By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Hungarian Catholic Priest Imre Kozma seems a humble man. Yet the priest made world news when his Budapest church and the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service he founded accommodated tens of thousands of East German refugees in 1989, when Germany was still a divided nation.
With special prayer services and other events he and others commemorate this weekend in Budapest the 20th anniversary of Hungary receiving East German refugees, and their eventual journey to freedom, in the West.
Father Kozma, 69, told BosNewsLife that his church and organization aimed to spread hope among those facing difficulties.
“In every crisis there is hope,” Kozma said. “I think Hungary wanted with our Maltese work to help create a future for not only the East German refugees, but for whole Germany and the rest of Europe.”
On August 14, 1989 men and women from East Germany, fleeing the ‘workers paradise’ republic of atheist leader Erich Honecker, were entering the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Budapest’s Zugliget area. Reporters noticed the words on the altar: “All that is not God is nothing.”
Hungary was still a Communist nation in 1989.
Miklós Németh, who was Hungary’s prime minister at the time, has admitted that priest Imre Kozma and other church members played a key role in breaking down the Iron Curtain, which divided the Soviet-led East and West for decades.
“Under the leadership of father Kozma, who is the leader of the Maltese Charity organization, an outstanding role was played to help the East German refugees,” explained Németh whose family name ironically means ‘German’.
“Dear Imre, after twenty years, I would like to thank you,” he said at a recent emotionally charged meeting in Budapest, attended by BosNewsLife.
The events of 1989 have inspired a new generation of humanitarian aid workers, including the thirty-something Ildiko Boeselager. Her late mother, Baroness Csilla von Boeselager, came over from Germany to help Father Kozma and negotiated with key officials on behalf of the East German refugees.
“We were just children and watched with big eyes and big ears. It was incredible to see our mother dealing with the world press, filling somehow this gap between what official people could do,” she told BosNewsLife.
“Politicians could not move that fast, but as a normal citizen she could take their role and just say: “There is no risk for you, I just take them [the refugees] so you will gain time and calmness to solve the things politically.” Boeselager said she and other family members “were sitting at home in Germany and looking at her on the daily television news. We were always saying: ‘We are going to watch mummy news’.”
The ‘Boeselagers’ and ‘Kosma’s’ of Hungary also enabled what became known as a ‘Pan European Picnic’, a peace demonstration at the Austrian border. The event on August 19, 1989, allowed hundreds of East German refugees to escape to Austria.
Soon after, on September 11, tens of thousands of East Germans followed, as Hungary opened its border with Austria.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday, August 15, expressed thanks to Hungary for its opening of its border with Austria 20 years ago, which she said triggered the start of the collapse of communism in Europe and the eventual fall of Berlin Wall.
In her weekly video address, Merkel said that, “This made the opening of The Wall irreversible,” referring to the main symbol of Europe’s – and Germany’s – post-war division.
Merkel is to visit Hungary next Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary occasion.
Although Hungary has since become a democratic European Union and NATO nation, it currently faces a major economic crisis. Yet, people like priest Imre Kozma have said they hope that despite these difficulties “Hungarians will keep their heart open” to those in need.