The daughter of Julia Debreceni and Ben Daku, my mother was part of the last generation to be born in the Magyar (Hungarian) “colony” of Bekevar, centered on the Bekevar Reformed church, located 9 kilometers from the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan. Her children, and the children of her siblings and cousins, were mostly born away from Bekevar and none that I know of speak more than a few words of Hungarian.
I've only a few, vague memories of the farm where my mother was born; my grandparents had sold it and moved into Kipling when I was only six. I later visited my grandparents in Kipling during the holidays and I remember feeling as if I was somehow related to half the town but I only had the faintest clue how. My Mom tried to explain all the relationships but the family was too big for me to keep track of them all.
In the summer of 1982, my parents apparently needed a long break from my antics because they accidentally left me behind when visiting Kipling. Fortunately, my grandparents took me in and I spent the next few weeks with them, hoping my parents would remember where they left me. My days were filled with visits to the pool hall, drives with my grandpa, meanders through town with a cousin, errands to fetch the mail or shop for groceries, begging for money to buy more comic books, and raiding the pantry for more of my grandma's kifli.
My grandparents took me out to a plot of land outside town that they had a large vegetable garden. Being a squishy city boy, I was amazed at how impervious they were to the hot sun and swarms of mosquitos. I had no idea that this must have been leisurely to them after a hard life of working on the farm. On the other hand, I regarded their requests to pick weeds as the vilest of torture. Fortunately, by then I believe that they had long despaired of getting me to do any work.
Sadly, I was far too self-absorbed and had little interest in learning more about my grandparent's lives or their heritage, something I deeply regret today. I have found some redemption in listening to my mom’s stories but there is far more to learn and I need to start listening even more.
On a happier note, there are some amazing stories and research in books like “Peace and Strife” by Martin Kovacs (my picture is in that book, see if you can find me!) or in various university papers. Having no shame, I will plagiarize these sources mercilessly. Well, those and Wikipedia. I'm a very lazy "scholar", fully deserving the quotes I just put around that word..
Starting at the beginning, my first question was: why did my grandparent’s grandparents abandon their lives in Hungary and migrate to Canada? I suspect they were lured by the cheap land, as were many Europeans, but were there specific conditions in Hungary that also motivated them to leave?
Sándor (Alex) Daku, was my Grandma’s maternal uncle and adopted father, and my Mom’s much beloved grandfather or “Papa”. Kovac’s book recorded a quote from Alex explaining that it was more than the promise of land that motivated his parents to leave; it was a fear of war and a desire to protect their sons from the draft.
“Farmers used to call in (to my father’s bootmaker’s workshop) to discuss politics and other public affairs. It was there that I heard, for the first time, about the brilliance of Louis Kossuth, the rest of the heroes of the War of Independence, and its events. It was there that I was first told by the pious peasants that war was in the offing. In the first instance, because very many young men had been called up and secondly, because Louis Kossuth had returned from Italy in disguise, in order to visit every community and call upon the people to rise again and fight for freedom.”
The background to this tale begins before Alex Daku or his parents were even born. On a grey October day in 1849, in the town of Arad in the Kingdom of Hungary, thirteen bound men were led into a field by Austrian soldiers to where thirteen posts had been driven into the ground. The soldiers tied a prisoner against each post and dropped a loop of rope around their necks. A priest commended the souls of the men to God and then they were strangled to death.
On the same day, many miles away in the city of Pest, Lajos Batthyány, the first Prime Minister of Hungary, perished from a hail of bullets fired from an Austrian firing squad.
These Poles and Hungarians had led the effort to free Hungary from Imperial Austrian rule, inspired by a wave of rebellions from Paris to Vienna that demanded greater rights from the oppressive great empires of age. The Hungarians defeated the Austrians and briefly achieved independence but then Russia entered the war, deploying 300,000 soldiers to crush the Hungarian rebels.
After their defeat, the Governor-President of Hungary, Lajos Kossuth. slipped across the border into the Ottoman Empire and then fled to London. Over the next several years, Kossuth would achieve a mythic reputation in Hungary, and rumors of his impending return sometimes swept through the countryside. One of the school districts around Kipling was named Kossuth in his honour. Of course, by the time that time that Alex Daku heard the story in his father’s workshop, Kossuth would have been in his mid 80s and not likely to be roaming the countryside in disguise.
The Austrian Emperor again ruled Hungary but the countryside seethed with resentment. The Emperor appointed Archduke Albrecht as regent of Hungary and he imposed a program of “Germanization”, where he unsuccessfully attempted to replace Hungarian culture and language in government, religion, and education.
It was into this delightful world that my 2nd great grandparents arrived. My grandmother had recorded the names and birthdates of her grandparents so tracing them to their Hungarian baptismal records was relatively simple, which also gave me the names of their parents. Going further back in time is trickier.
People typically didn't move far from home so usually I could find their parents born in the same village or nearby village. However, sometimes there are multiple persons with the same name, in the same area, about the same age. At that point, I can't really go any further.
In the village of Bezdéd, nestled in the elbow of the Tisza River, where its course bends from north to south, András Daku was born in the spring of 1853 to Juliána Bodnár and András Daku Sr. Two years later, Károly Daku was born in the autumn of 1860 to Ersébet Koji, 29, and János Daku, 31.
There were several Daku families in Bezdéd at this time and it's likely that they were all cousins to some degree but since these families had lived there for countless generations, it’s difficult to determine their precise relationship.
About 3 to 4 kilometers to the north of Bezdéd is the village of Záhony. In the winter of 1857, Juliánna Kovács, 27, and Péter Kaponyás, 35, welcomed their daughter Terézia Kaponyás, who would later marry András Daku.
Approximately 4 kilometers west of Bezdéd, in the village of Eperjeske, Károly’s future wife, Erzsébet Veres, was born late in the summer of 1865, to Sára Esik and Bálint Veres.
József Fónagy was born in the village of Tornyospálca, less than 10 kilometers south of Bezdéd, to Sára Balogh and István Fónagy in the winter of 1865/66. His future wife, Zsófia Szántó, was born 3 year later in the winter of 1868/69 to Rebeka Horváth, 23, and István Szántó, 27.
The Debreczenis originated much further south, over 170 kilometers southwest of Bezdéd, in the large town of Karcag. Jószef Debreczeni was born there in the spring of 1856 to Katalin Erdei and and Jószef Debreczeni Sr. He would later marry Juliánna Jonás. As of this moment, I’m not sure where she was born or to whom. There are several women with her name born in that year but none very close to Karcag so it could be any of them or none of them.
All of these families were farmers, although some were successful in other trades, such as bootmaking or woodworking. Given that this part of the empire was just emerging into the modern world, they were also very superstitious and relied on folk remedies for their ailments.
A paper by Linda Degh titled Folklore of the Bekevar Community, describes how in the old country, people used to treat an earache with human urine and drink their own urine to treat a gall bladder. They would also tie a red ribbon around a baby's neck to protect her against the evil eye and chew cemetery grass to keep a fever from returning.
As with most Europeans, they also feared the devil and believed in witches. Degh recorded one story of an old woman who was carried away from the crossroads every night by a fiery carriage. The next morning, she was returned battered and bruised. The villagers would not go near her, fearing she would grab them and transfer to curse. They would aid her by offering her a jar of water tied to the end of a broomstick
While the Hungarians did believe in witches, familiars, and Counts with flying coaches, fortunately witch burning was not fashionable in Hungary. There had been a panic in the mid 1700s but otherwise, both Hungarian and Austrian rulers were a very skeptical bunch.
All of these families were very devout Calvinists, belonging to the Reformed Church of Hungary, .Religious life was not only a vital component of my ancestor's lives, it was something that they sometimes needed to violently defend. When protestantism first arose in Europe, Hungary was solidly a Roman Catholic kingdom and in 1523 banned protestant religions, with punishments ranging from confiscation of property to death. However, the conquest of southern Hungary by the Ottoman Empire in 1541 shook things up.
The Ottomans didn’t care about the denomination of their Christian subjects, allowing the Calvinist Church to establish deep roots. Meanwhile, the unconquered half of Hungary was torn between the Austrian Emperor and Hungarian nobles as fought for control of the kingdom, allowing the countryside to slip further towards Calvinism. Eventually, the Austrian Empire took control of northern Hungary and, almost two centuries later, defeated the Ottomans to claim the entire kingdom. However, by then it was far too late to turn back time and return the realm to Catholicism.
In the years that followed, the Austrian Empire attempted to suppress the Calvinist Reformed Church but rebellions and threats from outside protestant nations always forced the Empire to back down and to sign treaties protecting religious liberty. This constant tension between the two faiths is one reason that Hungarians immigrants to Canada continued self-segregate for a couple more generations.
The Austrian oppression did finally end in 1867, after the Empire suffered a crushing defeat by the Prussians. Outmatched by their rivals, they realized that they needed greater internal unity if they were to survive. In desperation, they offered an olive branch to the Hungarians, offering them domestic autonomy within a dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary. Although many Hungarians disliked this compromise, the nobles accepted and formed a new parliament in Pest.
Granted autonomy on internal matters, for the next several decades, until the World War, Hungary’s economy soared. Hungary made large investments in industry and transportation and the standard of living and life expectancy of Hungarians rose accordingly. In 1857, Hungary had 13.8 million people. By 1900, the population had grown 21% to 16.8 million. By 1910, it had grown 32% to over 18 million. As well, these numbers do not count the over half-million Hungarians who left the kingdom at this time.
As had happened with other European countries, this industrial revolution created many disruptions for Hungarian farmers. There was now too little land for their children and the old trades were becoming less profitable. On the other hand, rapid advances in railroads and steamships had never made immigration so safe and relatively inexpensive.
While the Daku and Debreczeni families may have been financially secure enough to weather these disruptions, there were also the rumours of war that Alex Daku had recounted. Parents, desperate to shield their sons from conscription looked abroad for better and safer opportunities.
Of course, we know that there was no rebellion or war in the decade after 1900 but the tensions were enough to convince our ancestors to leave. Also, as we know, these tensions finally did explode into war in 1914, as Austro-Hungary plunged into nationalistic violence that consumed Europe and shattered the Kingdom of Hungary.
The Hungarians sent their sons to many places. Alex Daku, for example, travelled to New York and then to Pennsylvania, reporting favourably on the opportunities to find work. However, lured by the Canadian offer of a 160 acre homestead for the low, low price of $10, our families looked now to Saskatchewan.
The first Hungarian wave to wash into Saskatchewan, then called the North West Territories, was in 1886, with the founding of the first and largest Hungarian colony named Kaposvar: a Roman Catholic farming community surrounding the town of Esterhazy. Most of the Hungarians there travelled up from the United States, feeling exploited by the factory owners and seeking to return to their agrarian roots. By 1902, Kaposvar consisted of over 200 families.
In 1902, an Hungarian immigrant, Janos Szabo, and others organized a new settlement: Bekevar. He intended the new colony be a Reformed Church or Presbyterian community and it quickly drew in three overlapping waves of immigration directly from Hungary, each from a different region:
The 2nd wave from Karcag included the Debreczeni family. The Daku and Fonagy families arrived in the 3rd wave.
My great, great grandparents and their families would have travelled by train through Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin to the port of Hamburg. There, they sailed for either New York or Halifax. Some, like Alex Daku, migrated first to New York, still looking for the best place for the family to settle, still uncertain that they would stay or return to Hungary.. However, once the family made the decision to homestead in Saskatchewan, the rest would have all sailed for Halifax.
After a train ride of several days through the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, and Ontario, our families faced the seemingly endless, mostly empty, prairie. Debarking the train and trekking to their new homesteads, which was only a patch in an endless ocean of grass, the isolation must have been intimidating.
In 1903, there was no Saskatchewan, only the North West Territories, there was no Kipling, it wouldn't be founded until 1909, and the closest city was Regina, which had only 3,000 people. In comparison, the town of Karcag had over 18,000 people. Bekevar itself contained 45 homesteads, mostly only dugouts and sod houses at this point,
Bekevar continued to absorb many more immigrants after 1903, of course. The 1916 Canada Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta enumerated over 5,400 Hungarian-born people in the province of Saskatchewan. The end of the World War brought even more Hungarians, pushing the numbers to over 20,000.
Happily, there is a lot more information about the early days of Bekevar, as opposed to village life back in Hungary, so I'll have more to write on that later.