Joseph Bem – the Polish, Jewish, Muslim general and hero of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution

On March 15th Hungarians commemorate the Revolution and War of Independence against Habsburg rule in 1848-49. We remember the legendary military leader, General Joseph Bem.

Bem’s statue in Budapest

Bem was born in Poland in 1794 probably in a Catholic family. As a trained military engineer, an expert with guns, especially with gun powder, he was one of the leaders of the Polish insurrections against Russia during the period of 1812-1830. In 1848 he was in Vienna where he joined the uprising against the Habsburgs. Bem offered his services to Kossuth, and the small, gray, 54-year-old was appointed as General of the Székely (Sekler) troops in Transylvania.

He participated in the battles of Temesvár and Segesvár (1849) and often performed miracles with his army. At the end, he had to retreat with Kossuth to Turkey where he found refuge. He adopted the Muslim faith and the Sultan named him commander and later governor in Aleppo, Syria. After a short illness he died in Syria in 1850.

Bem’s original name was Józef Zachariasz Bem. In Hungary they called him Bem József or Bem Apó, in Turkey, Murad Pasha.

On May 29, 1929 the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported that Poland and Hungary plan to honor their forgotten hero of the 1848 independence struggle:

“The romantic story of a Polish Jew, who gained high honors in the struggle for independence of Poland and Hungary in the 19th century, was recalled here, when representatives of Poland and Hungary began preparations to honor his memory.

The remains of General Joseph Bem, who fought for the independence of Poland and Hungary, and later became a Marshal in the Turkish army, when he adopted the Moslem faith, are to be exhumed from his grave in Aleppo, where he was buried, and transferred with honors for reburial at Tarnow, Poland, where a mausoleum is to be erected at the expense of the government. His remains will be transported via Turkey and Hungary.”

There is no conclusive proof that Bem had Jewish ancestry. Plenty of rumors circulated, mainly in Poland, that he was Jewish. Only a Jew would to convert to Islam, not a God-fearing Polish Catholic!

New York Times article about the “Jewish” Bem.

His remains were brought back to Poland and laid to rest in a mausoleum in Strzelecki Park in his birth city, Tarnów. The Catholic clergy insisted that the Muslim (or Jewish?) Bem cannot be buried in Polish soil. A sarcophagus was designed on six columns and the General’s remains float above a little lake in the air.

Bem’s resting place in Tarnow, Poland.

In 1934 Bem’s iconic statue was inaugurated by Admiral Horthy in Budapest. (Watch original newsreel here)

György Lázár

3 Comments

  1. The missing part of the story is that the hero’s great grandfather on his mother’s side was African-American who fought against the invading catholic French colonists in Louisiana and later married the daughter of a Native American chief. One of the young couple’s grandson who became a successful business magnate left America in his later years and moved to Liberia in the mid 19th century whilst the other who identified as intersex woman and was a first-wave feminist spent some time in Poland after the American War of Independence as assistant to the US ambassador and gave birth to the later general. The correspondence between the two siblings had survived in the library of Timbuktu until quite recently when the library caught fire in a fight between insurgents and invading neocolonialist troops.

  2. Pingback: Joseph Bem – the Polish, Jewish, Muslim general and hero of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution - Hungarian Free Press | Budapest Informer

  3. Sandor Kerekes says:

    Wishful thinking. He was not Jewish, not by a long shot! Probably he was an atheist in the business of killing and it didn’t matter to him which religion was he not practicing at any time. Nevertheless, he was a terrific guy, a really romantic figure despite of himself.

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