Long-Term Effects of Trianon: Szelmenc, a Village Cut in Half
Erika Papp Faber
Szelmenc was first mentioned in Hungarian documents in 1332, but developed into a village only in the Middle Ages. Its inhabitants, even today, are overwhelmingly Hungarians: The Magyar population of Nagyszelmenc is 99.9%, while that of Kisszelmenc is 92.5% Hungarian.
Until the end of World War I, Szelmenc was a village in Hungary. Then after the Treaty of Trianon, 1920, it became part of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, together with Subcarpathia, it was returned to Hungary by the First Vienna Award which seemed to rectify some of the injustice inflicted by Trianon. But then, in 1945, the village was partially ceded to the Soviet Union, and foreign powers drew the border down the middle of the main street! Nagyszelmenc (comprising about two-thirds), was handed to Slovakia, and Kisszelmenc was given to Ukraine – a pure Hungarian village now part of TWO foreign countries!
-In 1946, a mini-Berlin wall consisting of an 18-foot high plank fence was erected. This “border” was patrolled by Russian, White Russian, Ukrainian, Czech or Slovak soldiers. People were not allowed to cross from one side of the town to the other. Nor were they allowed to call across the border to their relatives and friends on the other side – that was declared a criminal offense! Since the patrols did not understand Hungarian, the inhabitants developed a novel way of communication: they sang their family news while working in their gardens.
Just a couple of examples will highlight the hardship division of the village caused for the inhabitants. The day the border was drawn, a 9-year old girl had the flu, and was being looked after by her grandmother. Due to the division by this new “border”, she was never able to go back to her parents! Also, people were unable to bury their family members who lived on the other side of the fence, or even to visit their graves.
To go from one side of the “border” to the other, people would have to get visas. If people from Kisszelmenc wanted to visit their family in Nagyszelmenc, a distance of 60 feet, they would have to go to Ungvár, some 20 miles away, where they were made to wait a day, or a day and a half. Once they crossed the Slovak border, they returned to almost the exact place from where they had started, after having traveled some 40 miles.
Would they want to visit Kisszelmenc from Nagyszelmenc, the procedure was even lengthier. They would have to travel to Eperjes, to the Ukrainian consulate, a trip of 100 kilometers, or roughly 60 miles. They would hand in their visa applications and go home. Two weeks later, they would have to go back to pick up their visas in Eperjes. Only then would they be allowed to go to Felsőnémeti, the Slovak-Ukrainian border post 80 kilometers (50 miles) south. At the end of the trip they were back where they started from, except that now they were on the other side of the barbed wire.
Should anyone have wanted to contact relatives on the other side of the barbed wire by mail, the letter would go via Kiev and Moscow, through various instances of censorship, and would arrive at its destination – if it ever did! – months later.
Zelei Miklós, a poet and writer, searching for his ancestors, discovered the bizarre situation of Szelmenc and wrote about it it in a book entitled “A kettézárt falu” (The Village Shut in Two), in 2000. He had to follow the lengthy visa process in order to have a book signing in the two parts of the divided village. The publicity he gave to this undertaking drew the attention of many supporters outside the area.
To highlight the injustice of the divided village, a székelykapu – a traditional carved gate – was installed in 2003, one half on the Slovak side, the other half on the Ukrainian side of the border. A poem was inscribed on the half that is in Ukraine:
Egy Szelmencből lett a kettő, egyesítse a Teremtő!
Áldjon Isten békességgel, tartson egybe reménységgel!
Mi reményϋnk megmarad, összeforr mi szétszakadt.
Két Szelmencnek kapuszárnya, falvainkat egybezárja.
(One Szelmenc became two, may the Creator unite them.
May God bless us with peace, keep us together with hope.
Our hope remains, what has been torn apart will knit together.
The gate laves of the two Szelmenc will close our villages into one.)
In 2004, through the efforts of the American Hungarian Federation, a meeting was held on Capitol Hill in Washington,DC with members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, to which the Slovak and Ukrainian ambassadors were also invited. The film “Szelmenc, the Divided Village” clearly presented to them the absurd situation and provided ample publicity for it. Then in 2005, 70 years after the “border” was drawn, a pedestrian border crossing was finally agreed upon by Slovakia and Ukraine and opened on December 23rd.
Theoretically, the border crossing is open 12 hours a day; however, Kisszelmenc now lives by Kiev time, one hour ahead of Nagyszelmenc, which is on Central European time. This means that when the Ukrainain side of the border crossing opens at eight, the Slovak side is still closed because there it is only seven in the morning. Thus the 12 hours are shortened to 10.
But apart from all that - lest one think that “all’s well that ends well”: visa requirements still exist, and the costs involved can exceed an entire month’s wages! The barbed wire has been replaced by more subtle bureaucratic obstacles. Almost a hundred years later, Trianon still rules.
Where now is the UN Human Rights Council which is "responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe"?
Erika Papp Faber is Editor of Magyar News Online.