János Dobri (23 November 1914, Brașov – 1 October 1990, Cluj-Napoca) was a Transylvanian Hungarian Reformed pastor, scout leader and professor of theology. His father was a train driver and his mother was a housewife. He completed his early studies in the Reformed primary school of Brașov. In 1925 he was enrolled in the Catholic Secondary School of Brașov. In 1934 he was accepted as a student of Reformed Theology in Cluj. In 1939 he was a candidate for a scholarship abroad, but the outbreak of the Second World War prevented him from leaving the country and he was recruited by the army. Then between 1940 and 1941 he served as an assistant pastor in Zalău (ACNSAS, I211500/3, 1–15).
His involvement with the scout movement marked a decisive part of his life. The first Transylvanian scout teams prior to World War I came into being at the initiative of the Reformed church; following the Change of Empires, the Transylvanian scout troops were reorganised relatively late, beginning with the school year of 1922–1923. In the period between 1924 and 1929 scouting activities took place in the framework of the Prince Carol Foundation (Fundația Principelui Carol). Scouting in Transylvania was not a homogeneous and unitary movement. Reformed and Catholic scout teams operated separately. The scout movements of both denominations had their centre in Cluj, and their denominational youth magazines featured a scouting column. The Reformed scouts pursued their activities in parallel with the IKE (Transylvanian YMCA), and had their headquarters at Reformed Theology. Dobri got acquainted with the movement during his school years. From 1930 he was a member of the Romanian Scout Association up to its dissolution in 1938. In 1936 a Romanian national Jamboree was organised in Poiana Brașov where scout troops from neighbouring countries were also invited. This is where Dobri came into contact with the Hungarian scout movement. In 1937 he took part in the camp organised by the Training Staff of Honvéd (Hungarian military) Scout Troop Leaders (Honvédcserkész Őrsvezetők Kiképző Kara – HÖKK) where he gained insight into the organisation and goals of the movement. Upon returning home he became engaged in the education of youth, using Sunday school preparatory sessions as a pretext. He informed the young members of his scout group about the problems faced by Hungarian society (single-child families, land reform, negative German influence) and drew their attention to folk writers (Imre Kovács, Dezső Szabó, Gyula Illyés), encouraging his scouts to read the works of these authors. On 24 January 1937 the scout movement was abolished and replaced by the official youth organisation Straja Țării (Guard of the country). Nevertheless, scout sessions continued in secret. Dobri organised trips and initiated the creation of a folk dance group, and folk song courses began to be organised. In 1939 the local government banned Hungarian students from sports facilities. Dobri purchased an empty lot in Cluj where he also supervised the construction of a sports field. After the Second Vienna Award (by which northern Transylvania came under Hungarian rule), from October 1940 until March 1944 he was a member of the Hungarian Scout Association, and as the second-in-command of the 9th Transylvanian Scout District he led a section of group leaders known as The Circle of Patrol Leaders from Hárshegy (Hárshegyi Őrsvezetők Köre). In 1941 he attended a five-week retraining course at the ninth post hospital in Cluj. On 1 January 1942 he was appointed a military chaplain. In the period between 1941 and 1943 he was the training consultant of Levente (the official boys’ youth organisation in Hungary at the time) group leaders aged 14–16, but he was also entrusted with the training of young theology student leaders in Cluj. It was under his supervision that a scout park was established on Lombi Hill in Cluj, funded by civil organisations and associations based in Cluj. This park was used for purposes of scout leader training and camping. In the summer of 1943 when the scout movement began to display signs of adherence to Nazi ideology, he ceased to be active in scouting with some help from reformed bishop János Vásárhelyi (Jánosi 2017).
In February 1944 he was recruited into the army. Beginning with April, as the head protestant chaplain of the divisional brigade of the Royal Hungarian 27th Szekler Light Division of Târgu Mureș he held the rank of first lieutenant serving first on the Galician and then on the Northern Transylvanian front. On 17 October 1944 Dobri was taken prisoner by the Soviets in Baia Mare (Berekméri 2015, 222). In 1945 Dobri was recruited by the newly established anti-fascist Lajos Kossuth Regiment; however, since in the meantime the war had ended, the unit sent to the front was transformed into a labour squadron. For almost two years Dobri worked in the tram garage of Ivanovo (Russia), and later in the workshop of the local drama theatre. In September, 1946 he was transferred to an officer camp near Riga. Here he attended Russian language courses and took an active part in the cultural programs. He returned home on 23 June 1948 (ACNSAS, I211500/2, 25).
Following his release from Russian detention, until April 1949 he served as an assistant pastor in the Cluj–Orașul de Jos parish. He became a registered member of the Hungarian People’s Union (Uniunea Populară Maghiară), and also became a member of the Romanian Association for Strengthening Relations with the Soviet Union (ARLUS) as well as of the Russian–Romanian translators’ group. In September–November of 1948 he made translations from Russian for the Cluj left-wing daily newspaper Világosság. As of 1 May 1949 he was invited to teach at the department of “Russian Language and History of the Eastern Church” at the Protestant Theological Institute of Cluj. Until 15 May 1955 he worked as a substitute teacher, and then, between 16 May 1955 and 30 March 1957 he functioned as a visiting regular lecturer. He obtained his PhD degree on 29 December 1949. His literary activities include the translation into Hungarian of Russian literary works, shorter studies and papers (ACNSAS, I211500/3 142).
He was forced to interrupt his activity as a teacher on several occasions due to short periods of arrest. Already from November, 1948 the Securitate was monitoring former scout leaders because of their previous activity within the scout movement. The Cluj Regional Directorate of the Ministry of Interior began to conduct serious investigations into the so-called HÖKK case in March, 1951. Dobri was arrested on 3 July 1951. Since investigators in Târgu Mureș played a major role in the handling of the case, he was transferred to the sphere of competence of the Mureș regional authorities as ordered from Bucharest. On 7 December 1951 the Cluj Military Court passed sentence in the case of a group of four members. The third defendant, János Dobri was sentenced to six months of correctional prison as well as a fine of 2,000 lei on charges of public instigation (intention to reorganise the scout movement). He was released from the Cluj Court prison on 29 December 1951 (ACNSAS, P217/7; AANP, FMP, János Dobri).
On 1 April 1952 Dobri was restored to his position at the Protestant Theological Institute of Cluj. However, on 8 April 1952 the HÖKK case was reopened by the 8th Directorate of Criminal Investigations, which considered that the sentence passed in this case was not in conformity with the severity of the crime, an opinion which was expressed in a written report sent to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of the Romanian People’s Republic. On 30 January 1953, Dobri was arrested again. On 23 October 1953, the Military Court of Orașul Stalin (Brașov) sentenced him to one year and two months of correctional prison and the payment of legal expenses to the amount of 100 lei on charges of public instigation. However, since a period of eleven months and twenty-nine days – the duration of the original sentence no. 982/1951 plus the time spent in pre-trial detention – was subtracted from this sentence, his order for release was issued relatively early, on 27 January 1954. He served time as a prisoner in the Gherla and Jilava jails and the Cluj court prison, but he was also used as part of the labour force in Onești and Borzești (ACNSAS, P217/2).
Although an appeal was not filed before 11 February 1954, Dobri was already able to resume his activity as a professor as of 1 February. Following his third arrest on 21 March 1957 his photos were removed, on orders from above, from three boards of merit featuring theology graduates between 1950 and 1953; they were replaced by patterns. In 2009, upon the request of the congregation of Cluj–Dâmbul Rotund the three photos were restored to their original places (Jánosi 2017).
The Hungarian revolution of 1956 generated a wave of sympathy among Hungarians in Transylvania and this foreshadowed later retribution from the Romanian side. Basically, the term “Transylvanian Hungarian ’56” does not necessarily denote people’s anti-regime manifestations in October–November 1956, but rather the retribution process between 1956 and 1966, concentrated mainly on so-called group trials. Among these, the most significant were those cases of high treason which also raised the issue of Transylvania’s adherence. Such was the case János Dobri also became involved in. In show-trial that unfolded the charges were based on the plan elaborated by István Dobai, a jurist, aimed at solving the Transylvanian problem – the issue of territorial affiliation –, which was transmitted by Dobai to several people in Hungary during the revolution and which he intended to forward to the UN as well. This draft was later referred to in the court records and in specialised literature as the “UN-memorandum.” Dobri, arrested on 29 March 1957, was sentenced to six years correctional imprisonment and a further three years of forfeiture of rights and confiscation of total assets on charges of offence against the social order (instigated by typing and distributing poems). He served his sentence in the Cluj Court prison, in the Gherla penitentiary, in the Danube Delta and the settlements pertaining to the Danube–Black Sea canal – Grind, Salcia, Luciu-Giurgeni, Grădina, Ostrov, Periprava, Fetești –, and on the prison hulks known as Ileni Levendi and Gironde. By virtue of Gov. Decree no. 5/1963 he was pardoned on 28 January 1963 (Dávid 2006; P104/1-7).
In 1943 Dobri married Klára Czira, a district nurse who herself came from a clergy family. They raised six children, whose births were determined by the sequence of detentions and arrests. The status of political prisoner stigmatised and unfavourably affected all members of the family. Although from time to time it did not appear to be so because of the politically adaptable attitudes of the ecclesiastical elite, the preserving, family-aiding role of the Church is indisputable. The Dobri family lived in Cluj in the building of the church district (Kogălniceanu 29), exempted from payment of rent. The vicinity of theology professors made it possible for these professors to offer occasional help for the family. When the head of the family was taken away, Professor András Nagy organised charity actions. Help was also received from Saxon theology professors. However, after the good intentions displayed at the beginning, these good-doers gradually disappeared and started to avoid the Dobri family for fear of negative consequences, which filled the family with bitterness (statement of András Dobri).
As so many times before, on 2 February 1963 János Dobri returned home to find altered circumstances. This time he had to adapt to the changed elite within the Cluj church district. In the early 1960s, the elections of bishops within the Oradea and Cluj Reformed church districts were already controlled by the one-party state; in both cases persons were assigned to the highest position within the clergy – Sándor Búthi and Gyula Nagy – whose previous lives and activities were a safe enough guarantee of Party-controlled church government (Jánosi 2015). Dobri’s social reintegration was made difficult by the three-year forfeiture of rights imposed upon him by virtue of the sentence of November 1957. Although he even submitted a written request to the Protestant Theological Institute asking to be restored to his previous position as a professor, his request was rejected on the grounds that he could not fill any position as a public official due to his former indictment. Following his release he worked for a few days at the national post office and then he was employed by the Chimica factory as a worker in the bakelite department. His scarce financial means made it necessary for him to undertake upholstery work as well. When his indictment was suspended, from 1 February 1965 he became a part-time clerk in the deanery of the Cluj Reformed Diocese. His activity as a pastor reached fulfilment in the Cluj–Dâmbul Rotund parish, where he served from 1 April 1969 until 30 October 1985 (ACNSAS, I211500/1).
According to the informative records in his file, the mapping by the secret police of János Dobri’s activity as a pastor between 1963 and 1989 was performed along two paths: 1. Primarily they focused on his everyday activity as a pastor and the impact of his activity within the Church 2. They also tried to uncover his international relations, which involved monitoring by informants who had travelled abroad for various reasons (international theological conferences, family visits, etc.) as well as the methodical observation of the pastor’s family guests from abroad (ACNSAS, I211500/1–7). Following his release from prison, due to his anti-regime and “Hungarian nationalist” remarks he was observed by the Securitate with the help of the informant network existing within the clergy. On 3 June 1967 a verification file was opened in the case. Besides mail interception and investigation efforts, on 25 April 1968 they also opened an observation file on his name, primarily due to his “nationalist” manifestations mentioned in the informant reports. His position as a deanery clerk allowed him to gain direct insight and he was not afraid to comment on leaders of the Reformed church and theology professors who proved willing to make compromises to please the system, nor was he hesitant to express his views regarding the treatment of Transylvanian Hungarians treated as second-hand citizens and the relations between the Romanian and Hungarian states. His views did not represent an impediment in obtaining a passport and spending time in Hungary between 5 and 23 December 1968 on the occasion of a death in the family. As was only natural, his international contacts with the charity organisations Palatinus and Caritas proved to be “justifiable”; it became clear that he had not been involved in subversive activities and that the real reasons behind his “misinterpretable” affirmations were his personal and professional dissatisfactions. On 18 March 1969 the closing of the observation file kept under the cover-name of “Dunca Ioan” was approved (ACNSAS, I211500/1).
Nevertheless, Dobri remained under close observation. He obtained a tourist passport for Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He and his wife returned home from the trip abroad in December, 1969. In a report dated February 28, 1970, the Hungarian state security services informed the State Security General Council about Dobri’s activity in Hungary (ACNSAS, I211500/4). As a result of the note, on 11 March 1970 the 1st Directorate issued an order for cooperation in the Dobri case between the competent authorities in Cluj and Bucharest and for the processing of the relevant material in a ninety-day work file. On 11 March 1971 the Securitate ordered the opening of another observation file on Dobri. As a direct cause they mention the “training” of religious dissidence as well as his contacts, deemed negative, with “reactionary” Hungarian emigrants. They considered it as highly suspicious that on the occasion of visits paid to him by Reformed pastors from Hungary Dobri sometimes accompanied his guests across the country and on other occasions made suggestions as to the programmes of their visits, so that they could compare and draw conclusions regarding the situation of Reformed Church members living in Hungary and Romania. On 8 February 1973, in the “Dunca Ioan” observation case the 4th Bureau of the 1st Department of Domestic Intelligence within the Ministry of Interior’s Cluj County Inspectorate drew up the action plan which, though subsequently updated at intervals of three to six months, determined the operations of the Department and set the operational guidelines until February 1989, according to the archival records. The action plan set forth the monitoring of Dobri’s activity as a pastor, the mapping of his contacts both in and outside Romania, and the acquisition of evidence to support the allegations. Taking into consideration the weakness of the informant network, the Securitate demanded the involvement of colleagues, elders and students from Dâmbul Rotund attending catechism courses, but also resorted to scheduled meetings, agent-provocateurs and “presents” intended to facilitate interceptions. The observation was extended to the pastor’s sons and daughters who were also entered in the register. Besides his extensive foreign contacts it was soon discovered that Dobri did everything he could to ensure the religious education of the underage members of his parish and took a series of steps in order to stimulate attendance at catechism courses. He doubled the number of religious services and allotted considerable time to family visits. It serves as a brilliant example for Dobri’s effectiveness that at Christmas 1973. as many as sixty-two children recited religious poems in the church. Moreover, he disregarded Decree no. 18 of the Ministerial Council, which stipulated his obligation to immediately report to his church superiors whenever Western aid was received or contacts with foreign citizens were established. His first warning occurred on 24 April 1974 (ACNSAS, I211500/4-6).
In the 1970s the Securitate attempted in the first place to contain and positively influence the pastor of Dâmbul Rotund. However, from 1980 the aim was to isolate him within the Church. A newly emerged case proved an excellent pretext in this respect. In the summer of 1980 Dobri offered to help Tamás Jenei, Reformed pastor of Bacău, to obtain his driver’s license in Cluj. As in February and March of 1980 Jenei did not pass the test due to chauvinism, he turned to Dobri for help. The latter issued a certificate confirming that his colleague was a pastor in the Dâmbul Rotund parish. Jenei then submitted a written request to be allowed to take the test in Cluj since he was working and temporarily residing there. The irregularity – the address and place of work provided by Jenei did not match those in the register – was not discovered until after he had passed the test. On 30 December 1980 the Cluj Law Court, by virtue of Sentence no. 2076/1980 sentenced Tamás Jenei to ten months of public work to be served on a construction site, and gave János Dobri a six-month suspended prison sentence with payment of legal expenses. Although, as a consequence of this case the Securitate expected a loss of credibility regarding Dobri’s person among both among the members of his parish and his fellow pastors, this did not happen (ACNSAS, I211500/4).
The monitoring continued even after Dobri’s retirement on 1 November 1985. He was warned again in August 1988. This measure was considered necessary because in the course of 1988 Dobri had publicly voiced his sympathy with the “anti-Romanian” actions taken by Hungary. All this coincided with the revival of his foreign contacts: he was visited again by former fellow scouts living in exile, by members of the HEKS charity organisation and by Dutch pastors. On top of that, Dobri also welcomed guests from Hungary on a regular basis. He still received numerous letters and packages by mail, and he continued consistently to pass on aid packages and medicine deliveries to pastors based in the Cluj area (ACNSAS, I211500/6).
In the fall of 1988 Dobri suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and was left with hemiplegia. After this, his health was continuously failing and he began to face difficulties speaking and moving, which limited his contacts with “elements displaying hostile conduct.” At the age of 75, half paralysed, he was no longer considered a threat to public order, and therefore on 1 June 1989 Lieutenant-Colonel József Ungváry suggested the closing of the observation file on him set up in 1971. Ungváry summarised the results of the eighteen-year monitoring. In Dobri’s case the Securitate had resorted to the informant network, mail interception and street shadowing. Dobri had been a target of interceptions and investigations, and he had been subjected to warning and “positive influencing.” In quite a few cases he had been declared persona non grata among his contacts. In the second half of the 1980s they had tried to annihilate his foreign contacts as well: four foreign delegates had been warned through the passport department, two had been declared persona non grata, and others had had their stay in Romania interrupted. Among his palpable accomplishments Ungváry mentioned the warnings issued in 1974 and 1988, together with the suspended prison sentence issued in 1980. The proposal to close the file was approved “on order” by Department I/B that same day and the closed file was handed over to the Bureau of Information and Documentation (B.I.D.) according to protocol.
János Dobri died on 1 October 1990. His life story, besides featuring almost the full set of accessories used by Communist repression, serves also as a role model for keeping one’s dignity as a member of a national minority under the totalitarian regime. He always subordinated his relationships with representatives of the government to moral principles that he consistently complied with. Due to his relentlessness he had to confront the authorities more frequently than his fellow pastors did on average, but on the other hand, beginning with the 1970s he became an authentic figure with a “martyr’s aura” in foreign public opinion. He became the permanent target of official visits from the West, the continual addressee of deliveries of medicines and other packages, who supervised and facilitated support for Transylvanian Reformed pastors for decades. His authenticity and endurance in the eyes of Western communities can also be linked to his most significant achievement as a pastor, the construction of the Church of Hope, which in the context of the Reformed church was a unique accomplishment during the last two decades of the regime. On the community level, Dobri’s example provides an alternative in a world where cooperation with the Securitate was a tacitly accepted part of everyday life, one which infiltrated into the life of families and became one of the decisive factors of career building. In the light of the compromising approach displayed by the church elite of the time, his attitude is even more prominent, securing him a place also among the members of Transylvanian Hungarian dissidents. His story is an example of successful survival that disproves and opposes the line of argument according to which the individual is a victim of the system, forced to resort to compromises in order to survive (Jánosi 2017).
- Brașov, Romania
- Jánosi, Csongor
AANP – Arhiva Administraţiei Naţionale a Penitenciarelor (Archives of the National Administration of Penitentiaries):
ACNSAS – Arhiva Consiliului Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității (Archives of the National Council for the Study of Securitate Files): I – Fond Informativ (Informative fonds): file 211500, volumes 1-7. P – Fond Penal (Penal fond): file 217, volume 2. and 7; file 104, volumes 1-7.
Berekméri, Árpád-Róbert. 2015. „Lesz még kikelet!”: A marosvásárhelyi magyar királyi 27. székely honvéd könnyű hadosztály a második világháborúban (1940–1945) (“Spring is yet to arrive!”- The Royal Hungarian 27th Szekler Light Division of Tîrgu-Mureș during the Second World War (1940–1945)). Marosvásárhely – Kolozsvár: Lector Kiadó – Erdélyi Múzeum-Egyesület.
Dávid, Gyula, ed. 2006. 1956 Erdélyben – Politikai elítéltek életrajzi adattára 1956–1965 (1956 in Transylvania – The Biographical Inventory of Political Convicts 1956–1965). Kolozsvár: Erdélyi Múzeum-Egyesület – Polis Könyvkiadó,
Jánosi, Csongor. 2017. “A Priest’s Destiny in Transylvania during the Communist Regime. János Dobri (1914-1990).” In Histories (Un)Spoken. Survival and Social-Professional Integration in Political Prisoners' Families in Communist Central and Eastern Europe in the ’50s and ’60s, edited by Cosmin Budeancă and Dalia Báthory, 104 –128. Zürich: LIT Verlag.
Jánosi, Csongor. 2015. “Romanian Church Political Condensations. Bishop Elections in the Reformed Church Districts of Cluj and Oradea in the 1960s.” Religion – Staat – Gesellschaft. Zeitschrift für Glaubensformen und Weltanschauungen, 1–2: 271–306.
Dobri, András , interview by Jánosi, Csongor , August 23, 2018. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection