Hungary: Murder on the Danube

Fifty years before women's liberation was a gleam in Germaine Greer's eye, a villageful of downtrodden wives deep in the Hungarian countryside bumped off their menfolk. Now a new documentary pulls back the veil on a murder case that claimed 140 lives

Peter Popham
Saturday 26 November 2005 01:00 GMT

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. The idea has been around for some time. It was an Australian student, Irina Dunn, who first scrawled it on the back of a loo door in a wine bar in Woolloomooloo, in 1970.

But the idea that, earning power apart, men are thoroughly dispensable, is older than that. A popular term used by wives for husbands in Japan 30 years ago was sodai gomi: gomi meaning rubbish, sodai gomi being the cumbersome, hard-to-dispose-of rubbish like redundant refrigerators and washing machines, for the disposal of which special help must be summoned.

Why do women need men? They drink, they shout, they throw their weight about, they glue themselves to the football. If they bring home the bacon it's only by dint of preventing women from doing the same.

These are familiar grumbles. Usually grumbling - or the divorce courts - is as far as it goes.

But now we learn that, half a century before the sexual revolution, a network of fed-up wives in an obscure, dead-end village in the Hungarian countryside, acted on this intuition in the most direct way possible: by bumping their old men off. Not one woman, ridding herself of one man. Not a black widow, running through hubby after hubby and collecting the insurance. But a whole village of them, acting quietly, deftly, in silent concert, year after year, undetected, until they had the men exactly where they wanted them: six feet under, or running scared.

Nagyrev is not a place you would choose to spend much time: 60km south-east of Budapest in the endless Hungarian plain, well off the main road, lapped and often flooded by the Danube. A place where today there is little work, and nothing else to do, a village on its last legs, from which the young people flee as soon as they can. There is a freezing cold pub, a large but unfrequented church, a main street of single-storey cottages: each with its stories and secrets.

It was in the cottage at the far end of that street, where from the covered porch you enjoy a view of all the others, that there lived in Nagyrev at the time of the First World War a woman named Zsuzsanna Fazekas. She was the village's midwife; she had power over life and death, and she was, we are told, the trusted intimate of any woman who might be in need of her skills.

Nagyrev at the time had no doctor or police station. There was the church, but this was not a religious part of the world even before the Communists. There was a coroner, we understand, and a singularly useless one. For the women of Nagyrev, Mrs Fazekas was the court of first and last resort. Say you're pregnant and you would rather not be, and there is no busybody man - a doctor, a policeman, a priest - to gainsay you. A midwife is the one you turn to. Abortions? No problem, it appears, for the midwife of Nagyrev. Baby or no baby: the future can turn out just the way you wish it. She called herself "the angel-maker" - a gentle, reassuring euphemism for her part-time trade. Vera Drake's justification - "just helping girls in trouble" - comes to mind.

No one knows for certain how the next phase was reached. But if you took a strip of the flypaper used in those days and doused it in water, the active ingredient - arsenic - washed off. Douse enough strips and you could collect the arsenic in a little vial. And when angry or desperate women of the village tramp up the village street and tap on your door and come in for a quiet chat, the vial can be produced.

And the midwife, the village woman who knows everything, who is the female law personified, can explain in detail the uses of arsenic. How it is tasteless and odourless. How it can be tipped into soup or coffee and no one is any the wiser. How it kills in a terrible way, but quickly, very quickly if the dose is large enough, and with no doctor around there is no one to challenge the verdict of acute stomach upset.

And the husbands of Nagyrev began to drop dead.

Three generations have passed since these events, but some of the old people in the village have their memories still. Maria Gunya, in her early eighties, was the daughter of the inept village coroner. "The women used to come to Mrs Fazekas with their problems," she told the BBC's Jim Fish. And Mrs Fazekas used to say to them, "If there's a problem with him, I have a solution."

The solution was always the same. It was a bit of a cottage industry with Mrs Fazekas, helping to augment her modest fees for bringing forth or murdering babies. Off the unhappy village wife toddled, excited and nervous, with her vial of stuff concealed about her all-embracing flowery Hungarian otthonka (house coat). Her front door closed behind her. A somnolent calm returned to the main street.

Then, two or four days or a week later - dreadful news: Mr So-and-so frightfully sick. Awful symptoms: he couldn't swallow, then he vomited, then there was the diarrhoea, then the convulsions, that's right, just like Mr What's-it, on the other side of the road, last month. In no time he was laid out in the front room, the desperate widow wringing her hands as she executed little dance steps around the corpse.

It went on and on. That is the impressive thing about Nagyrev's epidemic of poisoning. It started, it appears, during or immediately after the First World War, and the most persuasive explanation for why comes in three parts. One: many marriages back then were arranged anyway, so there was no great love lost between the couples; two, the men of the village had been off at the wars, fighting for the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of them came back wounded, crippled, estranged from their life partners by the years spent apart, the terrible things they had seen. And three: Russian prisoners-of-war had been billeted near Nagyrev. While the men were away, the wives had had affairs. They had learned to live without husbands who, so the village remembers today, were lazy and abusive; and their wartime flings reminded them that they were women, had lives of their own, did not have to spend all their remaining years tethered to a tyrant or a cripple.

So that, it seems, was how it started, in the coils of a terrible war that turned the whole continent upside down. Empires dissolved and crumbled to dust; and the same thing happened to Nagyrev's ideas of morality.

"The injured soldiers came home to a severe economic depression," says Istvan Burka, the mayor of the village. "It was a hard life. The circumstances were extreme, and feeding another mouth that couldn't contribute anything was too much of a burden on the family."

But like anything else you do repeatedly, murder in Nagyrev became habitual. And over the years it wasn't just insufferable husbands who died: mothers, children, other relatives all fell victim. Some of the poisoners even murdered each other. The figures for how many people died in the arsenic years vary wildly, and no historian has yet given a definitive account. But it is claimed that other villages in the area were up to the same thing, and that in all 300 people may have been killed.

The epidemic only came to an end in 1929. As with almost everything else in this story, accounts vary as to how it was stopped. One story has it that two of the village poisoners fell afoul of one another and denounced each other in public. In another version, a medical student from another town stumbled on a corpse washed up on the river bank, and discovered high levels of arsenic in the stomach. Police moved in to investigate, dozens of corpses were exhumed, and many of them, too, had traces of the poison.

The most vivid explanation of how the poisoning was brought to an end goes like this. A nurse called Mrs Ladislus Szabo was caught putting arsenic in a man's wine. Mrs Szabo, under questioning, blurted out the name of a fellow poisoner, who admitted killing her mother - and named Zsuzsanna Fazekas, the spider at the centre of the web.

Mrs Fazekas denied everything, and the police let her go - but secretly tailed her. As they suspected she would, she zigzagged down the village street, warning her customers to keep their mouths shut. The police followed in her wake, and picked up 38 women. Many stood trial, eight were sentenced to death, and two were actually hanged. Mrs Fazekas herself cheated justice, either by hanging herself in her house, or by taking some of her own poison and falling down dead in the main street, with her feet pointing up at the sky.

Every detail of what actually happened in Nagyrev has variants; this tale of mass crime committed less than 80 years ago is turning into folklore before one's eyes. Yet it is not a fairy story, and the latest person to beat a path to Nagyrev in the hope of learning more is a young Dutch film-maker called Astrid Bussink, whose documentary on the village and the epidemic, entitled The Angelmakers, premieres next Tuesday at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.

Bussink and her crew spent four months in the village. "We had a hard time getting people to talk," she says. "They are not supposed to talk about it and they hadn't talked about it for a long time, so we went about it very carefully. What struck us was that the older women were very easy about the crimes, they did not talk about them as if they were serious. 'The men were in the way,' they said, or 'they must have been crippled...' They tended to minimise the importance of what had happened."

So what in her view lay behind the crimes that once gave Nagyrev the title "the murder district"? "There was no one single motive," she said. "There were a lot of different circumstances: poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, the First World War. Lots of men came home after being prisoners-of-war, some were crippled, they were unable to work.

"In my opinion this midwife, Zsuzanna Fazekas, was very important. All the village women talked to her. She encouraged the women to do it. In fact she had a little business going. She told them, if you feel oppressed, you can get out of that situation. She had the power to convince people. They didn't see what they were doing as murder. And if your husband died, you inherited the property. And then you would be in a better position to marry someone else."

Bussink did not intend to make a film with a feminist moral. "I'm not even a feminist myself," she said. "Women back then were not treated that well - but that is not a justification for what they did. I didn't want to create sympathy for the women."

Yet the moral emerges without any effort on her part. "For centuries the village women had been told that they could not live without men. Then the war came and they found they were fine without men, in fact better than before, because they were no longer abused."

Murdering them when they came home was a desperate solution for desperate times. And for quite a while it worked pretty well. After the poisoning started, said Maria Gunya, whose coroner father had seen the whole thing, "the men's behaviour improved markedly".

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