Remarks at the Coalition’s 30th Anniversary Virtual Gala and Concert honoring the Coalition’s founding individual and organizational members on October 7, 2021
Dear Coalition Members! Dear Friends of the Coalition!
As I think about the birth of our Hungarian American Coalition 30 years ago, I remember the tremendous excitement we felt then! Not only at the actual founding of the organization, but hearing and reading about the almost unbelievable changes in our homeland! Our beloved Hungary was finally a free country – in 1989, 1990 that seemed a miracle!
The small group of Hungarian American leaders who gathered in the Washington area to discuss how our community could help Hungary transform into a democratic, free market society, recognized the need for a new organization. Rev. Imre Bertalan, Zsolt and Szabolcs Szekeres, Gyula Várallyay, Sándor Taraszovics, Árpád Kovács, August Molnar, Paul Teleki, Edward Chaszar, Frank Koszorús Jr. , Paul Fekete and others: they wanted to build a Coalition of equal partners – hence our name – to pull together under one umbrella as many of the effective, active organizations as possible. We also recognized that building a viable organization must have the support of individual members. Thus, on August 20th, 1991, fifteen organizations and five individuals formally registered the Hungarian American Coalition in Washington DC.
What were our goals?
- to identify and promote the concerns of the Hungarian-American community;
- to protect and preserve human and minority rights and cultural heritage of Hungarians;
- to support democratic institutions and economic development in Hungary;
- to encourage cultural and educational interaction between the people of the US and Hungary;
We established an office of communication in Washington where the Szekeres brothers – Szabolcs, Zsolt and János gave us a room in their offices on Connecticut Avenue, two blocks from the White House, until we raised enough money to pay rent.
Even as a fledgling volunteer organization with little funding, in those first years we undertook many projects: we sponsored a six part Hungary- A Video History; we assisted with the multi-city Kolozsvár Kollégium Choir Tour; published a Directory of US university programs where Hungarian students could study; we started a White House Internship Program and often hosted visitors in Washington from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Vojvodina. We worked hand in hand with László Hámos, Emese Latkóczy and Bulcsú Veress of the HHRF in calling attention to human rights violations of the Hungarian minority communities in these countries. In 1995 we co-sponsored a full-day conference with the Potomac Foundation entitled “Promoting European Security and Integration: The Role of National Minorities.” A comparison of minority rights of the Catalans in Spain and the Rato Romansh of Switzerland with those of Hungarians in Slovakia, Romania, Subcarpathia and Vojvodina offered a stark contrast.
Together with member organizations we held Human Rights Workshops in Cleveland, San Francisco, Hartford, Pittsburgh and elsewhere to inform and train young Hungarian-Americans about human rights in general, and the rights of Hungarians in particular. László Hámos, András Ludányi, Géza Kádár, Frank Koszorús were some of the instructors at these workshops. At the Hartford workshop I met for the first time an outstanding young man, Max Teleki, who would end up serving as President of our Coalition a decade later.
In 1992, we joined a group called Central and Eastern European Coalition that claimed to speak for 20 million US citizens of CEE background. President Clinton and VP Gore’s foreign policy strategy was to assure stability in Europe through a revitalized NATO Alliance with rapid membership for the Visegrád countries.
Between 1994 and 1997, members of our Coalition were invited to five meetings on NATO expansion with President Clinton and/or VP Gore, Sandy Berger, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security and Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, and my favorite, Daniel Fried, Dir of ECE for the National Security Council. Péter Újvági, a Councilman in Toledo, was instrumental in establishing a close working relationship between the Coalition and the White House.
In 1994, in an especially memorable meeting, Strobe Talbott said to the 20 CEE representatives: “The question is, what kind of Russia will we have in the 21st century? You feel Russia will revert to type and foresee a dangerous scenario; we see Russia more positively and do not want to undercut those forces which are building a benign democratic system.” His comment was greeted by a stunned silence. Then Jan Nowak, the highly respected leader of the Polish American Congress stood up and said: “If you do not accept our opinion, why did you invite us here? And what will happen if WE are right, Mr. Secretary, and YOU are wrong?” Jan is long gone, but his words were prophetic.
In 1997, in order to inform the Hungarian public before a referendum on NATO membership, the Coalition held conferences in three Hungarian cities – Budapest, Debrecen, and Miskolc, entitled “Hungary in an Expanded NATO: Benefits and Responsibilities.” Many experts and officials were invited to speak at the extremely well-attended conferences. Anne and Joseph Bader accompanied our small group in each city. In the November referendum 85% of Hungarian voters favored NATO membership. And in 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became members of NATO.
Although the NATO conferences gave us high visibility, every project we organized affected our thinking. We had the opportunity to meet and work with heroic, outstanding people on their trips to the U.S.: Bishop László Tőkés, Miklós Duray, András Sütő, Sándor Csoóri, László Dobos, Sándor Sára, Imre Pozsgay just to mention a few.
In the spring of 1991 Transylvanian Bishop Kálmán Csiha visited the U.S. He brought first-hand information of the genuine needs of Transylvanian Hungarians whose schools were systematically confiscated by the Romanian government. Together with his niece, Kuni Nádas, they made a plan to establish a system of “godparents” involving HU Americans as sponsors, to support the education of young Hungarians as well as fund the rebirth of the Hungarian educational system in Romania. This is one of the most successful and long standing programs in our community. I am truly glad to be able to report that in 2000, after a lot of behind-the-scenes work by the Coalition as well as others, the 450 year-old building of the Kolozsvár Reformed Kollégium was returned to its rightful owners.
Through the years our Coalition always tried to develop a good working relationship with both US and Hungarian Ambassadors. Once, we were invited to State and asked by the newly named US Ambassador whom we would recommend for Deputy Chief of Mission. So many people wanted to be posted to Hungary, that he needed our advice. Without hesitation Zsolt Szekeres named the person, and he was soon appointed DCM.
As the Coalition celebrates its 30th anniversary, there are so many friendships and supportive relationships to list. George Pogan and Géza Kádár became fast friends in Budapest in 1989 just as communism fell. They have served as Secretary and Legal Advisor respectively at the Coalition and George and Sandy are with us tonight. Many Honorary Consuls joined us, among them Helen Szablya, László Bőjtös, Eugene Megyesy Jr., Csilla Grauzer, Éva Voisin, Katalin Pearman and others. The MBK – Hungarian Communion of Friends, the Cleveland Hungarian Heritage Society , who is our host tonight, the Hungarian Cultural Society of Connecticut, the Magyar Club of Chicago and others have played integral parts in our projects and development.
I am grateful for the financial support of those who have made our many projects possible: The Hungary Foundation, the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Fund, Dr. Charles Simonyi, the Pannonius Foundation, Centene Charitable Foundation, Ameritech, the Doris Buffet Foundation and our many generous individual donors.
I am sure I am not alone in feeling that our lives have been greatly enriched by serving a common cause greater than ourselves. Together with my husband, John, we traveled often and much to Hungarian-inhabited regions, and were truly inspired by so many of the people we met.
Even after 30 years much work remains to be done. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of being a part of the Coalition, and genuinely proud that my daughter, Andrea continues to build the organization into the future.