In 1949 when Sister Margit Slachta arrived to the United States and asked for temporary refuge, she had no idea that she would never return to Hungary. She died in Buffalo, New York, in 1974 and the local paper headline read, “Sister Margaret Slachta Dies; Champion of Rights.” Indeed, she was an uncompromising fighter of human rights.
George Csicsery arrived to the US with his family in 1951. He is a Californian filmmaker who made Angel of Mercy, a documentary about Sr. Slachta’s life. To be honest, Sister Slachta’s story was unknown to me before I saw his film.
Sr. Slachta was born in 1884, attended Catholic schools and became a nun, teacher, and in 1920 the first woman member of the Hungarian Parliament. She was an early feminist, a socially sensitive politician, and the founder of the order, Sisters of Social Services in 1923.
Sr. Slachta believed that laws given by God transcended laws made by man. She wrote, “I stand without compromise, on the foundation of Christian values; that is, I profess that love obliges us to accept natural laws for our fellow-men without exception, which God gave and which cannot be taken away.”
Her activism was inspired by the desire to serve God, and her values were close to what we call today the Catholic Left.
When the first anti-Jewish laws were passed in 1938, Sr. Slachta vigorously opposed them in her newspaper, Voice of the Spirit. During World War II, Sr. Slachta supported the poor and the displaced; she smuggled food to the ghettos and helped men in the labor battalions. She pleaded with the Catholic Church and the wife of Admiral Horthy for assistance and ended up saving nearly a thousand Jewish children in her orphanage. One of Sr. Slachta’s colleagues, Sister Sára Salkaházi was brutally murdered by the Arrow Cross, and Sr. Slachta herself narrowly avoided execution. Yad Vashem recognized Sister Slachta as Righteous Among the Nations, and in 2006, Sister Salkaházi received her beatification ceremony at Budapest’s St. Stephen Basilica.
After World War II, Sr. Slachta restarted her political career as a member of Hungary’s Free Parliament, but following the Communist takeover in 1949, she had to leave the country. Even in the U.S., she lobbied relentlessly for Hungarian causes as a contributor to Radio Free Europe.
While Mr. Csicsery’s films often play on California TV channels, he is lesser known in Hungary, and I was pleasantly surprised that his work was introduced in Canada. Last November a rough cut of Angel of Mercy was screened at the St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in Toronto; the event was co-sponsored by the Embassy of Hungary in Canada and the Consulate General of Hungary in Toronto. Hungary’s ambassador to Canada, Bálint Ódor, and Consul General Stefánia Szabó were there, along with Csicsery and two representatives of the Sisters of Social Service from Calgary.
George has a fascinating life story on his own and his work deserves more exposure and acknowledgement within the Hungarian-American community. His films often tackle complex subjects, I especially liked the way he handled the history of the Hungarian Scout movement (Troop 214). He has also made a series about mathematicians, among them the wandering genius Pál Erdős (N is a Number), and educator Pál Halmos (I Want to Be a Mathematician). I loved the unforgettable Transylvania sceneries of his visually stunning film about Hungarian folk song collector Zoltán Kallós (Songs Along A Stony Road).
For full disclosure, I must mention that I have personally known George Csicsery for decades and I have seen most of his films. Kudos for sharing Angel of Mercy with a Canadian audience in Toronto.
You may read more about George Csicsery’s films by clicking here.