Margaret M Botos M.A.
On March 15, we commemorate the anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian Freedom Fight and the life and work of Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the Hungarian Revolution. He was a powerful orator who inspired the young Hungarians to rise up against their Austrian oppressors. Born in 1802, to László and Sarolta Kossuth, he was the eldest of five children. His youngest sister Zsuzsanna is not generally recognized for the part she played during the Revolution.
Zsuzsanna was born in 1817, in Sátorújhely, the youngest of the five Kossuth children. Lajos was the eldest, followed by four girls, Karolina, Emilia, Lujza and Zsuzsanna. He was studying law in Sárospatak when Zsuzsanna was born. As a little girl, she idolized her big brother and studied diligently to be like him. He set up a law practice in his hometown and became well respected and popular and was always interested in the affairs of the country. He worked long hours in his office and was hardly ever at home. In 1832, Lajos was elected to represent his county at the National Assembly in Pozsony. His family was very proud of him and his mother had great hopes for him. She predicted that he would be the liberator of Hungary. In Pozsony, he established a newspaper, the Országgyűlési Tudósítások, to inform the Hungarian people about the ongoing discussions in the National Assembly. Back in Újhely, his father was getting old and in failing health and Lajos was the sole provider for his family. He decided to set up as a lawyer in Pest and move his family to the city to be able to take care of them. Zsuzsanna was now fourteen years old.
Kossuth and several other young men became involved in trying to reform the laws of the country and, in 1836, he changed the newspaper’s name to Törvényhatósági Tudósítások, which gave information about the laws and the Reform movement. We all know that, at that time, Hungary was under the rule of Austria. Hungary had no independent government, all her policies were dictated by Austria. The Reform Movement tried to change this. This group of young men met at Kossuth’s apartment and his sister, Zsuzsanna, helped them by reading letters which came to them, underlining important parts, copying text and editing the newspaper. She realized the importance of the work they were doing and she worked long hours to help her brother. Due to their impoverished conditions, the girls were unable to attend the parties and balls which many young ladies attended in order to meet young men, but in spite of this, the two older girls were able to find husbands and were soon married. Lujza took care of the household and her parents, while Zsuzsanna worked untiringly, helping Lajos.
Kossuth was a very charismatic figure and a convincing speaker. He was already very popular and his newspaper had a large readership. Because of the nationalistic tone of the paper, the police came in May, 1837, to arrest Lajos and imprison him. They searched the apartment and took most of his papers. Luckily Zsuzsanna had the foresight to hide the upcoming edition of the newspaper, before she answered the door, and it was published with the announcement of the arrest and imprisonment of Lajos Kossuth.
Zsuzsanna and Lujza were left to take care of their parents and two young ladies who were staying with them. Baron Miklós Wesselényi took up a collection to help them. They were not allowed to see Lajos although his mother was able to send him books in prison. In 1838, Lujza got married and Zsuzsanna became responsible for her parents and the two ladies. She moved them to Alsódobos and with the help of a few friends they managed to survive. One of them was Terez Meszlényi, who was almost 30 years old and who had planned to „catch” Lajos as her husband. Terez’ brother Rudolf Meszlényi, was a good friend of Kossuth’s and visited often. He became very interested in Zsuzsanna.
Kossuth’s trial did not take place until March of 1839, when he was condemned to four years in prison. His ailing father died a few months later. Zsuzsanna was reduced to pleading with her friends to help her take care of the family. In 1840, from living in a cold, damp house, she developed a cough and sickness, which plagued her all the rest of her life. Fortunately, in May of that year, Kossuth was freed. He returned to Pest, but he was ill and decided to recover at his sister’s home in Újhely. He took Zsuzsanna with him. On the way, they saw nothing but poverty and destitution among the peasants. Kossuth resolved to reestablish the constitution of Hungary and make life better for the peasants.
Lajos was now 38 years old and he decided it was time for him to settle down and start a family. He proposed to Terez Meszlényi, who had waited for years for this happy moment. He returned to Pest and was greeted by crowds of young people. The wedding took place in January, 1841. Kossuth was very happy when his sister, Zsuzsanna married Rudolf Meszlényi in May, 1841. Zsuzsanna and Rudolf moved to Sárbogárd and Rudolf traveled to Pest very often. Terez, unfortunately, was very possessive of her husband and remained very cold and distant toward his family. She constantly put obstacles in their way when they wanted to visit and when they succeeded they were very uncomfortable.
Kossuth opposed the heavy taxation that Austria placed on Hungary and he took his plans for reform of taxation to Széchényi, who rebuffed them. He became the editor of another newspaper, the Pesti Hirlap, in 1841 but in 1844, he was forced to resign because he was too nationalistic. Rudolf Meszlényi informed Zsuzsanna of all the political activities in Pest. She was always interested in what her brother was doing. In 1844, Kossuth established a Protection Movement (Védegylet) to protect Hungary’s economy. He urged people to buy only Hungarian products, sponsored events where the people would wear Hungarian dress and fostered the nationalistic feelings. Zsuzsanna was very supportive of this movement and when they established branches in all the counties, Zsuzsanna was elected to represent Fejer county. She could not take part in the deliberations because she was a woman, but she went to all their meetings and sat on the side, listening and taking notes. By now she had two little girls, one was very delicate and Zsuzsanna hated to leave her with her mother and travel to Pest to the meetings, but she felt it was her duty. Lajos and Terez had two little boys who were very healthy.
There was obviously a need for a Reform Party (Ellenzéki Kör) to liberate the peasants and make taxation more fair. In March 1847, Kossuth was elected to represent Pest County. Meszlényi traveled from Sárbogárd to Pest to support him. Later that year, in December, there was another important vote to be taken. Meszlényi again traveled to Pest to support Kossuth although he was not well. Zsuzanna was expecting their third child but she urged him to go because every vote counted. He developed pneumonia en route and after a few days, he died. Kossuth was ill in bed in Pozsony when he got the news of his friend’s death in January, 1848.
Zsuzsanna was devastated. It had happened so quickly. Their third child, a son was born in February. Zsuzsanna called him Rudolf after his father. She closed herself off in Sárbogárd, grieving for her husband. Kossuth continued his work in Pest.
In February, Revolution broke out in Paris. On March 3, Kossuth made a very moving speech before Parliament, calling for an independent ministry for Hungary. He appealed to the Emperor but was rejected. On March 13, Revolution broke out in Vienna. Kossuth took the opportunity to appeal again. This time the Emperor acceded to his demands. On March 15, the students of Pest, led by Petőfi, held a bloodless demonstration in which they summarized the demands of the people in 12 points. Count Lajos Battyányi became the premier of Hungary’s independent government, in which Kossuth became the Minister of Finance.
This „peaceful” revolution brought about general taxation, which wiped out the privileges of the nobility and liberated the peasants. Hungary was no longer a feudal state. The Emperor was still King of Hungary but without the countersignature of the Hungarian Government, no decrees of the King were valid. Freedom of the Press was declared and the long-desired reincorporation of Transylvania finally took place.
In April, 1848, Zsuzsanna, her mother and her three children moved back to Pest. Lajos was too busy in the government to give them his full attention and he had his own family to take care of. Zsuzsanna again had to depend on the goodness of her friends to see her through some hard times.
Austria did not really accept the independence of Hungary. They worked to prevent it from being successful by encouraging the minorities in Hungary to revolt against the government. In May, the Serbs in Southern Hungary and the Rumanians in Transylvania started to revolt against Hungary. Kossuth could see a civil war in the future, with the unrest among the minorities being fanned by the encouragement of the Austrians. In a famous address to Parliament in July, he urged the nation to provide a Home Defense army (Honvéd) because „the motherland was in danger”. This was accepted unanimously and he was elected Chairman of the Home Defense Committee. Kossuth traveled around the country recruiting troops.
He had no time to correspond with his family to let them know how he was or what he was doing. Zsuzsanna and her mother got news of Lajos from friends who worked with him or who knew Terez and her family. Terez held herself aloof and did not invite them to visit. They struggled daily to find enough food. Zsuzsanna was too proud to beg her brother, the Minister of Finance to help her. She depended instead on the help her friends could give her. She rented another apartment and cooked meals for twenty regular paying customers. This was the only way she could feed her own family. She even sent some money to Terez to help her out but got no acknowledgement.
In September, 1848, the Serbs broke across the Drava and advanced into Hungary. The Austrians did nothing to stop them but a force of Hungarian recruits was able to defeat them. In October another revolution broke out in Vienna led by students who sympathized with the Hungarians. The Austrian forces besieged Vienna. Kossuth urged the Hungarian Army to break through but they were defeated and the Austrians pushed them back to the border. Kossuth then entrusted the command of the Army to thirty-year-old Arthur Görgey.
Zsuzsanna felt helpless. She felt that she should be at her brother’s side helping him as she had at the beginning of his career when he started his first newspaper. But she had all she could do to take care of her family. She still had no direct contact with Lajos and continued to get news from friends and the newspapers.
The Austrians began their offensive against Hungary in December. Görgey’s army was retreating. Pest was threatened. It was decided that the Government was to relocate to Debrecen. The Kossuth and Meszlényi families decided that they too would have to leave Pest for Debrecen. At midnight on December 31, Zsuzsanna and her family met Lajos and his family at the railway station. Zsuzanna broke the journey at Abony where her sister, Lujza, lived. Lujza decided to accompany them to Debrecen and her three boys were a great help for Zsuzsanna on the journey. They traveled with many other people from Pest who were fleeing to safety in Debrecen. The 30,000 inhabitants of that city, all of a sudden had to help find homes for 10,000 more people. Zsuzsanna and Lujza and their children, along with the grandmother, arrived late and could not find a place to stay. However, when it was made known that these were members of the Kossuth family, the Protestant pastor offered his home to them.
After they had settled in, they received a visit from Terez, who invited Zsuzsanna and Lujza to tea in her apartment. She played the role of the generous hostess and invited the wives of all the prominent people in Debrecen to her tea parties. At these tea parties, these ladies embroidered Hungarian flags and believed that in so doing they were helping the war effort. Zsuzsanna told them that if they wanted to help the cause, they should become nurses, or tear up sheets for bandages. They were shocked and she was never invited again. Terez complained to Lajos about Zsuzsanna’s inappropriate remarks and he laughed and said that she was right.
Kossuth thought about Zsuzsanna’s remarks and decided that there was a great need for someone to organize a nursing corps, and Zsuzsanna would be the person he could depend on to do the job. He linked her up with a surgeon who would put her in touch with all the hospitals. The first thing she did was to place an advertisement in the newspaper for all the ladies of the city to prepare bandages for the injured soldiers. The ladies gave up their embroidery for bandages. Schoolgirls even made time to help in the effort.
In April, 1849, Kossuth named Zsuzsanna head nurse in all of Hungary. Görgey was skeptical. He did not think a woman could do the job. Zsuzsanna contacted all the hospitals and asked them to make an inventory of what they most needed. She visited them one by one to meet the hospital administrators and make her presence known. This meant that she had to travel all across the country and she hated leaving her children, Gizike (7), Ilka (6) and 18 month old Rudolf in her 79 year-old mother’s care. Since Lajos had asked her to do this job, she felt it was her duty to the country to do the best job she could. She placed an appeal in the newspapers, for all girls who could do so, to become nurses. In her travels to the military hospitals, she saw injured soldiers sharing beds, wounds wrapped in dirty rags, filthy conditions and a lack of medicine. Many hospitals would not allow women to be nurses because they did not think it proper for women to see half-naked men.
Zsuzsanna repeated her appeal to the women in May, but did not get a good response. She reported her lack of success to Kossuth and he appealed to all able-bodied women to rise to the challenge and fulfill their duty as Hungarian citizens. The politicians and hospital administrators also met her appointment as head nurse with skepticism. She was just a woman, what could a woman do? Kossuth issued an order to all hospital administrators to obey any orders his sister gave them. This met with some opposition. They thought she was coming to inspect their hospitals, to criticize and judge them, but once they met her and found her eager to help, they cooperated with her requests. Zsuzsanna was on her feet day and night, traveling from hospital to hospital. There were not enough hospitals, bandages, medicine or nurses. They were also short of food. She saw her husband in every soldier and urged her nurses to care for all the soldiers equally, Hungarians, Austrians, Serbs, Rumanians, it did not matter. Each one was somebody’s husband, father, or son. She was sensitive to the feelings of the soldiers, separating the Hungarians and the enemy, so that they did not share the same rooms. The Austrians did not treat their prisoners in such a humane manner. They took them to jail, not to hospital, they did not give them medical care and they starved them. The Hungarian army had suffered heavy losses from the Austrians but the Hungarian army was finally gaining ground and defeated the Austrians. The Austrians called upon the Russians to help put down the Revolution. There were heavy losses from that front too. Then came an outbreak of cholera. There was such a shortage of hospital beds for the sick and wounded that Zsuzsanna had to stretch to unusual measures to make sure the men could be taken care of. One time, in Eger, she went to a monastery and asked them to move their beds to make room for the injured. There was hardly enough food to feed all the injured. The peasant-women, who labored in the fields because their men had gone to fight the war, shared their harvest with the hospitals.
Things went from bad to worse. Zsuzsanna decided she had to move her mother, her two sisters and all the children to Arad. Görgey was in command of 25,000 soldiers and wanted to take over Kossuth’s job as governor of the country. He persuaded Kossuth to resign. Before signing his resignation, Kossuth decided to get a passport in the name of Udvardi Tamas and another in the name of James Bloomfield. He shaved his beard, trimmed his mustache and cut his hair short. He fled the country and told Terez he would have her and the children rejoin him in London. He said goodbye to his mother but Zsuzsanna was not at home when he left. She never saw him again.
With Kossuth on the run, his family was now in danger. Zsuzsanna came home to get them ready for the move. They found a carter who was willing to take them out of the city. There were four women and ten children, the eldest child only ten years old. Little Rudolf had pneumonia and a high fever and did not do well at all. They traveled by day and avoided the Russian soldiers by staying overnight with peasant families who were sympathetic to Kossuth. On the third day of their journey, eighteen-month-old Rudolf died and they buried him in a little village on a sunny August afternoon. After traveling for a week, they reached Nagyvárad, where they were stopped by Russian soldiers. The carter was able to get away, but the family was captured, and kept under guard in one room in a village house. It was cramped and uncomfortable. Sarolta could think only of Lajos, wondering if he had managed to escape capture. Zsuzsanna was mourning the death of her baby and made no effort to oppose the capture and imprisonment. A week later, they heard the news that Kossuth had escaped. Zsuzsanna came out of her lethargy and demanded better treatment. She told the Commander that the Russian soldiers had nothing to fear from women and children and that it was impossible for 4 adults and 9 children to survive in such cramped quarters. He moved them into an empty house in the village and provided them with food. A week later, the Russians withdrew and they fell into the hands of the Austrians who moved them back to Pest, where they were imprisoned in a damp cell and slept on straw on the floor. They were kept there for six months after which they were set free and returned to their old apartment in Pest. Luckily there were still some articles of furniture there and linens and china. They had no news of Kossuth.
They were not in their apartment for very long when Zsuzsanna and Lujza were arrested again and taken to prison, accused of treason. Their mother was again left to care for the children but she had their sister Emilia to help her. The two sisters spent several months in prison, suffering interrogations time after time. Zsuzsanna answered well and appealed for Lujza to be set free. Finally an Austrian officer came to their aid. He recognized Zsuzsanna as the nurse who had cared for him when he was a prisoner of the Hungarians. He was grateful to her for saving his life and he intervened and they were set free in the spring of 1850. They learned that their brother was in prison in Turkey. Friends advised them to flee but Zsuzsanna did not want to leave Hungary. She was sure that Kossuth would return. She started a private school for her own children and children of her friends but the Austrians would not let her continue to teach the children because they suspected she was teaching them to be nationalistic Hungarians. The Austrian minister, Haynau wanted to force her to leave Pest but she resisted.
While Zsuzsanna and her sister were in prison, Terez had managed to escape from Hungary under an assumed name, and travel to Turkey to see her husband, leaving her children with friends. An Austrian spy found them and took them to Pozsony where an Austrian officer took care of them. They would not allow Kossuth’s mother to have them but finally, with the intervention of Queen Victoria, the Austrians allowed Lujza to take them to Turkey to rejoin their father. Zsuzsanna worked in secret with many of Kossuth’s friends to try to have him returned to Hungary. She did not realize that at the same time, he was making plans to go to England where he was already very popular. Finally, as plans were under way for a coup in Hungary, Zsuzsanna sent a letter to Lajos with a couple of his friends who were able to travel to Turkey to see him in prison, but he received her letter only when he was on his way to England.
Kossuth received a glorious reception in England. He was treated like a hero and gave speeches in London and other cities. He had learned English by reading Shakespeare while he was in prison. Zsuzsanna continued to work with other nationalistic Hungarians to try to effect some reforms in Hungary but in December, 1850, she and Lujza were arrested again. Their mother again had to take care of 9 children. In prison, they were kept in an unheated cell with no windows and later taken to Austria. Zsuzsanna became ill, they didn’t think she would live until Spring, so they allowed her little girls to come and visit her. Her sister Emilia brought them to her and Zsuzsanna was able to pass her a letter, in which she encouraged her to look after the family and keep up hope.
At this same time Kossuth arrived in America and, as in England, he was greeted with enthusiasm. He was treated like a hero and taken from city to city to make speeches and try to get support for the Hungarian freedom fighters. In the course of 221 days, he delivered 600 speeches. Unfortunately, he did not get the support he wanted. In January, he learned of his sisters’ imprisonment and also of the death of his mother. He was so grief-stricken that he cancelled his engagements for a week. He later found out that there was false information in the news brief. His mother was still alive. Zsuzsanna wrote letters from prison to try to effect freedom for Lujza. Considering the popularity of Kossuth abroad, the Austrians did not want his sisters to die in prison, so in April, 1852, they decided to free them on condition that they leave Europe. The Austrians ordered them to leave but did not give them money for travel expenses. The Austrians made arrangements to sell the family’s furniture and belongings in order to pay for their journey but Zsuzsanna and Lujza were not allowed to return to Hungary. Their mother, sister Emilia, her husband and the children joined them and the family left for Belgium on their way to America, where Zsuzsanna hoped she would meet up with her brother and eventually return with him to Hungary.
As they were undertaking their long journey to America, Kossuth returned England in 1853 where he lived until 1861. Zsusanna and her family had arrived in Belgium and due to her mother’s failing health, Zsuzsanna did not want to leave. So she turned to the King and Queen of Belgium asking to be allowed to stay. In order to support the family, Zsuzsanna learned lace-making and soap-making and sold her wares to English tourists. She was also fighting her lifelong sickness, tuberculosis, spending many hours in bed and coughing up blood.
While living in Belgium, she learned English and French. She learned of her brother’s return to Hungary and wrote to him. She received a letter from Lajos blaming her for the failure of the conspiracy in Hungary. Terez demanded the return of the money Zsuzsanna had received from the sale of their carriage and the things she had left at home and even blamed her for not sending her a decent cook. Zsuzsanna was very hurt by this letter from Kossuth and his wife, after she had sacrificed her life for him but she felt even more hurt that the Hungarian emigrants accused Kossuth of using money collected for the Hungarian cause to help take care of his mother and his sisters. She had never asked him for money and he had never offered any.
In 1852, Zsuzsanna wrote to a friend in London that she and Lujza and their mother intended to stay in Belgium or find a place in England to stay, but Emilia and her husband and children planned to travel to America. Zsuzsanna revived the idea of protecting Hungarian culture and in a short time had a group of 30 girls doing Hungarian embroidery. She thought often of her brother and the way he had treated her after she had sacrificed so much for him but she never complained. Her mother was getting weaker and always hoped that Zsuzsanna and Lajos would reunite and forgive each other. She wrote a letter to Lajos, telling him how sick Zsuzsanna was and how hard she was working to keep the family going. She asked him to make amends and come to visit Zsuzsanna. She wanted to see them reunite before she died.
Zsuzsanna knew nothing about this letter. She petitioned that the Belgian authorities to allow Lajos to come to visit his ailing mother. Finally they gave their permission for him to come, but with the condition that he be followed by a policeman everywhere he went. His mother wrote him not to come under such humiliating circumstances. Shortly after Christmas, she died. Fearing that the emigrant Hungarians and maybe even the Belgians would hold a rebellious demonstration, the Austrian ambassador demanded that the funeral be held at night, in secret. Even so there was quite a crowd at the graveside.
The Belgian government would allow Zsuzsanna and Lujza and their children to stay only until spring and then they had to continue their journey to America. There, Zsuzsanna again opened a little store, made embroideries and sold them and she became a dressmaker. The two families lived together and Lujza helped her in the store. Zsuzsanna hoped that Hungary would eventually become free of Austria and that they could return. Her American friends were amazed at her energy and hard work but they could see that she was ill and warned her that she should slow down or she would die. She dreamed of expanding her business by bringing her Belgian girls to America to help her make Belgian lace. But before she could accomplish her dream, she became very ill and took to her bed. An American friend promised to bring up her two daughters. On June 29, 1854, Zsuzsanna died at the age of 37. Her brother lived to the age of 92 He never returned to Hungary while he was alive. His ashes were returned and are buried in Hungary.
Everyone remembers Florence Nightingale who nursed soldiers in the Crimean War and received a diamond brooch from Queen Victoria as appreciation for her noble deeds. Nobody remembers Zsuzsanna Kossuth who was born three years before Florence Nightingale and thanklessly cared for the wounded soldiers of both sides, during the Hungarian Revolution five years before the beginning of the Crimean War. There are buildings and streets named after the most famous nurse, and statues of her. There is even a Florence Nightingale medal awarded to outstanding nurses, even in Hungary but Zsuzanna Kossuth’s name is not remembered. There is no Zsuzsanna Kossuth medal although the woman who sacrificed her health taking care of the wounded, and sacrificed her life for her brother and her country really deserves one.
Zsuzsanna’s ashes are still buried in New York. She is almost forgotten in Hungary. Few people know her life story. Perhaps some day the Hungarian government will care enough to bring her ashes back to the homeland she fought so hard to protect.
Information from Kertész Erzsébet: Kossuth Zsuzsanna, Kossuth Könyvkiadó 1983, Budapest