Children from Kőszeg on an excursion to Cák . #26628 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

An Orphanage in Kőszeg

Everyday Life in Uniform in a Children’s Home of the Hungarian State Railways Company

Quiet hours, Indian camps, a museum of the workers’ movement, teenagers in uniforms saluting, and orphans trying out cameras. The Children’s Home of the Hungarian State Railways Company (Magyar Államvasutak—MÁV) in Kőszeg was both physically and figuratively very close to the “school at the frontier” of the most influential novel of 20th-century Hungarian literature written by Géza Ottlik [English edition: Géza Ottlik, School at the Frontier, trans. Kathleen Szasz (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966)]. The resemblance was probably clear back in the socialist era too, though the real-life version must have been at its best a bit warmer and homier than the one, only a few hundred meters away, that served as the model for the novel. Thanks to one of the former caregivers, Endre Baráth, the photographs recounting the history of the orphanage through decades has now entered the public domain.

For a Hungarian reader, the words Kőszeg and boarding school immediately evoke the novel of Ottlik, military school, early morning drills, punishment walks in the park, and army coats. We are close to that but not exactly there. These photographs take us to another educational institution of the same city, not the one named after Matthias Hunyadi (King Matthias I or Matthias Corvinus) and sung by the novelist. This is another school, the children’s home of the Hungarian State Railways Company (MÁV), originally built for orphans of the company’s employees. Instead of the twill coats of the 1920s, it is the uniforms of the socialist era on small children and future-MÁV-employee adolescents with bumfluff alike.

1950s #13623 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth
1980s, #44160 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

The children’s home founded in 1913 was long awaited and lobbied for by the trade unions of the railway workers. Given that the railway company was a state inside the state back then as well, with a huge number of employees, a partially important sociopolitical role, and, by the nature of the work, a huge number of accidents, there was a constant “influx” of orphans. Of the altogether fifteen towns applying for the project, the winning city of Kőszeg on the western border offered a plot and some funding for the construction. Manó Thier, chief engineer of the Southern Railway, set out on a trip to Munich to study modern children’s home building trends before starting to plan the enormous, castle-like main building “in alpine and local Kőszeg-style,” in which the children would settle very early, only a year after the construction had started.

The most outstanding element of the building is a ten-meter high ridge tourret with a golden winged wheel on top, but even a lower level of the building, the one with the bedrooms, for instance, offers a wonderful view to the mountains. Being on the border is manifest in the fact that the railways to Austria would run right behind the fence of the garden, and after World War II, the 500-meter-wide, strictly guarded border strip that was later turned into the iron curtain, would lay about 300 meters away from the premises of the institution. In 1953, when a nearby border guard station was turned into a unit of the Soviet Border Troops, the directors of the institution decided to house boys only instead of girls. So the girls of the Kőszeg children’s home switched places with the boys living in the Kaposvár one, in order to be in a safe distance from the Soviet soldiers—who were supposed to be there to protect the working people.

The faculty of the Kőszeg school in the academic year 1958-59. #45480 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

The children’s home and its enormous, 8-acre garden did not belong to the state institution for child protection (later usually referred to as GYIVI). Its policies indeed allowed to house other types of children than orphans or semi-orphans, including members of large families and children of railway workers often away from home on long, 24–48-hour shifts. The children living here were less isolated than in state institutions: most of them went to school to the city and during the summer break, the dormitory was occupied by pensioners who came with referrals by their doctors.

The children’s home of the railway company meant for most children a family apart from, or instead of, their original family; a wider and truer one. In its heyday, in the 1960s and 70s, it was a place to call home for 370 people living together in a tight bond. The boarding school, the canteen, and the dormitory were all in the same main building: the (bunk)beds one can see on the photos remained mostly the same throughout the decades.

1980s #45431 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

Excursions and summer camps in Cák and Balatonberény, cooking together and eating out of tin bowls lying in the grass; in the winter, sometimes skiing in the Kőszeg mountains and skating in the courtyard of the school sprayed with water. On weekends, the boys cheered for the local football team (including the brother of the famous Golden Team’s back, Gyula Lóránt) from the side of the pitch or sometimes had commitments with the locally renowned boys’ choir and brass band, which was invited to play at the court of Jurisics Castle on larger festivities.

In the 1960, a kindergarden opened in the castle and an old locomotive, namely, the MÁV fleet no. 375.642 “coffe-grinder” tank locomotive was installed in the garden, along with a wagon with a sign: “MÁV Children’s Home Kőszeg 1913.” In a photo from 1980, this serves as a background for a long table, balanced by house plants dragged out from the house, around which leaders of the pioneer movement, railway workers, and comrades gather in the name of the obligatory motto “get inspiration from the past and build the future” for a school celebration, in the sunshine that is so inviting to be somewhere else… The pioneer movement’s railway uniforms and the ones of the railway company are recurrent, standard elements on other photos from the institution too. Most of the children were drawn to the railway company and as children of railway workers or as orphans and hence children of the railway company, they went on to pursue a railway career, joining the Railway Technical School in Szeged, commonly referred to as the “Bakteráj,” after the 8th grade.

A school ceremony around 1980 in the courtyard of the institution, with the MÁV fleet no. 375.642 tank locomotive in the background. Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth
1950s #26670 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

“This house was like a little colony. There was a laundry, a sewing shop, a shoemaker’s shop, a garden, and an independent kitchen,” the last director of the institution recalled somewhat nostalgically when asked about life in the orphanage. Though most caregivers indeed tried to create a real home for the children, the result was ambivalent according to the pieces of memories and recollections available online, and the everyday reality was far from idyllic. There were stories of children in Kőszeg too who were left there by their mothers without even looking back, after telling that they came for an excursion only, and punishments were also probably common in the institution.

1980s #45422 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

“We, who have been here for a long time and have seen the heydays, are getting more and more shocked by the situation enfolding. Everybody is kicking the one below, and the smallest one has no one to kick. The children say that they could live with being beaten by the caregiver lady who is known to be rude, gross, and lacking any professional qualification, but they find it hard to bear that she regularly abuses them verbally by calling their parents “gypsies,” using the “b”-word, and such,” one of the retired caregivers told the press in 1991, after the regime change, when a scandal broke out in Kőszeg. It turned out that one of the caregivers had been fired because he hit a boy until he lost consciousness with a nunjaku. The director at the time was said to be inhumane and a suspected pedophyle, but, according to the press coverage, the investigation process only served to fix up the scandal.

Group photo at the Hunyadi Court of the Buda Castle. A bus trip to Budapest in the 1980s. #45424 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth

Following some changes in the personnel, the institute was closed in 2005; though by that time it managed to regain its reputation, the railway company decided to close it down due to changes in its social benefits/aid policy. “Now the house turns silent and the noise of children ceases. But I cannot imagine that it would not return again, soon or later, to the corridors, the classrooms, and to the dorm rooms,” said the director János Kiss at the last end-of-the-year ceremony.

The large garden of the children’s home has been in a rather neglected state in the past 15 years. According to former pupils trying to pay a visit, the entrance is guarded by security guards and it is not possible to enter. Only a handful of railway workers live in some of the buildings in the backyard. The building indeed will open its doors again, but not for orphans — according to a government decision, it will serve as a center of academic life for the up-and-coming higher education in Kőszeg. In the local press, headlines and commentaries such as “Kőszeg to be the new Oxford” appeared upon the news that the Institute for Advanced Studies and the Kőszeg campus of the Pannon University will move here after renovating and restructuring the old building classified as national monument, turning it into a Central European hub with lecture rooms and an auditorium, according to the plans.
1950s #26930 Photo: Fortepan / Endre Baráth
It is not yet known what future awaits the symbol of the home of the railways company’s orphans, the winged wheel on top of the tower. According to the former pupils, it should definitely remain.

Text: Ádám Kolozsi | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]

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