storno House with its famous private collection, which also provided accommodation to King Matthias. These houses, all stirring and captivating our imagination and revealing a slice of mediaeval history, pass the visitor from one to another as relatives would welcome a family member.
Citizens of Sopron, as natives in general, may not see the beauty of their town and her immediate environment, but — unconsciously — they live under its spell. Their eyes get accustomed to the noble proportions, to judging extents, and they develop a skill and a taste to tell false from real, worthy from worthless. The Baroque arched doorways develop one’s personality, just as noble architecture tames one’s soul and forms one’s character.
The natives of Sopron may end up in the capital; they may become ministers, diplomats, university professors, priests, judges, or should they find whatever occupation, they will retain this modesty and decorum characteristic of those originating from Sopron. Although unintentionally, but they are well aware of their past, they know the right measure of things, they have a certain sense of responsibility that help them arrange the country’s matters, do justice, educate young people and carry on with their everyday job. They will always be working with the scenic backdrop of their town and the glittering mountains of the Alps.
In this panorama, we shall focus our attention to a small community living in the area over the Ikva Brook, a district called the Viennese Quarter and its affluent residents referred to as ‘poncichters’ — or Bohnenzüchters, – people that used to earn their living from growing china-white beans — Bohnen.
Over the Ikva Bridge where a 13th century remnant, the tiny Holy Spirit church-granny squats with its stubby steeple, there are meandering streets and alleys with odd names hurrying up the hills. It is a peculiar world, inside out. Its language is also weird. There are some apartment blocks here and there clumsily mixed with semi-detached houses, adorned with carved columns; you can hear Hungarian mixed with German but pronounced with a flat, English-like accent. There are serpentine courses with short stairways, unevenly erected houses occupying different levels as if they were mocking the laws of perspective. They entice painters, lay photographers, but also wine drinkers, for on the front of these houses, embellished by stone-Madonnas and mortar-Piets, the wind flutters thin red flags on the wreaths made of pine branches – that advertise the traditional wine taverns, the Buschenschanks. Here you can taste local red wine produced in a certain order determined by the locals since time immemorial, and you can drink it in the family’s convivial living room, or by the field-sides sitting on ploughs or harrows, or by the wobbly tables in the courtyard of the taverns. Red wine will make your face redder, your heart warmer, your political fervour wither but you will be more inclined to join in the songs sung either in Hungarian or in German and you’ll be singing to the beat produced by the hammer of the famous smith, Mr Iker, from Fövényverem.
Up there, atop the hill, the gothic tranquillity of St Michael church has been guarding the scene for over six centuries, like an ancient sentry, watching over the wine-loving residents of the lively buildings and the dead buried in the old cemetery behind the church.
This well-to-do district links the town with nature that provides its dwellers with bread. Via their harvest carriages, ox-drawn carts and milk-ladies riding their bikes the locals of Sopron are in close friendship with potato lands and vineyards. For this reason, they buy the vegetables, peas and tomatoes at the weekend fair held in the Várkerület (Central Boulevard) as if they were close friends or casual acquaintances whose development they could follow on the sun-lit fields stretching as far as Lake Fertő.
Sitting on a bench on Bécsidomb (Viennese Hill) one can have a full view of the town and can picture its history.
Opposite, high above the Carmelite monastery, you can see a blue woody summit (Várhely). In prehistoric times there lived peoples, behind the giant mounds, as attested to by the famous Burgstall finds. To the left, on the area between the Fáber rét, a picturesque meadow, and the Károlymagaslat (a lookout tower) the first figural vase was unearthed along with several clay idols. In those times today’s downtown area must have been a boggy land because the Celts did not build their settlement, Scarbant, there, but on the slopes of Bécsidomb. The Roman legions, however, had their giant sculptures, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, erected in the place of today’s town hall, on the Forum of the town. Here, at the foot of the hill, ran the military road to Vindobona, today’s Vienna, which was a favourite destination not only for the officers of the Roman army, but also for the captains of the Austro-Hungarian Army that were stationed in Sopron. Back in the Roman times, carts laden with amber kept arriving through the St Michael Gate, which turned into either decent or indecent figures under the knives of Scarbantia’s artists.
A cloud passes over the sun, and it casts a shadow on the town. The sun disappears just as Scarbantia did during the decades of the Great Migration. The Celtic-Roman town was assimilated into the Avar Empire. Dark ages they were. An odour of decay pervaded the air over the derelict castle “Oede Burg”. But history once again resurrected and the hooves of horses ridden all the way from Asia lent a new pulse to the town. The tribes of Vérbulcsú and Lél conquered the western areas, and the land of Hungary was born, whose westernmost stronghold became Sopron, granted with new royal privileges by King St Ladislaus in 1277 in exchange for the town’s unswerving loyalty displayed in the Bohemian war.
644 years later, in 1921, history tested the community once again in the referendum after WWI where the citizens of Sopron once again proved their fidelity by reaffirming their dedication to their thousand-year-old homeland and since then their motto has been ‘Civitas fidelissima’ (Latin for ‘the most loyal citizenry’.
Between these two significant dates what characterized the town was tedious work — rather than a series of historic battles. Great historical events, however, did not come in Sopron’s way. There were no wars raging here, neither the Mongols nor the Turks got as far as here but it did suffer terribly from plague, great fires and other “less military” devastations. It spiritual balance was disturbed considerably during the times of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, but it all got settled and Sopron continued its ongoing development both in an economical and a cultural sense. By the end of the 1800s, the reign of Maria Theresa — who spent some time here as the guest of Count Esterházy — Sopron had become a major centre of crops, wine and cattle trade, and achieved a growing economic prosperity.
The general well-being triggered by this wealth did not go to the citizens’ head; it only boosted their thirst for knowledge and culture. They kept quenching this thirst with passionate enthusiasm, extraordinary generosity and steadily improving taste. They started collecting works of art, fine furniture, exquisite jewellery, and they organised concerts at home. Armed and equipped with such knowledge and experience, they immensely enjoyed the playing of great musicians in the ceremonial hall of the Casino, and the lovely opera performances at the theatre. They loved delicate carriages, horses, travelling to far-away lands but when they were at home, they would sit on their veranda on dewy mornings and enjoy the silence of their gardens.
This modest civilian affluence, the heyday of millionaire wholesalers and rich industrialists were over by the turn of the 19th and 20th century although the economic downturn had started much earlier. The Paris Treaties already condemned the town to death but extreme peril unexpectedly turned the conservative citizens into bold entrepreneurs. New industrial sites were built, new districts sprang up at astonishing speed, and the beauty of Sopron and its vicinity soon started to pay off. The town itself also ventured into new markets and set up new businesses, they had Hotel Lővér put up, which proved to be a powerful magnet for tourists, coming in increasing numbers.
Commerce, industry and tourism were the three main pillars of Sopron’s existence and the fourth pillar was that of culture and intellect.
Culture is an age-old pillar rooted in the local soil and soul. The museums and the famous archives illustrate neatly how few cracks there are in this structure. Some evidence for the above include a land register dating back to 1379, the first cobble stones from the 1500s, or the Trading Association set up in 1656 and up and running ever since. After all this, it is only natural that Sopron is among the first ones to introduce new inventions. Sopron’s citizens could travel to Wiener Neustadt by rail as early as 1846; they lit their streets by gas already in 1866, they have been drinking tap-water for five decades, they have been reading their local newspaper since 1850, they have had electricity since the late 1890s, and there was a streetcar rattling along its meandering streets already in 1900.
The surprisingly rapid spread of these new technological inventions in a quiet little town is difficult to explain, but it is probably not down to the vanity of the locals but rather to the deep respect felt towards any manifestation of human intellect. Financial and technological literacy, we could say, goes hand in hand with intangible culture.
Autochtonous families of Sopron had to make more effort to learn things than the residents of any other country towns. They had to learn to identify what was part of the national intellectual heritage, and also what people over the borders considered to be valuable. Besides the volumes of János Arany, the Sopron citizen’s bookself also had Goethe or Shakespeare; besides the poems of Ady, they also had Rilke and Verlaine. To speak one or two foreign languages or play at least one musical instument was a basic prerequisite. Sopron has always claimed that the children of small nations need to learn and know more than those of big nations. Sopron firmly believes that it has to bring up broad-minded Hungarians cherishing European values.
Science and arts have become inextricably bound up with the local soil, and in the 50 schools there are currently 10,000 pupils studying. One such remarkable institution, the Lutheran Lyceum has been educating pupils and cultivating traditions since 1557. Some of the great names that once studied there include Daniel Berzsenyi and also János Kis, the founder of the “Hungarian Society”. The next oldest school is the Catholic secondary school established in 1636 which helped Jenő Rákosi to become the greatest master of Hungarian journalism. From two of its current university faculties, the faculty of theology of Erzsébet University is a representative of traditional Lutheran theology, while the Faculty of Mining, Metallurgy and Forestry of the Hungarian Royal József Nádor University of Technology is the successor of its mother institution in Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica) that fled, after the country’s division after WWI, to Sopron.
Due to the scientific activities and publications of the professors of these two faculties, Sopron has become famous across the world, not less because of the diversity of the university’s students (e.g. Turks, Bulgarians or even Chinese). University students sporting miners’ uniform, foresters’ green hat or theologians’ Bocskai cap brought hustle and bustle but also a fresh momentum to the ancient town, which boosted both the local economy and the general atmosphere alike. They were Sopron’s best advocates, the friends who always returned here, and the ones who come to visit their wives’ families; wives who followed their husbands to different places of the country.
The town of schools is also a town of associations with a long history. In this town, people do not typically spend their time in cafés, for they prefer to spend time working for various associations. In this town, houses and squares are decorated with carved stone objects and sculptures; there are memorial plaques on lots of houses to boast the visits of famous guests such as Zrinyi, Petőfi, Berzsenyi, János Kis, Széchenyi, Gyóni, or Franz Liszt. In this town, the poet-goldsmith-soldier-mayor Kristóf Lackner founded a literary and scientific association as early as 1604, in this town there has been a theatre since 1769, a music association for 113 years, a literary society named after Frankenburg since 1877, a men’s choir since 1875 and a Town Decorating Association since 1869.
Tell me where you live and I will tell you who you are. What I have said about Sopron so far, also applies for its citizens. We are all tightrope-walkers in our life. Those who have learnt this important occupation in Sopron seem to be walking with more confidence on their thin tightrope.
Those who come here from the other side of the country say the town is too cold and windy and its people too stiff. They are not stiff though, only composed and considerate. This is why it takes a bit more time for them to open up, to make friends and only accepts outsiders when they have passed a few tests. But once they accepted them, they will do their utmost to help them integrate into this peculiar community, and to make them genuine Sopron citizens for they can only grow to like them that way. This assimilation process is, more often than not, successful. What is more, these strangers tend to become the most ardent locals, the greatest advocates of their town. Most often, these changes can occur during the course of a single year, when they have experienced each of the four seasons at least once.
During this transubstantiation, the hills in the Lővér region, the local’s holiday gardens, do play a major role. In early March, when the sun starts shining, several people move from the town centre up to the Lővér Hills. What is special about these gardens? The Lővér district is half way between a village orchard and a stylish upper-class garden but it is the backdrop of mountains that make it the image complete. The mountains do not need to be very high tough, it needs only to slope a little so that the gardens will need to climb uphill so that we can the blue line of Lake Fertő in the distance. Apart from the mandatory fruit trees, this garden must have a few chestnut trees too, a few tiny pink cyclamens under the pine trees. If we add a few bushes of currant, some shrubs, high grass with wildflowers, the humming of bees, and the singing of sweet birds, you have the perfect recipe for a place where pine-emerald green, sun-lit gold and fruit-fragrance prevail, a place that people regards as their own personal heaven.
The number of such gardens, referred to as ‘lővér’, run up to the hundreds around Sopron.
And behind these orchards there is a never-ending stretch of woodland with pines, oaks and birch trees; with moss-covered valleys and resin-scented summits, all dotted with winding pathways. Each of these routes will take us to silent places full of surprises and adventures, laden with the joy of discovery, where one would not meet a single soul for hours, only with roe deer and birds. The forest of Sopron belongs to us all. There are no areas here with the sign ‘keep out’ forbids entry, and there are cyclamens, lilies of the valley and vast meadows covered in purple heather. Anyone who was lucky enough to spend some time in these mountains, to go skiing on its slopes, to have a glass of the golden-red local wine, to have a meal under the oak-trees of the Hatvan youth hostel, or to walk along the paths of Brennbergbánya’s or the Hidgvíz Valley will understand that the people of Sopron — no matter how extensively they have travelled around the world — will always want to come back here, because for them this is the most enticing and most beautiful corner of the world