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#21 - JRL 7070
Budapest Sun
February 20, 2003
Somewhere in Russia
By Esther Vcsey

In January, Hungarians commemorated the 60th anniversary of the "Don River Bend Tragedy" which occurred on January 13, 1943, with the overwhelming defeat of the Hungarians by the Russian armed forces in the vicinity of the town of Voronyets.

Labeled as "the blackest day in the history of the Hungarian army," the story of the humiliating defeat and horrific loss of lives has come down more as legend than as fact.

The Don Bend Tragedy became the subject of hair-raising tales told in whispers by those lucky enough to have survived the battle and make it back home in the excruciating retreat; famished, ill-clothed and in -40C temperatures through the great Russian tundra.

It was said that some 300,000 badly trained and ill-equipped young Hungarian men were sent into the forefront of Hitlers Russian offensive, that they were mobilized as late as fall 1943, arriving at the front lines just as the harsh Russian winter set in.

Tales circulated that the Hungarians were completely disoriented and fled in all directions when the surprise attack came from across the river by the Soviets who were much better armed with weapons, including the famous "Stalin Organ", a machine gun which sprayed ammunition in all directions.

Tales further circulated of the irresponsible behavior of General Gusztv Jny, Hungarian Commander in Chief, who was accused of labeling the behavior of his troops as "cowardly".

Losses were said to have been as great as 200,000. The Don River Tragedy affected each and every Hungarian family, whose husband, father, uncle, or brother went missing, was captured, or died at the Don River Bend or during the tremendously difficult long retreat back home.

The Hungarian propaganda machine following the defeat of the Horthy regime in 1944 tended to magnify the tragedy in order to cast a bad light on the previous administration, and then suppressed all further facts after the Soviets "liberation" of Hungary and subsequent 50-year occupation of the country.

General Jny was ignominiously executed in 1946 as a consequence of the Don Bend Tragedy, by the then-ruling Peoples Court.

Following the defeat of the 1956 Revolution, investigations into what really happened at the Don River were again smothered.

Now, 60 years later, the truth about the Don River Tragedy is being investigated and revisions are coming to light in the Hungarian media; with major articles in Npszabadsg (Saturday, January 11, Htvge or Weekend insert), Magyar Nemzet (Saturday, February 8, Magazin), programs on Duna TV, and in an excellent small exhibition at the Institute and Museum of Military History on Castle Hill.

At the entrance the visitor is confronted by a dramatic blown-up photograph of the long winding line of retreating Hungarian troops in the white winter landscape, with a diorama in the foreground of the body of a fallen honved (soldier) in the snow.

Another large diorama shows the Hungarian artillery at the front line and another one the typical wooden bunker in which troops were quartered.

Although the exhaustive explanatory text and captions in the exhibition are all in Hungarian, the number and impact of the visual objects is so compelling that even those unversed in the language and details of military history are drawn into the story of this legendary paragraph in Hungarian military history.

Special display cases feature a large map showing the critical zone of the Germans and their allies positions along the very long front line and another case contains the map with the strategic positions on the day of the defeat, with a compass, other reconnoitering instruments and General Jnys cap.

A case is dedicated to the singular achievements of military reporter and photographer Tibor Szentptery, now 87 and living in Budapest.

On display are some of his many photographs taken at the front, and the trusty Leica which saved his life - it was in his pocket when a bullet aimed at him lodged in the lens of the machine and he escaped death, but with serious wounds.

His battle jacket, also on display, shows the bullets entry point, stained with blood, and is missing the left sleeve, which was cut off.

The exhibition brings important new details and facts to light and revises the total number of troops mobilized to 270,000, and the number of dead, missing, or taken prisoner at 125-130,000 men.

A lengthy video in Hungarian goes through all the details of the offensive, showing the recruitment, with rousing military marching music in the background.

After showing the military supplies, types of artillery and planes used, plus scenes from the front from contemporary film clips, the video ends with the smoky voice of actress Katalin Kardy, who had been out to entertain the troops, singing the plaintive song Valahol Oroszorszgban (Somewhere in Russia).

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