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Older generations who emigrated from Hungary to the U.S. are working together on common causes with third- and fourth-generation Hungarian-Americans who do not speak their ancestral language. Among the Hungarian-American civic groups that could not be more different from the old clichés about “dissident emigres,” the Hungarian American Coalition is one of the most influential and has been lobbying on behalf of Hungarians for 20 years.
Case Studies in Cultural Preservation
St. Emeric Catholic Church of Cleveland and the Reconnect Hungary Program have both been in the news recently, drawing attention to Hungarians in America. These two developments, at first glance very disparate, are connected by the will to take action, commitment to community, and a redefinition of Hungarian identity.
In December 2009, the Bishop of Cleveland, Richard Lennon, decided to close the church of St. Emeric [along with dozens of other churches in the diocese]. News of the planned closure of St. Emeric, an important religious and cultural center for Hungarians in northeast Ohio, inspired a surge of community opposition. The protest worked: the Vatican overturned the Bishop’s decision, and in November of 2012, Father Sandor Siklodi was able to celebrate mass in Hungarian once again at St. Emeric Church.
The second news item concerns the Reconnect Hungary Program for young Americans curious about their Hungarian ancestry, but who do not speak Hungarian. The program is a joint initiative of the Kossuth Foundation (founded by the Hungarian American Reformed Federation) and the Balassi Institute of Hungary, whose mandate is to promote Hungarian culture abroad. Reconnect Hungary was endorsed by Allison Pataki Levy, daughter of former Governor of New York George Pataki. The inaugural program in Summer 2012 enabled twelve young Americans to discover their Hungarian roots and explore highlights of cultural, political, and daily life in Hungary. This trip was such a success that Reconnect Hungary will continue, with the next trip for 2013 already in planning.
The program is modeled upon similar initiatives by U.S.-based communities of Irish, Polish, Armenian, and Jewish extraction. Its premise is both simple and far-reaching: not only to establish relationships and foster “advocates” for Hungary among future U.S. business and political leaders, but also to promote the emergence of a new brand of Hungarian-American identity. The well-known Hungarian saying that “the life of a nation is in its language” seems to require reconsideration. Otherwise, the Hungarian nation would exclude, for example, the fourth- and fifth-generation young people who have discovered their roots through Reconnect Hungary, who do not speak the language of their ancestors, yet wish to support Hungary and are proud to be Hungarian.
A Hungarian-American Renaissance
“Are we seeing a renaissance in the Hungarian-American community?” we asked Edith Lauer, Chair Emerita of the Hungarian American Coalition (HAC).
“To achieve that, we still have a lot of work to do, but the fact is that many individuals and communities who feel a kinship with Hungary have unsparingly given their time and energy on behalf of the homeland and the Hungarian national minorities,” said Mrs. Lauer, a leading lady among Hungarian-American civic organizations. The Hungarian American Coalition, an umbrella organization that has built up outstanding channels of communication in Washington, D.C., marked its 20th anniversary last year. Its Board of Directors includes the Hungarian Scout Association in Exteris, which plays a key role in fostering Hungarian identity, as well as the Hungarian Reformed and Catholic churches, human rights organizations, civic organizations from major U.S. cities, and prominent Hungarian-American individuals.
“Twenty years ago, Washington decision-makers did have some notion of the issues facing the Hungarians in the Carpathian basin. For example, the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation carried out an effective campaign to protest the Ceausescu regime in Romania. But the fall of communism represented a new chapter in many areas, such as business relations. From that time on, networking and lobbying with Washington decision makers could not be done solely by a Foundation that essentially focused on human rights,” recalls Edith Lauer, discussing the origins of the Hungarian American Coalition, which today is headed by Maximilian Teleki.
While there is still much to do, the work of the Coalition is first rate. In the span of twenty years it has allocated over four million dollars in donated funds to maintain an information network for Washington decision makes, for internship programs at the White House and the U.S. Congress, and to support a variety of programs for Hungarian minorities, such as the Hungarian Reformed High School in Kolozsvar and Hungarian minority cultural activities in Slovakia.
The Coalition played a key role in supporting Hungary’s 1999 accession to NATO, one of the first countries in the region to join the alliance. Coalition leaders participated in hearings, briefings, and conferences to promote Hungary’s NATO membership. U.S. decision makers continue to take the Coalition into account: As recently as December 7, 2012, members of the Coalition met with National Security Council and State Department officials responsible for Central and Eastern Europe. Discussion topics included Slovakia’s punitive laws against dual citizenship, and the continuing property restitution problems in Romania which severely affect the Hungarian minority, such as the situation at Miko High School in Sepsiszentgyorgy.
“How does it feel these days to be an advocate for Hungary?” we ask Edith Lauer.
“It is not an easy task, because objective criticism, slanted reporting and outright falsehoods are so intertwined in U.S. media reports that it is hard to make our voice heard. In early 2012, in connection with the controversies surrounding the Basic law and the Law regulating the churches, we stressed the need to give Hungary a chance,” says Edith Lauer, who added that constitutional court rulings to rescind laws and the activities of the Hungarian media refute the accusation that Hungary is on the path to dictatorship.
Mrs. Lauer believes that factual information is a lobbyist’s best ally. If we can demonstrate how dual citizenship, the electoral process, and media regulation work in other countries, then Hungary’s policies, covered in the U.S. media, will not appear to be so negative.
In any case, the Hungarian American Coalition will have plenty to do in the coming years: not only in providing information about Hungary and advocating for the rights of Hungarian minorities, but perhaps also in building new communities among upcoming generations of Hungarian Americans.
– Bálint Ablonczy is a reporter for Heti Valasz. This article was originally published in Hungarian in the January 2 edition of Heti Valasz under the title “Amerikai embereink”.