Rönök, Hungary: The iron curtain

I’m easily distracted. Especially if I don’t have a deadline. Driving to Graz, Austria, we watched the slow metamorphosis of the villages as we moved closer to the Austrian border. Things began to feel a little more germanic. Houses took on a new look. Signs on the outskirts of villages and towns offered both their German and their Hungarian names. We were as likely to hear German spoken as Hungarian. If Hungary were white, and Austria red, Rönök would be pink. It was a perfect day for driving. Sunny. Warm. Still. Rönök (Radling) itself is quite unremarkable and home to about 500 people. A pretty village among many such pretty villages in this part of Hungary. As we drove through, I spotted a sign for a church pointing off to the right. I drove by and then, seconds later, pulled over, turned around, and went back. Curiosity had gotten the better of me. Once the sign registered, I had to see what was to be seen. Thankfully, himself was in no hurry to get to where we were going and was in full agreement.

We drove. And drove. And drove. It seemed like it was miles off the road, up a narrow lane. In reality it was a little over 2 km and took all of 4 minutes to drive. I felt that familar sense of anticipation, wondering what might be at the end of the road. Nothing prepared me for what we found.

Borders disconcert me.

Many moons ago, when I first crossed the bridge over the River Shannon walking from Killaloe into Ballina, I felt a childlike wonder at the novelty of it all. Decades later, I’d have the same feeling in Thailand as I put one foot over the border into Laos. But I can still feel that sense of trepidation that came with crossing into Northern Ireland from Ireland back in the day when the borders were manned. Seeing the bunkers in Bratislava and driving along that part of the Iron Curtain looking into Austria was a strange feeling, too. The Berlin Wall made a huge impression on me. The whole notion of an Iron Curtain dividing East and West fascinates me.

Churchill is credited with first using the term The Iron Curtain in the context of the USSR it was around for a few years before his famous Sinews of Peace speech on 5 March 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an “Iron Curtain” has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.
But it was doing the rounds since 1915. If you’re interested, check out its conceptual history

While I have a morbid curiosity about wars, what causes them, and how people live through them, World War II was far from my mind on this particular day. I went looking for a church and found a history lesson.

Like the village, the church also has two names. You’ll find it referred to as Szent Imre templom or St Emmerich kirche. The penny dropped. Imre must be the Hungarian equivalent of Emmerich. And while I really wanted the church to have been dedicated to Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, I suspect the Emmerich in question is the second son of King Stephen I of Hungary. History isn’t at all certain about him; I read that while he married, no one knows for sure who he married – there are at least four possibles.

St Emmerich/Imre church in Rönök - a collage of three photos. One shows the church partially hidden behind some trees, its spire soaring towards a clear blue sky. A second shows a detailed stone carving of an angel's head and wings on a church pillar. A third shows the seventh station of the cross - carved in wood, showing Jesus carrying the cross and above, a separate cross depicting the Roman numerals VII

Anne Catherine rose to fame in the wake of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. He included some of her visions in his telling of the story. If you’re remotely interested in Catholic mystics, she’s one to check out.

signpost pointing the way to Inzenhof 2,7 km. Burgenlandsicher Pilgerweg. With the symbol of a church - a round red dot in a white ellipsoid topped with a white cross all set into a blue ellipsoid.

The church has a fascinating back story. It sits right on the border between Hungary and Austria. But pre-1945, it was the parish church for Inzenhof, Tschanigraben and five Hungarian villages. Parishioners from Inzenhof and Tschanigraben attended a funeral in the church in 1949 even though Hungary had closed her borders a year earlier. It would be the last time for 40 years. From 1949, when Hungary laid mines along the border, it sat in a 2-km-wide no man’s land, with a barbed wire fence separating it from Austria. The Iron Curtain. The church, once a place of pilgrimage for Catholics from Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia, stood empty; the only ones allowed to darken her doors were the border guards. All the houses in this no man’s land were demolished. St Emmerich/Imre church in Rönök - a collage of three photos. One showing the dilapidated interior of a church with three arched windows behind what was the altar - a cross leans against the walls. The second shows the same windows renovated along with church pews and a long red and gold trimmed carpet that leads from the door to the altar. The third is a photo of explanatory text titled WHAT SEEMED IMPOSSIBLE BECAME A REALITY: Stefan László, bishop of the Eisenstadt diocese, was aware of the situation between the dioceses of the Eastern and Western bloc countries. The Holy Father, Pope Johannes Paul II encouraged László to function as a bridge between the two. The completely derelict church on the border was perfect for this project. Bishop László together with the manager of the diocese's building authority, engineer Michael Wagner, and the diocesan bishop of Szombathely Dr. István Konkoly, drew up plans for the renovation of the church. The border situation surrounding the church eased in the autumn of 1989 due to a change in the political situation in Hungary. Consequently, the renovation could begin. The sanctuary was remodeled by Burgenland carver Thomas Resetarits from Burgenland, and the stained glass windows were created to Erzsébet Szabó's design. The steeple cross was II. It was blessed by Pope Johannes Paul II during his visit to Hungary on the 19th August 1991. The Saint Emmerich's church was blessed by the Bishops László and Konkoly at a quadrilingual (German, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovenian) service on the 10th September 1992.

I could leave the village in Hungary at 6 a.m. and be in Zagreb, Croatia, in time for breakfast. I’d then make it to Trieste, Italy, for lunch, stopping off in Ljubljana, Slovenia for coffee, before going to Graz, Austria for dinner, and be back home, in bed, by midnight. I’d put 895 km on the odometer and spend about 10 hours driving. I like living close to the border, but I would find it difficult to live in a border town. Mind you, it’s one way of becoming bilingual.

As we walked around the grounds and up to the calvary that is technically in Austria, I pictured what it might have been like to sit on either side and look through the fence wondering how the others lived. I associate living on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain as being in a prison of sorts, deprived of western freedoms, and prevented from travelling outside. John Coviello’s review of The Girl Behind the Wall suggests my preconceptions may be a little off the mark. Then I recall my days in Alaska when some people, when visiting the Lower 48, referred to their trip as ‘going outside’. There were no travel restrictions. No curtailment of movement. It was more a state of mind.

Border crossing showing in the foreground a metal pole on which sits a metal plate showing the red, white and green (top to bottom) stripes of the Hungarian flat. Behind it, on the edge of a laneway, is the red, white, red of Austria on which is written the text Republic de Austriche. Underneat is a white traffic sign with icons showing what is forbidden access. Tall trees take up most of the background.

I wonder what life must be like in the border towns between the USA and Mexico. Can two quite different cultures co-exist?  The New Yorker published a video in 2019 that’s worth a watch if you’re interested. It poses the question:

Isn’t is so fascinating the simple act of drawing a line on a map can transform the way we see and experience the world?

Fascinating, indeed.

Other links you might find interesting

A lovely video of the church and its interior by Csaba Szily

Vintage photos of life behind the Iron Curtain

More details on the church


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