Emilia Damjanich and her biography recorded by her niece Lara
Emilia and János met in 1844 at a cousin’s home and soon fell in love. Her mother opposed the marriage because he was 16 years older, was known to live a carefree life wherever he was posted, and his escapades were famous. He assured his future mother-in-law that he was a changed man and that he would soon be promoted to be Commander of the Fort of Arad.
As a young boy, Damjanich was very independent. He left home at the age of 16 to join a troop of soldiers on their way to Italy. The commanding officer took the young boy under his wing, and following years at a military academy, Damjanich became an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army.
At the time of their courtship, Damjanich was posted to Italy, and Emilia’s mother also objected to having her join him there. Damjanich soon succeeded in being assigned to Temesvár in the Bánát region of Hungary and they were married in August 1847. His wedding present to her was a silver and green crystal traveling toiletry set from Vienna. (This set was given to my mother at her wedding and is now in the Damjanich Museum in Szolnok.)
Damjanich took his wife home to Temesvár by coach. There they began their happy life together. They enjoyed entertaining relatives and friends. General Julius von Haynau, his commanding officer, was a frequent guest.
Even though Damjanich was born of Serbian parents, he was an ardent Magyar. Before their marriage, he asked his wife that they should speak only Hungarian and Emilia gladly complied. (At that time, German was the language of society; Hungarian was spoken by the country folk.)
After eight months an incident ended this peaceful scene. In the spring of 1848, as the Hungarian uprising against Austria was on the rise, General Haynau, using abusive language, declared that the Hungarians were traitors to the Empire, that they were acting dishonorably. When Damjanich heard this, he declared that he was Hungarian and requested an official apology from his commanding officer. Instead of an apology, he received orders for immediate transfer to his previous post in Verona, Italy. Emilia was heartbroken since she was unable to accompany him. Damjanich assured his wife that this separation would not last and that he would return soon.
He returned shortly indeed, not by order of Haynau, but by orders of the Hungarian Secretary of War. Damjanich was promoted to the rank of Major and was to lead Hungarian forces against the Austrians. He would not allow his wife to join him close to the front but arranged for her to stay with friends near Szolnok. Among his many victories, the battle of Szolnok was a decisive victory for the Hungarian army and made him a legend among the troops.
An unfortunate accident prevented him from further active duty. As he attempted to rein in a pair of run-away horses, he was thrown off the wagon and broke his ankle in several places. He was taken to Buda to the best doctors, but recovery was slow and painful. Emilia joined him there. They rented an apartment and many friends visited them, including general Görgey, the leader of the Hungarian Revolutionary forces. Since his injuries were slow in healing, it was apparent that he would not be able to return to active duty soon. He was promoted to the rank of General and named Commander of the Fortress of Arad, headquarters of the Revolutionary forces.
Damjanich and his wife traveled by ship (a grain barge) down the Danube, Tisza and Maros Rivers to Arad. It was a long and painful journey and he suffered from the heat and infections. For a while it seemed that the Revolution could be won, but in 1849 Russia came to the aid of Austria to defeat the “rebels”. Kossuth Lajos, the leader of the Revolution, was ready to flee and Damjanich lent him his carriage and horses to enable him to do so. (Emilia noted that neither the coachman, nor the coach, nor the horses were ever returned.)
General Görgey advised that they should lay down their arms, and did so at Világos. Damjanich was enraged and thought that freedom could still be won. He was fiercely against surrender. Yet, in the end, to save his men and his beloved Arad, he did surrender, but not to the Austrians. He was transported to Gyula to lay down his arms to the Russians. However, the Russians handed him over to the Austrians. He, along with 12 other officers, was incarcerated at the Fort of Arad.
The prisoners’ wives usually had difficulty in getting permission even for a short visit. Then suddenly on October 5th, 1849, the wives received permission to visit. By then, however, the prisoners were already in cells for the condemned. They themselves had to tell their wives of the verdict. Issued by General Julius von Haynau, the verdict was death, by firing squad or by hanging, the following day, October 6th, 1849.
Damjanich consoled his wife, asked her to be strong. He asked her that later, when the pain had lessened, she should marry again. “I swear that I never will!” was her answer. She never did and outlived him by 60 years.
Emilia’s story falters at this point. She remembered little of the following days. She did not hear Damjanich’s last words: “Long live Hungary! My poor Emilia!”
The day after the execution, Emilia’s uncle, Csernovics Péter, bribed the executioner with several gold korona to have the bodies of Damjanich and that of György Lahner, another of the Hungarian Generals, smuggled from Arad to his castle at Mácsa during the night. They were buried there in a distant corner of the park, but no stone marked the place.
Emilia and her widowed mother were now homeless. They lost everything. Some good friends took them into their home where they stayed for the next year. After years of hardship and persecution, their life improved, they were able to secure an apartment in the nearby town of Makó and eventually moved to Budapest.
My grandmother, Lara Csernovics who became orphaned at age eight, lived with her aunt, Emilia Damjanich from 1872. When she grew older, she assisted her aunt in her various charity activities. After she married my grandfather, Imre Jeszenszky in 1895, she often visited her. My father, who was born in 1898, vividly remembered “Emmy Tante” and told us many of these stories.
*The unification of Buda and Pest occurred on November 17th, 1873.
Ilona Jeszenszky Etlényi has been a Stamford, CT resident for the past 60 years. After retiring from General Telephone and Electronics, she has been spending her time traveling and doing ancestry research.