Today, they hardly know who he was in Eger — a wine-growing town in the North of Hungary –, even though he grew up there along the hills of the famous “Bull’s Blood” vinyards. He had not only established the fundation of the city’s water sport, but also trained champions in several countries – including the fascist Mussolini’s children! Imre Szasz (Schwartz) was a First World War hero who also survived the Holocaust. We depict a portrait of a special sportsman who is almost totally unknown in Hungary.
He wanted to perform a special dolphin-back jump in the Olympic swimming pool in Rome, Italy, but during the jump he fell back on the trampoline, hit his head, which broke in two places. Five of his upper teeth and two of his lower teeth were knocked out. The accident caused a huge shock among the audience, but the victim tried to reassure everyone that his injury was not that serious….
He was a tough, brave, battle-hardened man. Fifteen years earlier, in the First World War, he had lost one of his eyes…
A war hero
The one-eyed lieutenant was Imre Szasz, who was born as Imre Schwartz on the 10th of October 1896 in Mezőkövesd, a small town about 40 miles East of Budapest. His father, József Schwartz, was a restaurateur, and his mother, Etelka Steiner, was a housewife.
Growing up in a Jewish family, Imre changed his surname to Szasz in the summer of 1918. He grew up in Eger, his father was the owner of a prestigiuos hotel, the “Nemzeti” (National) and a coffee house, but naturally in Eger, he was also engaged in selling wine. In addition to his studies, Imre was active in sports.
In 1913, he participated in the first swimming competition organized in Eger, and between 1913-15 he was a member of the swimming team of the Eger Torna Egylet (ETE).
In World War I, he served in the Imperial and Royal 60th Infantry Regiment. He was a great swimmer and proved this during the battles: in the summer of 1916 he swam several times across the Dniester River with its strong current. However, on August 31, 1916, he was taken prisoner by the Russians at Halich, now part of Ukraine, after a shrapnel hit his right eye. After a year of captivity and much deprivation, he was able to return to Eger in September 1917 as an exchange invalid.
For his heroic behavior on the Russian front, he was awarded the Officer’s Silver Valor Medal and was appointed lieutenant. Later, in February 1919, he was the first among the soldiers of the Hungarian People’s Republic to receive the Republic’s Great Silver Medal of Valor.
The father of swimming in Eger
Imre Szasz has eternal merits in the creation, organization and promotion of swimming in Eger. As an athlete – in the colors of ETE – he excelled primarily in diving, but he was also an excellent swimmer, played water polo, and was even a member of the ETE football team!
A book published in Israel in 1975 (Arthur Ehrenfeld: Jews of Eger) testifies to this, in which Szasz himself summarized the beginning of sports life in Eger, including several outstanding athletes and sport leaders of Jewish origin. In the second half of the 1920s, Szasz taught both swimming and water polo, and worked as a qualified water polo referee.
He left Eger in 1925 and took up a coaching job in other cities in the East of Hungary before he traveled to Warsaw to teach Polish swimmers, but after a few months his heart pulled him back to Eger.
In September 1930, the Italian swimming team visited Hungary. The European champion and Olympic silver medalist swimmer, István Bárány introduced Imre Szasz to the head of the Italian delegation. They immediately offered him a job in Rome.
The famed Hungarian warrior took on no less a task than training Italian swimmers preparing for the Los Angeles summer Olympic games.
He left for Italy in March 1931 and served the Italian swimming sport until it was possible for Jews… until 1940. He was not only a contracted coach of the Italian Olympic Committee, but was also asked to coach the elite club in Rome, Romana Nuoto.
The Hungarian master probably did a lot to get the club to such a level that a few decades later a certain Carlo Pedersoli, i.e. Bud Spencer, would also start doing competitive sports there…
Imre Szasz enjoyed great respect in Italy. Already in 1931, the president of the Italian Olympic Committee made a statement about him, and the son of the Italian king personally congratulated him on his achievements.
He even taught the fascist leader, Benito Mussolini’s two children to swim in Rome.
During the months of preparation for the 1932 Olympics, he worked with more than eighty Italian swimmers in the National Stadium with tireless energy from morning to night. Among his students, sprinter Paolo Costoli won bronze and silver medals at the European Championships and reached the semi-finals at the Olympics.
Although the Hungarian coach’s contract expired in 1932, it was no surprise to anyone that he was able to continue his work in Italy: the elite club, Romana Nuoto hired him as a sport director. Szasz’s versatility is shown by the fact that
when he was not coaching his athlets, he picked up a pen and, thanks to his intellectual capacity, he sent stylish reports on various sports events to the editorial office of the biggest Hungarian sport daily, the Nemzeti Sport in Budapest.
Years of persecution
Since it was apparently much easier to prosper as a Jew in Hungary, Szasz moved home to Eger in the spring of 1940. However, due to the "de-Jewishization" of the sports associations, he could not hope for a job as a coach. He managed to find a job in the Széchenyi Hotel, and in its restaurant he created a club room for the members of the Egri Torna Egylet.
In 1944, even his World War I heroism and valor medal could not protect him from being taken to labor service, in vain he enhanced the reputation of his country abroad for almost a decade.
First, he was a laborer in Jolsva, Slovakia, and then moved to Poland. From the end of 1944, he entered military service and fought against the Germans in the Czechoslovak army. In the meantime, he lost his entire family. His father died in Eger in 1943. His mother and two siblings, Sándor and Ilona, were dragged to Auschwitz, and his third brother, the doctor Endre, died in 1945, during the siege of Budapest.
After the war, he once again set about reviving swimming in the city. The work bore fruit: in the summer of 1946, Népsport already reported that "no country town has such a vibrant swimming life as Eger." Szasz was appointed secretary general of the Hungarian Swimming Association's northern district, and was promoted from reserve first lieutenant to reserve captain.
In 1948, he taught youth swimmers in Eger. In the spring of 1949, he suddenly left Hungary and traveled to Vienna, where he coached for a year. In August 1950, he moved back to the scene of his previous successes, Italy.
In 1951, however, he started working in Portugal, leading the training sessions for swimmers and water polo players of a skating club, Sport Algés e Dafundo (SAD), in Algés near Lisbon. Since the Portuguese water polo team was made up entirely of SAD players, Imre Szasz was naturally the one who prepared the team for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
The "water delegation" of the Portuguese Olympic team performed below expectations due to various external factors. All this caused a huge disappointment in Portugal, the public criticized the team's professional management with sharp criticism, and Szasz was also swept away by popular anger.
Despite the Portuguese fiasco, Szasz's professional authority and previous successful results were still attractive beyond the Atlantic Ocean. In the winter of 1953, the ocean liner Conte Biancamano entered the port of Santos with Imre Szasz on board. Szasz was accompanied to Brazil by his wife, the Polish-born Sofia Horowitz, whom he met during the Second World War.
In July 1953, the local newspaper already reported that the Chilean Swimming Association was signing Imre Szasz as the coach of the Chilean swimmers, to whom "many French, Portuguese and Dutch swimming champions can thank" for their sporting success. However, Szasz remained in Brazil for a few years, where he taught swimming and water polo until the early 1960s. He returned to Europe every year for vacation from Brazil, sometimes also to Hungary.
He kept an eye on the latest news and results about Hungarian swimming, water polo, and diving. Moreover, he was happy to help Hungarian athletes escaping from Hungary after the 1956 revolution and settling them in São Paulo.
Mentor of Brazilian polo
Among the Brazilian athlets of Imre Szasz, Pedro Pinciroli Júnior stands out as the most important Brazilian water polo player of the 1960s, the captain of the Brazilian national team, who also participated in two Olympics (1964 Tokyo, 1968 Mexico City), and in 1967 he won a silver medal at the Pan American Games with his team and he became the top scorer of the tournament.
Everything he learned from his Hungarian mentor, he later passed on to his daughter, Cristiana, also a national water polo player, who was later the captain of the Brazilian women's national team for fifteen (!) years, a player for top Italian teams, and one of the seven best women's water polo players in the world at the end of the nineties.
Szasz is said to have visited Greece as a coach and retired there in 1965. He settled in Vienna, Austria for his last years and died there on January 24, 1986. His wife died a few years earlier, and they had no children.
We would be happy if they knew about this in Eger as well, and maybe one day we could recall the career of Imre Szasz with a worthy tribute.