The past and present of Hungarian-Americans in the United States

The United States of America is frequently referred to as a melting pot of people and cultures of many distinct origins. Therefore, it may not come as a surprise that a great deal of Hungarians have been incorporated into the mixture that is American culture today. 

Lajos Kossuth on Broadway in New York City.
The Ladies Home Journal, 1897

archivum2.szabadsag.ro/

To begin on a personal note, beyond my overwhelming interest in American culture, I decided to write about this topic owing to my personal connection to immigration across the Atlantic. Around the 1920s, my late great-grandmother’s brother left his family to embark on a journey which terminated on Ellis Island, a place which, at the same time, marked the beginning of a new life. Although hardly anything is known about him in the family, he is said to have sent letters to my great-grandma, as well as a necklace which she held dear until she died.

Interestingly, I didn’t become fully aware of the prevalence of the Hungarian diaspora present in the US thanks to the long list of celebrities of Hungarian ancestry – featuring the likes of Drew Barrymore, Louis Székely (better known as Louis C.K.), and Harry Houdini – but while watching an American series a couple of years ago. In the episode, one of the characters taking the stand in a trial had the same surname as I do, even if it was pronounced [ˈzeɪboʊ], not [ˈsɒboː] like in Hungarian. This experience also contributed to my fascination for finding answers to various questions concerning Hungarian-Americans.

Harry Houdini (1874–1926), Stone walls and chains do not make a prison – for Houdini. (circa 1898)
commons.wikimedia.org

Firstly, by taking a brief look at immigration from Hungary to the States, one can quickly realize that the presence of Hungarians dates back to the very foundation of the United States of America. Michael Kovats de Fabriczy, also known as Mihály Kováts, along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski, is deemed to have laid the groundwork of the American cavalry during the Revolution. To express his desire to enroll and fight for American independence, Kovats sent a letter in 1777 to the US Ambassador to France, who at the time happened to be one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin. After the Revolution, Kovats went on to become a widely recognized figure in American military history, even to this day.

Even though the flow of people from one country to the other can be considered continuous (except following the 1921 introduction of the Quota System, capping the number of individuals accepted from Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as during the Communist Era, which limited foreign travels undertaken by citizens), there have been several waves of mass immigration from Hungary to America. The first one occurred after the 1848-’49 Revolution, with the influx of roughly 4,000 Forty-Eighters fleeing from retribution by the Austrian Empire. Among them was the most prominent leader of the Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight, Lajos Kossuth, who was in exile in the US, spending his time touring American cities to make the case for Hungarian independence. Consequently, various villages, towns, and a northern county in Iowa bear the name Kossuth (pronounced [kəˈsuːθ]), the latter since 1851, in order to honour his legacy. Additionally, of those immigrants setting foot on the American continent in the first wave, about 800 even fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. They went on to establish a colony called New Buda in southern Iowa afterwards.

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In the 1880s, the flow of Hungarians to the ‘New World’ gradually intensified, but this time, as opposed to the upper-class majority of the first wave, primarily people of lower social status were among the resettlers, due to their uncertain economic prospects at home. The next wave can be ascribed to the unspeakable trauma of World War Two and the Holocaust. At this time a large amount of Hungarians were forced to leave the country, even if their sole crime was being of Jewish descent. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the 1956 Revolution, of the 200,000 ‘56-ers who fled the Soviet occupation and retaliation, 40,000 found their home in the United States. The influx of Hungarians increased significantly once again following the collapse of communism in 1989. 

It is difficult to produce exact figures, however, when it comes to how many Hungarians arrived in the US in the past. Since prior to 1920 only about 54% of the inhabitants in Hungary professed to be Hungarian, those who were, in fact, not of Hungarian ancestry, but belonged to one of the numerous ethnic minorities in the country may have been counted as Hungarians too. On top of this, as the country’s territory was reduced to its one-third pursuant to the Trianon Treaty of 1920, these censuses might have disregarded many individuals who were Hungarians, but ‘got stuck on the other side of the borderline’, as Hungarians often put it. They might have been administered as Slovaks or Romanians, meaning that, before 1920, the figures may exaggerate, afterwards undervalue the reality. Nonetheless, this distortion does not concern the most up-to-date data anymore, thus the 2018 American Community Survey shows that some 1,352,444 Americans claim to have Hungarian ancestors, but bolder estimates exceed 4 million.

Frequently occurring surnames of Hungarian origin 

NameRank Count
Toth (~Slovak)1,82619,606
Nagy (~Big)2,35415,497
Horvath (~Croatian)2,38015,302
Kovacs (~Blacksmith)3,9179,072
Molnar (~Miller)4,1318,586
Nemeth (~German)4,2418,362
Szabo (~Tailor)4,6197,677
Farkas (~Wolf)5,2046,714
Varga (~Cobbler)5,6086,201
Kiss (~Small)8,3053,990

An intriguing way to track Hungarian heritage in the US may be onomastically, that is by inspecting names, surnames in particular. Kovacs, Nemeth, and Kiss may not be as common family names as Williams or Johnson, still, there are quite a lot of Nagys or Horvaths. These figures evidently do not correspond with the number of Hungarian descendants. They could most appropriately be described as ‘fun facts’, since plenty of people might have changed their surnames, or some may have a Hungarian name, but do not consider themselves of Hungarian descent. Furthermore, some surnames have variations, such as Kovats, Kovac, or Kovach, in which case it is difficult to determine whether these are of Hungarian or Slavic origin.

In regard to the territorial distribution of Hungarian-Americans, the first immigrants settled in mainly north-eastern states, which is still reflected in the top 10 states with Hungarian population. Yet, especially in the above-mentioned north-east, the number of individuals with Hungarian ancestry has been going downhill due to the aging of the oldest generation. Curiously, however, the community with the highest proportion of Hungarian-Americans is Kiryas Joel, New York, where 17,5% of  the residents is of Hungarian descent. This village of 23,000 is mainly inhabited by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and its founder was the former rabbi of the Satmar Hasidic sect, Joel Teitelbaum, born in what was then called Máramarossziget.

States with largest Hungarian-American population

StateCountPercentage
Ohio185,9851.6
New York146,3910.7
Pennsylvania125,8021.0
California119,2690.3
Florida98,8830.5
New Jersey96,8601.1
Michigan91,6800.9
Illinois51,4920.4
Indiana36,3850.6
Connecticut34,5711.0

Another locality remarkable for its Hungarian minority is an industrial town in the Midwest: South Bend, Indiana. A century ago, around the 1910s, so many Hungarians dwelled here that one of the neighbourhoods was even dubbed Little Budapest. Here, as usual, first men would arrive to establish suitable circumstances so that their family members could cross the ocean knowing that they had a roof over their head. These solitary men were often accommodated in boarding houses owned by former Hungarian immigrants, where women would normally care for them. Furthermore, various Hungarian newspapers were published at the beginning of the 20th century, entitled Újság (Newspaper), Igazság (Truth), Tudósító (Reporter), and Városi Élet (Urban Life), the majority of them, however, were not circulated for more than a few years. Additionally, a vivid Hungarian cultural life characterized this era, for sprinkling at Easter, Hungarian picnics accompanied by Gypsy music, and the Grape Harvest Festival had been popular with inhabitants of any ethnic background. What is more, a historically Hungarian church is still in operation in South Bend, denominated Our Lady of Hungary Parish and School. Nevertheless, it is extremely rare to hear or read Hungarian in the town nowadays, as the vast majority of Hungarians assimilated rather rapidly. In 2017, merely 2.7% of the town’s 101,928 residents professed to have Hungarian ancestry6, thus Hungarian names are predominant only on tombstones in cemeteries. In spite of all this, there are some people who are attempting to reconnect with their heritage by creating Facebook groups for Hungarian descendants, where they exchange photos, fragments of century-old newspaper articles, and traditional Hungarian recipes, such as Hungarian crescents and goulash. 

A tombstone in the Hungarian Sacred Heart Cemetery in South Bend, Indiana.
findagrave.com


This essay was initially written for a university course, and as such has been revised by an American exchange student.


Sources:

  1. http://www.americanhungarianfederation.org/news_michael_kovats_de_fabricy.htm
  2. Fenyvesi, Anna (2005): Hungarian in the United States
  3. https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=ancestry&g=&hidePreview=false&table=B04006&tid=ACSDT 1Y2018.B04006&lastDisplayedRow=58&mode=
  4. 2013-2017, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,
  5. 2010, US Census
  6. 2013-2017, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,
  7. https://sites.rootsweb.com/~instjose/immigration/hungarian/Chris_Kovach/List_of_villages/hungarian _americans_south_bend.pdf

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