Maria Lebstück memorial; as a lieutenant; Commemorative plaque in Budapest District IV, Csokonai Street No 4. (By Fekist at Hungarian Wikipedia - Transferred from hu.wikipedia to Commons)
HUSZKA HUNGARICUM of a HISTORIC HUSZÁR HEROINE
Olga Vállay Szokolay
Maria Lebstück was born in August, 1830 in Zagreb, Croatia, daughter of a well-to-do German merchant. Her mother had some influential relatives in Vienna, thus from age 13, Maria lived there with the family of her uncle, Colonel Balthasar Baron Simunich. The young girl was fired with enthusiasm by the 1848 Vienna revolution, which preceded the Hungarian one by a few days. She resolved to cut her long hair, to don men’s clothes and become a soldier. She swapped her earrings for men’s clothing and, changing her name to Karl Lebstück, volunteered for military service.
Everyone then believed and considered Maria a man. She fought in the bloody street fights of the Vienna battle, but after the failure of the revolt she escaped persecution by changing into women’s clothes again. Wiping the gunpowder off her face, she walked out of Vienna on foot, heading for Győr, where her married older sister lived. At one point she had to cross a river, but only a beam and a handrail were left of the bridge. With mental and physical skill, she managed to get to the other side. There, however, she encountered two Hungarian militiamen armed with iron bars. They suspected her of being a spy, and therefore jailed her at a nearby village. The judge acquitted her, and she was free again to continue her trek to Győr via Sopron.
On her way, two gentlemen with the same itinerary offered her a ride. She accepted, but calamity did not avoid her. As the light cart tried to cross the frozen Kis-Rába River, the ice broke under it. Fortunately, it happened near some military outpost and the guards pulled all passengers to safety. Yet, Maria’s clothes were completely soaked, and they froze on her body. A guard lent her his cloak to wear until her own garments dried by the fire and she could continue her foot journey.
Next day she reached Győr. Her family welcomed her. She could have stayed, but by then she was overwhelmed by the love of freedom. She learned that her former commander, major Giron was also in town with the German Legion. He promptly recognized his valiant soldier, even in women’s clothes. He provided a uniform, gun and sword for Maria, who instantly turned into Karl again. That very noon “he” took the oath under the Hungarian tricolor. Two hours later, she was sent to Görgey’s headquarters as her first assignment under the Magyar flag.
From there on, Maria valiantly fought against the Austrians for the freedom of the Magyars. Her first combat was at Bábolna, then Tétény – both ending in defeat. In the bone-chilling winter weather and amid incessant crossfire, she excelled in the battles of Branyiszkó, Komárom and Kápolna. In course of the Kápolna battle, she was attacked by three men, whom she disarmed, but paid a price with a head wound. It was the army doctor who realized the true gender of the 18-year-old volunteer. The bizarre happening at the battlefield was reported to General Dembinszky, who promoted the valiant girl to lieutenant.
Recovering from her injuries, Maria could not find her unit. In her quandary, the idea of becoming a Huszár appealed to her. Soon, with Görgey’s intervention, she was assigned to the Miklós-Huszárs. Upon receiving her horse and spurs at Tokaj, she engaged in an attack against enemy cavalry. By her own admission, she was even heavily flirting with pretty ladies from horseback!
It is amazing how this 18-year-old girl, who had never been on a horse before, could so expertly master the saddle, rein and stirrups in addition to the heavy cavalry sword. She seemed to be enabled by some demonic temperament when fighting on horseback. But acting as a dashing mounted guy to impress the ladies takes virtuosity!
Being an excellent horseman, Maria was assigned to deliver 23 carriages loaded with ammunition from Szolnok to Komárom. Her entourage was an old fire master and a group of guerrillas. They managed to avoid marauding enemy gangs at Gödöllő, Vác and Ipolyság until, near Léva, some oncoming refugees stopped them with news of imperial troops occupying the road ahead. At that, the carriers unharnessed their horses, left the loaded carriages, and rode away. The guerrillas also disappeared. Maria was left with the old fire master whom she left to guard the carriages while she galloped back to Ipolyság where she requisitioned fresh horses and braver lads with whom she successfully completed the assignment. This brilliantly executed maneuver earned her a promotion to first lieutenant.
Following the liberation of Komárom, Maria moved with the Hungarian Battalion to Buda. In May 1849, she even participated in the recapture of Buda Castle. During the siege, she ran into an acquaintance from Vienna, artillery Major Jónák József, and this time they fell in love. After the siege, Lieutenant Maria applied for a leave to marry the Major. Overcoming his shock, her superior permitted the wedding, albeit even the ceremony had to take place at the battlefield. For three weeks they enjoyed the ecstasy of the siege’s victory and their romance.
The young couple, however, could not enjoy their lives together. Jónák used to be an artillery officer in the imperial army but switched over with his battery to the Hungarian side. The Austrian General Haynau, who had been put in command of putting down the Hungarian fight for freedom, condemned him to be shot for desertion. Upon his father’s mediation, however, Jónák’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment. That considered, a military tribunal dissolved their marriage.
Maria enjoyed no protection from her female attire. Some military personnel recognized her as “Karl” and a terrible persecution followed. She was again suspected of being a spy and treated accordingly: sentenced to be shot to death. While she was spending 48 hours in the death cell, some of her previous supervisors vouched for her and ultimately obtained her release papers from Kossuth – all this on the condition that she would return to her troop, in uniform.
Soon the Freedom Fight was defeated and Maria, already pregnant, was imprisoned at Arad, where she gave birth to her son, Jónák Pál. As a result of the Lebstück family’s efforts, Maria and the little Pál were released from captivity at Arad. Yet, they had to leave Hungary. They tried to settle in Croatia, where they had to face horrendous animosity – from the public as well as from her close family. She was openly attacked in the streets. Her mother and sisters welcomed them but her brother, who had fought in the Austrian army, was irate and wanted to throw her and the baby out of the house. Maria’s mother ultimately appeased him and asked the viceroy of Croatia for protection. He obliged and had multilingual posters printed and posted in the heroic girl’s defense.
Three years later, Maria moved to Győr, where she met an old acquaintance, the painter Pasche Gyula, with whom she had served as lieutenant. The relationship turned into love – they soon got married and lived happily until his death 17 years later. Together they had one daughter, Antónia, who not unlike Pál, died at a very young age.
In 1870, Maria moved to Buda, where she met her first husband again. By then, Jónák – having been pardoned at Franz Josef’s coronation – was in a lucrative position and also married, but he still assisted his son, Pál financially.
In Hungary, Maria was highly respected. She cherished the memory of the Freedom Fight; every March 15 she donned her old uniform, was present at the unveiling of the Arad martyrs’ statues and annually visited the graves of heroes fallen at the siege of Buda Castle.
In 1880, Maria moved to Újpest, where she died on May 30th, 1892. A street preserves her name there. She was laid to rest at the Megyeri Street cemetery. In 1935, a memorial plaque was affixed to the wall of her former residence.
Being Hungarian was not Maria’s birthright; she earned it – by literally fighting for it!
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.