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The bombed Hungarian oil-village that turned into a metropolis

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There are not that many Hungarian villages that were the intentional targets of bombings during World War II, but Bázakerettye in Hungary's Zala county had more than its fair share of aerial attacks. Sometimes called the cradle of the Hungarian oil industry, the small town has a dense history - it had been occupied by Americans, Germans, and the Russians as well over the span of a couple of years. Thanks to oil, the village was bustling with life and grew into a unique town with a peculiar economy that lives vividly in the memory of the locals.

"Kerettye used to be a metropolis, nobody wanted to leave," Éva Láng Csordásné, who grew up in the town in the 1950s and 60s told me. The village used to have a relative air of freedom even back then - a sort of urban lifestyle developed here, children used informal language when speaking to their parents, which was a rather strange thing for most countryside people in Hungary at the time, as customs usually dictated strict formal forms for children when addressing adults.

József Hofstadter, who worked forty years in the oil industry, also mentioned the urbanised lifestyle first. "We had everything, a school, a kindergarten, a community pool, a cinema, a football pitch, a cultural venue, nobody could have wanted anything more." 

Until the middle of the 1930s Bázakerettye was an insignificant village with only a couple of houses, but after the area's oil reserves were discovered, that was all about to change. 

Searching for oil reserves in Hungary began as early as the start of the 20th century, but with few results to show within the confines of the borders created by the Treaty of Trianon. The state did not want to risk too much with the costly research, therefore it entered into concession agreements with foreign companies, which is how the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and later EUROGASCO could make their own attempts at finding oil in Hungary. 1923 saw the first discovery of hydrocarbon traces in Budafapuszta, an area belonging to Bázakerettye, but the conditions at the time did not seem to allow for the extraction of these resources.

The research found new momentum in the 1930s, when a number of test drillings commenced in different places around the same time - in Mihály in Sopron county, in Görgeteg and Inke in Somogy county, but extraction only started in Kerettye in 1938. "When the state-of-the-art steam-powered rotary drills were brought here, the team at Inke was split. Half of them were transferred to Budafa, and they started drilling not far from the side of the village. They only found traces, so they were in a tough spot, but with a trick, they've managed to convince the US entrepreneur to provide the necessary funds to continue working. This is where they got lucky, as Budafa-2 finally achieved success" remembered Hofstadter, whose father joined EUROGASCO in December 1935.

Oil extraction required well-trained staff which was difficult to come by on such short notice, as the oil industry was something completely new at the time. The American drillers tried to train locksmiths and machine-repairmen to handle the drills, and even those hired as engineers had to spend around six months with physical labour around the oil wells. Workers arrived from all over Zala and even from more distant parts of Hungary. The small village grew to be a vibrant, colourful place along these years, it was often said that it was hard to find two families with the same last names. 

The oil company that from 1938 operated under the name MAORT (Hungarian-American Oil Company) was attracting workers in large numbers, but settling them was difficult due to the housing issues in the area. Hofstadter said that he read in a book that there were only 13 houses in Bázakerettye when the oil industry started moving into the village. "People tried to find shelter at these houses, but all sheds could be rented in the surrounding towns too."  

The housing issue was more-or-less remedied within a couple of years, as two neighbourhoods were quickly erected - uniform homes were built for engineers that displayed motives mixing American and traditional local architecture. A part of Bázakerettye still feels like a typical American suburb, and the locals still call the prettiest blocks "Camp." 

The houses seem to have just been carelessly tossed all over a spread-out park, there are no fences, and for that reason keeping chickens around the house did not take off around here so much until lately. The large boulevard ends in a community pool with a wonderful panorama on one side, and a tennis court at the other, making the town feel more like a resort than a settlement for workers. 

The homes had practical layouts and featured bathrooms with hot running water and flush toilets, which were kind of a novelty at the time. They were service homes, and at the beginning, tenants did not even pay rent, and when they did, it was low - only 30 forints per month in the 1960s. By today, had been sold to private individuals who are using them as weekend houses. Oil caused the village's population to grow to 2000 people, and it's still attracting workers. In the 1960s, pensioners were urged to move to nearby Lovászi to allow the youth to flow into Kerettye. 

The company was run by American engineers and businessmen, approximately a dozen people, whose taste and worldview affected Bázakerettye for the following decade. "They've brought this all with themselves, they've introduced a new work-culture - they were the first ones two introduce three 8-hour shifts in Hungary. These were huge changes, and they paid the highest salaries in the area," said Hoferstadt, who worked at the local branch of the gas-distribution company for forty years.

The Americans weren't here for long though, as they were chased away after the USA entered World War II and the company was nationalised. The oil wells later produced for the German army, and it was, in the end, the Americans themselves who put a stop to that. On 30 June 1944, three waves of American bombers arriving from Southern Italy carried out aerial attacks against Bázakerettye. Seven hundred bombs were dropped on the village, and dozens of people died, but the main target was the gasoline plant. Hofstadter said the Americans had an easy task, as they knew the town well enough to pinpoint the house in which the local leader of the Nazi-collaborator Arrow Cross Party lived. Of course, that house was hit by the bombs as well, and he suspects it was no coincidence that the attack took place on a Sunday, as the US Air Force did not want to cause too many casualties.

Production restarted relatively soon after the attack, and the Americans ultimately returned after the war. They were in Bázakerettye right until 1948, Hungary's communist takeover, but they were again forced to leave after that. MAORT was nationalised once more, and one of its leaders, geologist Simon Papp was convicted in one of the many conceptional trials that were the hallmarks of the Communists' rise to power in Hungary.  He was charged with sabotage; according to the prosecution, he slowed down production and intentionally caused damages to the Hungarian state. The trial even prompted a propaganda-documentary titled "Colony under the surface," starring many famous Hungarian actors of the period.

Soon after this, Russians appeared on Zala county's oil fields, who regarded the oil as reparations for the war, and they operated the wells at peak capacity - the fields ended up depleting sooner than expected this way. The 12 square-kilometre fields had 514 wells and more than 200 kilometres of pipelines. 

Ownership might have changed, but the standard of living provided by the oil industry did not, the town was the home to unique opportunities even in the 1960s. "There were amateur drama clubs, balls, the cinema had showings twice a week, and famous Hungarian actors appeared as guests in the local theatre quite frequently. Piano teachers came from Kanizsa, there were ballet classes and even a company band. Many years later I've come to learn that my math and physics teacher used to be an instructing conductor of the Budapest Opera. There was not a swimming pool like ours anywhere nearby," reminisced Hofstadter about the vibrant cultural life. Community pools were a rare sight even in larger cities, Kerettye was breaking ground even in that regard - it even gave place to national swimming competitions.

Éva Láng Csordásné thinks that the population's high ratio of intellectuals helped the development of the town greatly. "The engineers were shaping life, they had almost pedagogical roles, an urban spirit moved into the town. Maybe it's not an exaggeration to claim that Kerettye was the most advanced town in all of the county, the standard of living was on par with Nagykanizsa, which used to be a county-capital then."

Education was at a high level as well, as MAORT was also responsible for building the school. In other villages, schools were not split into grades, education was provided en masse, with no regard to age groups. Kerettye had two classes in every grade. Csordásné remembered that while Russian classes were usually taught by Russian army officers stuck here, Kerettye had properly trained language professors. 

Children in Kerettye knew how to swim and skate by the time they were six and even learned how to ski on the hills nearby, which was just as unusual compared to nearby towns as the fact that all of Kerettye's streets were paved by the 1950s.

The "Camp" had no fences, and that also helped the spread of an urbanised lifestyle - the traditional signs of countryside living, household animals and vegetable gardens were all amiss. For meat, everyone had to go to the local store, that had a wide array of products; bubblegum was available as early as the 1960s, just like the kinds of candy bars that were never seen in small villages in those days. The restaurant had proper coffee, and coffee grounds were available to the general public as well, not just the cheap surrogate, Csordásné told me. 

Sometimes one gets the feeling that the company still exists, and the local population is stuck in a time machine. 

"We love this oily past with great enthusiasm, my dad used to tell me about it a lot when I was little, and then it was a miracle to live through it. I could live elsewhere, but I don't want to. If someone lived here once, they will forever hold on to this place. I've started two years ago, I'm researching stories, I revel in them even at the age of 70. I'd like these memories to be remembered," said Hofstadter. 

Kerettye's peak period was probably 40-50 years ago, after which people started to trickle away to work at the oil- and gas fields of Algyő, but some only moved away because they did not believe they would really get to keep their service apartments after their retirement. 

Production in the Kerettye fields started to slowly decrease, but a so-called tertiary field extended mining until the 1990s, of course by that time under Hungarian oil company MOL's flag. After oil production stopped, life in the village stopped as well. The population dropped and poverty reared its head. There are hardly six hundred souls left in Kerettye, and one could hardly find schoolchildren. 

Of course, there is still a way out, the locals have hopes in tourism, real estate prices are low, many are buying weekend houses in the town. The pool that had its start as a reservoir is also attractive with its spectacular panorama, and the huge, unbroken forests have a rare atmosphere. The largest employer right now is the several-hundred-bed psychiatry that could open the door for medical tourism. 

There is still hope that the oil-story continues too. Mol is trying to extract oil from the fields of nearby Kistolmács. 

"There is no youth here anymore, they are going to places where there are jobs. I hope they will have a nice life in Kistolmács, but I believe they will never have one as nice as we had here", concluded Hofstadter.

This article is the direct translation of the Hungarian original published by in its "Our Countryside" series that was funded by readership donations.

(Cover photo: János Bődey/Index)

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