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Petőfi’s Widow Rehabilitated
Petőfi’s Widow Rehabilitated

Szendrey Júlia, by Kligl Sándor, recently erected in the Hungarian embassy at Copenhagen

Ne higyj nekem, ha mosolygok,
Álarcz ez csak arcomon,
Mit felöltök, ha a valót
Eltakarni akarom.

Ne higyj nekem, ha dallásra
Látod nyílni ajkamat,
Gondolatot föd e dal, mit
Kimondanom nem szabad.

Ne higyj nekem, hogyha hallasz
Fölkacagni engemet,
Megsiratnál, hogyha látnád
Egy ily percben lelkemet. 

(Don’t believe me, if I’m smiling,
That’s only a mask on my face,
Which I put on when I wish
To hide reality.
Don’t believe me, if you see me
Open my lips in song,
That song covers a thought which
I may not pronounce.

Don’t believe me if you hear me
Laugh out loud,
You would cry for me if you saw
My soul at such a moment.)

This poem was written by Szendrey Júlia, widow of Petőfi Sándor who, after his disappearance at the Battle of Segesvár became the victim of the vilest character assassination. 

She was 18 years old when she met Petőfi Sándor in 1846, whom she married a year later despite her parents’ objections.  Her father, an estate manager for the Festetics family, later for the Károlyi families, had given her an excellent education.  She spoke several languages, played the piano outstandingly well, painted, and was a good dancer, all of which would have assured her success in society. Nevertheless, she shunned people, preferring to play the piano or read Heinrich Heine’s poetry and novels by George Sand.  Life on the estates bored her. 

In the letter to her father, dictated on her deathbed in 1868, she wrote: ”My father said I would be unhappy with Sándor.  No woman has ever been granted such happiness as what I felt when my Sándor and I were together.  I was his queen, he adored me, and I adored him.  We were the happiest couple in the world and would still be if fate had not intervened.” 

Júlia was not only Petőfi Sándor’s wife, but also his soul mate.  She was the one, history books recall, who made and pinned the first red-white-and-green cockade on his lapel that momentous day in March 1848.  By the time she became pregnant with their son Zoltán, Petőfi was serving as Captain in the Freedom Fight.  Towards the end of the war, in July 1849, he took his family to Transylvania, hoping to find safety and peace there.  

Since the Hungarian side was winning, Austria requested Russian help, and 200,000 Russian troops were sent to help put down the Hungarian fight for freedom.  They were advancing from the northeastern Carpathians, and through the southern Transylvania passes. The Petőfis were staying at Torda in Transylvania when news came that the Polish General Joseph Bem, who had become one the major Hungarian military leaders, was advancing with his troops into Transylvania to stop the Russian invasion. Petőfi was torn between his responsibility as husband and father, and the country’s call to fight for the freedom he had so zealously advocated.  Although Júlia tried to persuade him to stay, he retorted that the poet of the Revolution had to be on the battlefield to encourage his comrades. He rode off in haste to join Bem’s troops.  They engaged the combined Russian-Austrian troops near Segesvár on July 31st, 1849.

A few days later, a breathless messenger arrived at Torda:  ”Petőfi has fallen!  Flee!  Flee!  The kozaks are coming!”  Júlia could not believe the news, and as people were fleeing the city posthaste, she kept asking those arriving from the battlefield about her husband.  She did not want to leave, but friends forcibly put her on a carriage going to Kolozsvár. 

Convinced that Petőfi had not died, she cut her hair and put on man’s clothing to look for him on the battlefield.  Leaving her child with her parents, she first went to see the Austrian military commander, who felt sorry for her, and told her he himself had seen Sándor’s corpse which had been put in a mass grave by the roadside.  A master weaver also reported having seen Petőfi wounded but still alive, and although the Hungarian soldiers had begged the Austrians to allow them to take him away, they had thrown him into a mass grave.  At this news, Júlia fainted away.  The next day, with paper flowers on her arm, she went to the Segesvár battlefield herself, and wandered for days among the graves. 

Finally someone informed her father of Júlia’s deranged behavior, and he came to take her home.  Still not reconciled to the idea of his daughter having married ”that scribbler”, he claimed that Petőfi had gotten tired of married life and had staged his own death, then gone to Turkey with  Bem,  ”the crazy old Pole.” 

Júlia, grasping at straws, thought her father might be right, and decided to apply for a passport to go to Turkey. She had to apply directly to Haynau, the cruel Austrian commander, who denied her request, and cynically tried to recruit her to become a spy among freedom fighters who had fled  abroad, but without success.

In her diary, Júlia recorded how Haynau’s assistant, Count Liechtenstein, had then tried to force himself on her, offering to be her ”escort”, to ”protect” her from being totally at the mercy of the authorities. Infuriated, Júlia chased him away.

It was at this juncture that Júlia met Horvát Árpád, a quiet, elderly  university professor, who tried to offer some moral support to Júlia.  He proposed marriage to his protege, and Júlia thought she had gained a protector.  They married quickly, shortly before the first anniversary of Petőfi’s death,  to prevent Liechtenstein and the Austrian police from stopping them.

The gossip columns went to town, making sarcastic comments on Júlia’s  hasty wedding.  The Austrians, assuming that she was covering up for Petőfi who they supposed was still in hiding, had the secret police follow Júlia for years.  They even put her in jail once, for having pictures of Petőfi, Kossuth and Bem in her apartment, but she was freed through the intervention of her friends.

Vachott Sándorné Csapó Mária was the sister of Etelka, a young girl whom Petőfi had never met, but to whom he had written numerous love poems after her untimely death. Mária was jealous of Júlia, who in her mind had taken Etelka’s place in Petőfi’s affections.  Besides, Júlia was a better writer.  So in her ”Drawings from the Past”, she painted Júlia as depraved, having married Petőfi only out of a desire to be famous, and having chased him to join Bem’s forces where she followed him in order to garner admiration. 

But the most vicious libelous attacks on Júlia were launched by Dekániné Vadadi Berta.  Júlia and her son Zoltán had lived with ther parents in Kolozsvár in 1849, and Berta, who was 13 years at the time,  ”recalled” seeing Júlia’s ”orgies”.  (At age 13 ???)  She claimed Júlia had ”masculine tendencies and was striving for independence”, wore man’s clothing, and abandoned her feminity.

Literary figures followed suit.  In a three act play, Herczeg Ferenc, totally ignoring historic facts, had Júlia dancing and carousing all night with Russian officers who had ordered her ball gowns from Paris while Petőfi was lying dead on the battlefield.  Another literary figure who jumped on the mud-slinging bandwagon was Krudy Gyula.  Even Arany János wrote a poem censuring Júlia, although he did not publish it during his lifetime;  it came to light only after his death, when Arany’s son published his father’s collected works. 

All of these served to fix in the public mind an image of Júlia as the immoral, faithless widow of the great poet of the Hungarian Revolution. 

While Júlia thought she had found safety with Horvát Árpád, she soon found that he was a dirty old man when he showed her his pornographic pictures and books.  She was horrified and disgusted, and wanted to flee, but Horvát threatened to kill their children – a girl and two boys.  (He did not tolerate Petőfi’s son, who was raised by an uncle.) 

From childhood Júlia had kept a diary, in which she recorded all her happiness with Petőfi and her misery with Horvát.  By 1867, she was sick with cancer and ready to divorce him, and moved into a small apartment rented for her by her father. Before her death, she dictated a 22-page letter to her father, begging him to forgive her,  and wrote that she had thought to have found her rescuer when she married Horvát, only to realize that he was ”merely a sensual animal”. That explains the poem at the beginning of this article.

She asked to have her writings and her diary buried with her.  While her intimate friends kept up this fictive narrative, they actually hid the documents which came to light only in 1925.  Petőfi’s widow was finally vindicated.

Szendrey Júlia had written poems and short stories, and translated some of Andersen’s fairytales from German into Hungarian.  Commissioned by the Hungarian embassy in Copenhagen,  sculptor Kligl Sándor of Szeged created her statue dedicated in the embassy last December 7th. She holds in her hand some of her own poems, and on the open book in front of her are figures representing ”The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, ”The Red Shoes” and ”The Princess and the Pea”.

An exhibit dealing with the life and literary works of Szendrey Júlia may be seen at the Országos Széchenyi Könyvtár in Budapest until March 9th.

Sources: “Júlia, az elátkozott özvegy” by Németh Ványi Klári



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