Born a Hungarian aristocrat on the eve of World War II, he’s now dedicated to preserving classical dressage, the very endeavor he credits with his survival during the Soviet Occupation.
Dawn had yet to lighten the sky as Charles de Kunffy, then around 20, set out on the deserted streets of Budapest to make his way from his apartment to the riding academy. The city on that early November morning in 1956 was under martial law, imposed by the occupying Soviets. The curfew lifted at 6 a.m., and de Kunffy had six horses in training.
Lining the elegant avenues, communist sharp shooters were positioned atop buildings and behind doorways, keeping a close eye out for suspicious behavior.
De Kunffy, like all Hungarians, constantly feared for his life. He walked calmly, trying not to draw attention to himself, well aware that a gesture as innocent as pulling a handkerchief from his pocket could be misconstrued as going for a weapon. He carried the white piece of cloth in his hand, its purpose two-fold: for wiping his nose on this chilly morning and/or to wave as a sign of surrender.
Across the street in front of a movie theater, a soldier paced back and forth patrolling the area. A young boy of approximately 6 appeared from a side street and determinedly approached the door of the theater with a piece of paper in his hand, most likely a Hungarian revolutionary leaflet.
As the child struggled to tape the paper on the glass, the soldier silently approached, leveled his gun, and shot the boy in the back of his head.
The sole witness on the street, de Kunffy choked back vomit. The child fell silently into a crumpled heap. De Kunffy dared not turn his head nor acknowledge the horror he had just viewed. Instead, he focused on putting one foot in front of the other, the sanctuary of the riding academy closer with every stride, as he wondered if the next bullet would strike him.
Even after the passing of more than six decades, the memory is too painful for de Kunffy to discuss with me in person, but he describes that terrible moment in his memoir, a book he tells me “is not an autobiography but a thank-you note to those who helped me, the horses and the likeminded people who loved them.”
He writes in A Rider’s Survival From Tyranny, “And so it happened, that I did not get shot but I had to watch someone else die. I reached my horses; riding them helped me live that day. I could not tell what I saw. Even now I can only write it to avoid sobbing.”
For de Kunffy, horses not only saved his life literally—as an elite rider, he was allowed by the Soviets to continue his equestrian education in the hopes that he (and other top riders) would bestow future prestige on the communist occupiers—but also they did so spiritually and emotionally.
And de Kunffy reciprocated, devoting his life to repaying these animals through the preservation of the art of classical dressage and horsemanship.
“With dressage, you are in charge of the horse’s emotions and spirit and intellect. So you don’t just develop his body to be stronger or more precisely balanced, you have to address his mind and his sweetness of temper. That’s why it’s dressage and not just riding—because it goes beyond the physical,” he says.
A Gorgeous Dream
We’re sitting side by side on a down-filled sofa in an elegant living room reminiscent of the old salons of Europe with art hung floor to ceiling, a glittering crystal chandelier and rich oriental rugs. Large windows frame orange and lemon trees, their branches heavy with fruit.
De Kunffy lives alone in the townhouse. (“I would go crazy with anybody,” he says. “No, I am not the type who can live with other people. Claustrophobic.”) In the distance the mountain range outlines the western edge of Palm Springs, Calif.
We are a long way from Hungary.
One side of a photo album rests on each of our knees as we flip through it together.
De Kunffy is now an octogenarian.
He won’t confirm my questions as to his age or how old he was during the Nazi invasion.
“This is what we keep a secret. Exact years. Divulging exact dates of age and other important things is considered totally rude and impermissible because it makes you a statistic. I lived the Nazi occupation, but I don’t have to say how young I was. I was a child,” he confirms politely.
He is so unfailingly well-mannered and gracious with a musical, lilting voice. As we chat, he slowly divulges more information. Part of his hesitancy is his abhorrence of what he calls “celebrity culture” with its blurring lines between the personal and the public.
“I loathe celebrity culture. There is something so despicable about it. Wasn’t Hitler a celebrity culture? Mussolini? Stalin? All these disgusting creeps. I don’t like to discuss too much of my personal life because I think it jibes into the whole celebrity thing. I always say, ‘Nobody is entitled to know that,’ and they should buy my future book,” he adds, giving me a mischievous smile as his elegant fingers turn the pages of the album.
He’s been writing an account of his life that goes beyond the few years detailed in his aforementioned “thank you notebook” along with a video documenting his life story. But that is for the future. We are here now.
This is an excerpt from the article “Charles De Kunffy: Saved By Horses” by Jennifer B. Calder, which appears in the June 5 Dressage Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.
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