Hotel Schalkhaz in Kassa
Sára Salkaházi was born in Kassa, Hungary, now Kosice, Slovakia on May 11, 1899. She was the second child of her parents, Leopold and Klotild Salkahaz, who were owners of the Hotel Salkahaz in Kassa. She lost her father at the age of two, and her widowed mother took over leadership on the board of directors of the hotel; she needed the income to raise her three children.
Sara's childhood was best described by her brother Lipót: 'She was a tomboy with a strong will and a mind of her own; when it came to play she would always join the boys in their games or tug of war'. A schoolmate and friend of Sara described her as a funny, witty girl, who liked to joke a lot but at the same time she also showed deep social sensitivity, loyalty and perseverance. As a teen-ager she began to write plays and in the evenings, members of her family would often find her in her bedroom, kneeling in front of her bed, her head buried in her hands, sunk in deep thought and prayer.
Sara in her teenager years
She studied in Kosice and earned an elementary school teacher's degree -- the highest available there for women at that time. As a young woman, Sara taught school only for one year. For political reasons she left teaching and learned the trade of book-binding. There she came in touch with the conditions of the poor, particularly that of women, and those who were forced into a minority situation. This deepened her sensitivity and consciousness to the issues of social injustice.
Sara started to write. She actively participated in the literary society of the Hungarian minority of Slovakia and became a journalist. She edited the official paper of the National Christian Socialist Party of Czechoslovakia. She was a member of the governing body of that party. Sara wrote short stories; her themes focused on the conditions of the poor; on moral issues regarding injustice; and on challenges to become more human and humane. At the same time, Sara lived the colorful life of a journalist, but she was not satisfied. She was in search for her true vocation.
For a few months she was engaged to be married, but after a while she returned the ring. She came to recognize that her deeper desires led her in a different direction. Christ was tugging at her heart, attracting her to dedicate all her love to him and to the service of the needy. Sara resisted. She resisted for several years as the call implied giving up the life-style she came to love. Finally, Christ's love overcame her other loves. In 1929 she entered the Society of the Sisters of Social Service in Budapest. She took her first vows at Pentecost, 1930. Her motto: "Alleluia" captures her sentiments.
Group picture of sisters after their first profession (Sara is the third from right in the first row)
As a vowed member of the community Sr. Sara started her apostolic service. Her first assignment was at the Catholic Charities Office in Kosice, where she worked in many different areas utilizing her many gifts. She supervised charity works; taught religion, worked as community organizer, especially among Catholic women; gave lectures, published a periodical entitled: Catholic Women. By the assignment of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Slovakia she organized all the various Catholic women's groups into a national Catholic Women's Association. Besides all these, she found time to write. No wonder, she became completely exhausted. Her near burnout was misunderstood; her superiors doubted her vocation and refused to admit her to renewal of vows. This caused her profound suffering and humiliation. Nevertheless she continued to live the life of a Sister of Social Service without vows. Christ's love burning within her kept her faithful. She faced this trial peacefully, which eventually gave witness to the genuineness of her vocation.
As her love grew, a missionary desire awakened in her heart. The Hungarian Benedictines in Brazil were asking for Sisters to work in their mission. Sr. Sara was ready to go. World War II however, frustrated the plans to serve in Brazil. But in some sense Sister Sara still became a missionary as a social worker in a very poor area northeast of Hungary.
At Pentecost 1940 Sister Sara committed herself for life to God and to the service of the needy as a Sister of Social Service. At her final vows she added to her motto words from Isaiah: "Alleluia! Ecce ego, mitte me (Here I am, send me)!"
In 1941 Sister Sara received the assignment to be the national director of the Hungarian Catholic Working Women's Movement, an organization with a membership of close to 10,000 and with 230 local groups in 15 dioceses nationwide. She was the guiding spirit of this movement and editor of its periodical. With her writings she instructed and strengthened the members against the growing influence of Nazi ideology. She opened several hostels in Budapest for working single women to secure a safe environment for them. She founded a vacation house for the members of the movement where they could renew their spirits and energy. She established schools for vocational and leadership training for workers.
The Danube river in Budapest - the place of her martyrdom
With Nazism in power since 1938, the political climate became more and more difficult and dangerous. The Sisters of the Society with the leadership of their foundress, Sr. Margaret grabbed all means possible to rescue the persecuted: they were hiding people in their homes and institutions. Sára herself was hiding close to a hundred people in the hostels she was in charge of.
The Christ-like love which burned in Sr. Sara's heart, and the recognition of the danger that could befall the community, inspired Sr. Sara for a heroic deed. In 1943, she consciously offered her life for the Society, particularly for the weak and the ill, in case the persecution of the Church, the Society and of her Sisters would take place.
On December 27, 1944 the Working Women's hostel led by Sr. Sara, at 4 Bokréta-Street in Budapest was surrounded by the Nazis. They were looking for Jews and took four suspects and a religion teacher, Vilma Bernovits into custody. Sister Sára arrived home during the interrogation of the residents. She could have escaped the arrest, but instead she introduced herself as the one in charge of the house. She was carried off with the ones whom she wanted to shelter. On the evening of the same day all six of them were stripped naked and shot into the icy Danube. According to an eye-witness, before her execution Sister Sára knelt down, facing the executioners, and looking up into the sky, she signed herself with the cross. God accepted her sacrifice.