Bust of Kossuth Zsuzsanna in front of Szt. János Kórház (hospital)
March 15th marks the beginning of the Hungarian Freedom Fight of 1848. Kossuth Lajos, leader of the Hungarian Revolution, is well remembered. His inspirational speeches moved the Hungarians to fight for their rightful independence from Austrian rule. The world remembers Kossuth Lajos for his valiant efforts. However, this time period has another hero — a heroine to be exact — another Kossuth who deserves recognition for her accomplishments during the war. She is Kossuth Zsuzsanna, Lajos’ youngest sister. She was born in 1817 in Sátoraljaujhely.
She had helped her brother prior to the war during the Reform Movement. At that time, Hungary did not have autonomy but was subservient to Austria which ruled the country. The Hungarian people suffered great hardships and were impoverished. In 1836, in an effort to keep the people informed of the Diet (parliamentary) debates and voice his views, Lajos and a group of young men worked feverishly, writing a series of papers revealing such ideas. During this time, Zsuzsanna assisted by reading and copying letters which were done by hand. On one occasion, when the authorities were coming to arrest Kossuth, Zsuzsanna hid the important papers and managed to have them printed for the public.
During the war for independence in 1848, however, a woman’s place most certainly was not on the battlefield. Yet, Zsuzsanna wanted to help her brother and the war effort. She decided this could be achieved by serving as a nurse in field hospitals and encouraged other women wishing to help to do the same.
At the time, women did not serve in such a capacity; this idea was certainly a novelty and was met with cynicism. However, in 1849, Kossuth thought Zsuzsanna would be very effective in organizing the nursing corps and assigned her the task of chief nurse of all military hospitals in Hungary. Thus she was charged with unifying the complete military medical practice.
Met with skepticism, she did not gain the recruits she hoped when appealing to women to volunteer as field nurses. She encouraged them to tear up sheets and make them ready to be used as bandages. Zsuzsanna made an urgent plea, encouraging women to volunteer for there was a tremendous need, and it was their obligation to aid Hungary during this brutal struggle. Hospital administrators certainly viewed her positions with cynicism and were unwilling to follow her suggestions. After all, what could a mere woman do? Thus, Kossuth Lajos intervened and ordered administrators to follow her directives.
Their skepticism softened once they realized Zsuzsanna was not looking to inspect and criticize all that was wrong. She listened, understood what was needed, and what course of action to implement. She was eager to help and provided actions which reaped positive results.
Having lost her husband in 1849, she genuinely appreciated that every soldier, regardless of his nationality, was someone’s precious loved one. Mothers, wives, children — all yearned to see their loved ones who went off to war. Showing compassion, Zsuzsanna ordered that all wounded soldiers in their charge be given equal care whether they were Hungarian or not. In addition, she sought to provide separate rooms for those who were Austrian from those who were Hungarian. On the other hand, the Austrians did not provide their prisoners with such humanity. No, many were imprisoned instead of receiving medical attention.
When hospital rooms were in short supply, she looked for other solutions. On one such occasion, in Eger, she managed to enlist the aid of a monastery to provide room for the wounded. There were many times when food was scarce. When possible she sought food from the peasant women (the men were off fighting the war) by asking them to share their crops with the hospitals.
For a time Hungary managed to hold on to her territory and fight off Austria’s advances. However, this all changed when Austria recruited the Russians to aid them in their efforts and Hungary was defeated. Kossuth Lajos had managed to escape, making plans to go to England. However, Zsuzsanna was captured and imprisoned as a traitor for her efforts, but was set free. Nevertheless, she did not flee Hungary. Instead, she secretly worked for Kossuth’s return, of which he was unaware. In England and America he gave speeches and was well received wherever he went.
As it turned out, they never saw each other after the war. After the Freedom Fight, though Hungary was defeated, Zsuzsanna worked with other nationalistic Hungarians trying to gain reforms for Hungary. However, this ended with her arrest in 1851. With America’s intervention, she was released with the stipulation that she was to leave Hungary and never set foot on her soil again, which she never did. Eventually, she made her way to America and resided in New York. She died in 1854 at the young age of 37. Her two daughters were entrusted to be raised by a dear American friend. Kossuth Lajos lived to be 91, and returned to Hungary from Turin only in a coffin.
Judit Vasmatics Paolini is a former member of the Southern Connecticut State University Alumni Association Board of Directors, former lecturer at Tunxis Community College, and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.