Family Stories

Dr. Ernő Erdély, a true multi-talented man

A multi-talented man from Győr, Chief Fire Brigade Commander

Ernő Erdély (1881-1944)

My grandfather, Ernő Erdély was born in Győr in 1881. My great-grandfather, Ede Pollák, was a butcher in Újváros, and his later wife, my great-grandmother, Rozália Fleischmann, was born the daughter of a spice and chemicals merchant in the town. In 1896, the family changed its name from Pollák to Erdély.

One of my greatest sorrows was not knowing my grandfather. He was an extraordinary personality, a true multi-talented man.

He completed his primary education in the town’s Israelite school. He graduated from the Révai High School (then known as the Royal Hungarian High School). In 1900 he applied to join the Voluntary Firemen’s Association of Győr. Huge fires ravaged the town, affecting the Back Mill, the Royal Hotel and the public warehouse on the Danube. All this made it necessary to reform and reorganise the fire brigade. Thus, in November 1908, the Győr Professional Fire Brigade was founded, headed by my grandfather, appointed by the mayor. He completed the fire brigade officer course in Budapest and passed the officer’s exam with distinction. His leadership activities always included regular theoretical and practical training both for himself and his staff.

On 9 September 1907, the Back Mill in Nádorváros caught fire and burnt down, killing six workers and two firemen, in addition to many injured

Starting in 1911, my grandfather organized firefighting courses in all the major cities of the country.

He maintained a close friendship with Count Ödön Széchenyi Pasha (the younger son of Count István Széchenyi), who was also known as “Fire Pasha” in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the field of fire-fighting. Széchenyi was the organizer and manager of the state fire brigade in Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, having settled in Constantinople just after the great fire there in 1870. For organising the fire brigade in Istanbul, the Sultan gave him the title of de facto pasha.

On 3 October 1912, Ödön Széchenyi visited Győr, where 300 firemen from Győr and Győr County lined up in front of the railway station to receive him. A few years later, my grandfather and Ferenc Papp, the Commander of the Szeged fire brigade, were invited by the Minister of the Interior to study the fire protection preparedness in Istanbul and to advise on the modernisation of the Turkish fire brigade. My grandfather published a related photograph of him and Ödön Széchenyi in the journal „Érdekes Újság”.

Széchenyi Pasha is 80-years old (1st row, 2nd from left). Commander Erdély on the right, 2nd row, „Érdekes Újság”, 1919

Ernő Erdély, as Commander of the fire-fighting brigade, risked his own life along with his men to put out fires. On 26 May 1916, he and five of his servicemen were injured in a fire at a rail freight station. In 1919, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Győr Fire Brigade.

The building (it exists even today) and the fleet of the fire brigade of Győr at the end of the 1920s – Collection of the Győr Municipal Fire Brigade

My grandfather developed extensive international contacts. He visited Dresden, Munich, Salzburg, Paris and St Petersburg. He was delegated by the Hungarian Firefighters’ Association to the World Congress in Vienna in 1930. He represented the same Association at the 1931 Dresden and the 1935 Paris Firefighters’ Congresses where he delivered several lectures. He became a well-known expert throughout Europe, as is shown by the fact that he was asked to take charge of the fire brigades of Hamburg and Constantinople. He refused the offers, wanting to serve his hometown.

He published several articles in the National Fire Brigades Association’s Bulletin, of which he was the editor-in-charge for ten years (1920-1930). He gave a series of lectures and wrote a several textbooks. For example, but not limited to “Investigation of fires”, “Rules of firefighting”, “Testing, maintenance and technical malfunctions of fire extinguishers”, “How to extinguish a fire”, etc. In the latter, 165 questions are answered in a professional yet accessible way.

Some technical works by Ernő Erdély

He had a very wide range of interests. In 1932, as a result of his studies, he was awarded a doctorate in philosophy at the Royal Belgian University in Brussels. In 1936, at the age of 55, he was awarded a doctorate in humanities in Pécs (Hungary).

Diploma certifying Ernő Erdély’s doctorate in Belgium, 1932

He has written several books of fiction and lectured on literature. I know of one book, “On the Roads”, which contains short stories and poems. He appeared regularly in the daily “Győri Hírlap”. The other day, I saw his poem “The Fireman” on the Internet. He was passionate about his profession and literature, but he also worked as a stenography teacher at the Győr Boys’ Commercial School and was a member of the National Stenography Examination Committee.

In his spare time, he regularly rowed, played tennis, skated and cycled. In addition to his love of sport, he was elected president of the West Hungarian Football Association, the Hungária Rowing Club and the Győr Skating Association. He was the editor-in-charge of the Dunántúli Sport Újság. He passed the football referee exam and became co-president of the Hungarian Football Association. In this capacity he led the Hungarian national team to Portugal in 1937. The Sport Newspaper wrote at the time: “…The team did not burn down because their leader was a Fire Brigade Commander!” The only family photo I have of his sporting life is one single photograph.

On a bicycle ride with the family, 1928; from left to right my grandfather, grandmother, Margit Königsberg, and two sons Jenő and Miklós

My mother often spoke of his kind, direct style. He proved to be a key figure in social life.

His fellow Israelites honoured him with their trust for the first time in 1919, when he became President of the Győr Jewish Community, and later President of the Board of the Jewish school. In 1930 he became Vice-President, and in 1940 President of the XII Jewish Community District. After the adoption of the first Jewish law in Hungary, he was also discriminated against.

The story that the Commander of the Weimar (Germany) Fire Brigade spent his holidays in Győr, comes from the Győr Jewish community. My grandfather’s colleagues showed him around the fire station, presented the equipment and the German guest was very appreciative of everything. He was also informed that Dr. Ernő Erdély, Chief Fire Brigade Commander, had been awarded a medal by the German government for his achievements in the field of firefighting. They also informed the guest that my grandfather was Jewish, who thought this was impossible and exclaimed “Ausgeschlossen!” (excluded!). When he also learned that Dr Erdély was the Vice-President of the Győr Jewish Community and President of the School Board, he left immediately and cut off his holidays.

The second law on Jews was already explicitly aimed at “… restricting the public and economic space occupied by Jews”. My grandfather applied for retirement in 1940 after 40 years of service. His request was immediately granted by the city authorities. On 19 March 1944, the German fascists invaded Hungary, and then on 8 April, my grandfather was arrested by the Gestapo because of his Jewish origin. He was taken from the town jail straight to the ghetto and deported with my grandmother to Auschwitz, where they were both murdered.

Two of their sons, my father Miklós and my uncle Jenő, survived the war after having had to serve in the labour service. I was born in 1946, my sister Anikó in 1954. My parents did not practice their religion after 1945 and we were not brought up religiously, nor were my own children.

A marble plaque in the corridor of the Győr Fire Brigade (now the Győr-Moson-Sopron County Fire Brigade) and a statue since 1990 commemorate him. In the Győr Menház, he is commemorated in a dignified manner among the presidents of the religious community.

Some of those honoured by the Ernő Erdély Foundation

In 2003, my father, Miklós, established the “Foundation in Memory of the Fire Brigade Commander Ernő Erdély”, which aims, among other things, to reward firefighters who have achieved outstanding results in disaster prevention and firefighting, and to preserve the fire protection traditions of the city.

I hope that posterity will not forget him.

Published by Dr Margit Erdély Kristófné, one of Ernő Erdély’s granddaughters

Sources used: Wikipedia, Győri Szalon 1, Győri Szalon