There have been numerous significant associations in the history of bilateral relations between Belgium and Hungary. The Belgian ambassador highlights two of these.
The first one takes us back to the 19th century when Princess Stéphanie of Belgium – born in 1864 to Leopold II and Marie Henriette of Austria – married Rudolf, the only son of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Elisabeth. Although, they had a daughter in 1883, the marriage was not a happy one. In 1889, Rudolf and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were found dead in the Mayerling hunting lodge. Eleven years later, in 1900, Princess Stéphanie married Hungarian nobleman Count Elemér Lónyay of Nagylónyai and Vásárosnamény. The couple moved to the Count’s castle in Oroszvár (now Rusovce, Slovakia). Elemér Lónyay was given a princely title, Prince Fürst, in 1917 by Emperor Charles I. The couple left the Oroszvár castle in 1945 as Soviet troops were approaching Hungary. They found shelter at the Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary where Stéphanie died in 1945. Some pieces of her furniture can still be found in the Belgian ambassadorial residence in Budapest.
Earlier, during the First World War, Stéphanie resided in the Oroszvár castle which she converted into a Red Cross Hospital for wounded soldiers. The Princess herself was among the nurses running the ad-hoc hospital. She did an excellent job caring for the patients and in 1918, Stéphanie became a certified nurse.
In addition to being a nurse, Princess Stéphanie was closely involved with two associations that worked to increase the offer of welfare services to Hungarian people. The first, the National Stefania Association for the Protection of Mothers and Infants, was founded because of concerns over the health of future generations, speculations about the declining birth rate, infant mortality and the protection of mothers as well as their infants. The second organization is the Orphans of Teachers and Widows of Teachers Association. Both were allowed to raise money through selling printed post cards in public places.
Princess Stéphanie published articles in newspapers, gave speeches to a variety of audiences and wrote a memoire of her live, titled ‘Ich sollte Kaiserin werden’ (‘I should become an Empress’), which sold well.
References to the Belgian Princess remain present in Hungary to this very day. Budapest has a street named after her, the ‘Stefánia út’. Additionally, the Belgian Princess introduced several dishes featuring cooked eggs, which are still common to this very day. An example of her gastronomic contribution is the ‘Stefánia vagdalt’.
The second association of interest took place right after the end of WW1. After the destruction of the First World War, Hungary was plagued by poverty, inflation, high unemployment and food shortages. At that time, the most successful support from Belgium was the Belgian-Hungarian Child Relief Project in the 1920s. Between 1923 and 1927, more than 20,000 Hungarian children were sent to Belgium for ‘holidays’, where they stayed with host families. Special dictionaries were distributed to ease communication, during the few months of their stay. The entire project strongly improved bilateral relations between Belgium and Hungary. However, not long after both countries were on different sides in the World War.
Shortly after the Second World War, a similar project was initiated. This time, the scale was smaller and the duration was shorter due to the entirely different international political context. Nevertheless, just like the first time, the project was hugely successful among Belgian families. Many Belgian families who had previously taken part in the Child Relief Project and accommodated Hungarian children, opened up their doors to welcome ‘de Hongaartjes’ once more. Undoubtedly, the second Relief Project also contributed positively to the bilateral ties between both countries. The Hungarian Child Relief Project(s) played an important role in the renewed political rapprochement between the two countries.
A couple of books have been written in memory of these happy moments in difficult times. During the opening of an exhibition that I inaugurated last year on these projects. I had the pleasure to meet some people who participated in these trips to Belgium as a child. This created a strong bond between the families who are still in regular contact today.