House of Sweden, Washington, DC
May 11, 2011
This evening we come together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our Hungarian American Coalition… and to honor two icons of the Hungarian American community. For the first time in our Gala history, we are presenting two awards – an individual award to Dr. János Horváth for his decades of outstanding service and an organizational award to the William Penn Association, who is celebrating their 125th anniversary.
Now at first blush, you might think this is a lot to accomplish in one night, but it does provide us a unique opportunity to walk through, albeit quickly, a bit of our own history. By charting when and how these community institutions came into being – (Janos – you don't mind if I call you an institution, do you?) – we see how our Hungarian American community has evolved through the years and how we have risen to address the ever-changing challenges.
We begin this odyssey way back in 1886, 125 years ago, when our community was made up largely of Hungarian immigrants who worked in industrial centers. There were thousands of work-related injuries each and every year, but since no insurance industry existed at that time, their families had no place to turn for help. The fraternal organization that would eventually become the William Penn Association was founded.
Later we saw our community grow through two major waves of immigration – the first at the turn of the century around the industrial revolution. After World War 1 ended and much of Hungary had been annexed to surrounding countries, many of these immigrants had no home to return to, so they stayed. Next came the wave of Displaced Persons (DPs) after the second World War. These experiences were similar for many other European countries, but in 1956, Hungarians saw a unique, large wave of immigration which brought some 35,000 Hungarians to the United States after the heroic but ill-fated Revolution of 1956. This was a pivotal moment for our community.
As we look around the room this evening, we see a number of people who came to the United States in 1956 – freedom fighters and passionate Hungarians one and all – they created exceptional organizations within our community, they vowed to ensure the story of 1956 would never be forgotten, they took up the cause of spreading love and appreciation for Hungarian culture and history. In addition to many of the founders and Board members of the Hungarian American Coalition, Dr. János Horváth was one of these individuals.
Zsolt Németh, the current Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Hungary made the following statement about János and the great tie between Hungary and the United States.
"János bátyám is a true freedom fighter. It is not by coincidence that Ronald Reagan was eager to learn from him about the Soviet repression throughout their acquaintance. Ronald Reagan did not try to understand the Soviet Union from behind his desk, but came to the right conclusion based on the direct experience of others. We owe much of our liberty to the resolute politics of President Reagan against the "evil empire." We had another American supporter of our fight for freedom and human rights: the late Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, Congressman Tom Lantos.
Hungary shall always remember President Reagan and Congressman Lantos. It is for this reason at the end of June this year, when Hungary will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her independence, and will complete its Presidency of the European Union, we will erect a statue of President Reagan in the center of Budapest and inaugurate the Tom Lantos Institute.
I hope that many of you will join us as we celebrate the most important value that binds us, Hungarians and Americans: freedom!
Janos stayed in the U.S. for the next 41 years.until the Berlin Wall came down and democracy and freedom were finally returned to Hungary in 1991.
In that same year, a small group of Hungarian Americans established the Hungarian American Coalition to mobilize and coordinate the resources of its membership to promote the interests of the Hungarian American community. The goals were simple and straightforward:
- build strong relations between the U.S. and Hungary;
- promote cultural and educational exchanges;
- advocate for human and minority rights of Hungarians living outside Hungary's borders,
- and support the newly democratic institutions of Hungary.
While the original Coalition goals still guide us, our dreams and activities have grown substantially over the past 20 years. I'd like to mention some of the highlights of our work, but need to warn you that there is so much to review from 20 years, that this is by no means a complete list. Please watch for our monthly e-mail series that looks at our programs in greater depth.
- Our internship and scholarship programs have been a remarkable success – The White House Internship Program sent dozens of interns to the White House in the 1990's, and the subsequent Congressional Internship Program continues to place 4-6 outstanding young Hungarian interns every year in Congressional offices, Washington think-tanks and foundations thanks to the generous support of the Charles Simonyi Fund for the Arts and Sciences. In addition, more than 60 scholarships have been awarded from our Éva and Elemér Kiss Scholarship Fund to outstanding Hungarian university students from Hungary for American university studies, proceeds from this evening's Gala will support this wonderful program.
- In the area of human rights advocacy, we have worked hard to become a trusted, credible source of information for Washington decision makers.we've organized Congressional conferences to highlight issues of minority rights of historic Hungarian communities in Romania, Slovakia, and Vojvodina, Serbia; brought minority community leaders to DC to meet decision-makers in person and we've trained young Hungarian American leaders in workshops to get the word out. Unfortunately, we were hoping that we would be out o business in this area by now, but the work continues.
- One of the major ways we supported democracy in Hungary early on was by launching a comprehensive information campaign between 1994-98, in both the U.S. and Hungary, to support NATO's first expansion. This culminated in the membership of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1998.
Through the years, we've organized seminars and brought groups over of everyone from Hungarian Parliamentarians to Hungarian Mayors to High School Principals to provide first hand information and experience in Washington, D.C. and our local communities.
We've also focused on cultural programs that help promote and maintain Hungarian identity throughout the US. These have included: two tours of 17 cities by the Bela Bartok Choir & University Orchestra of the Eötvös Loránd University, fundraising for the completion of the wonderful award-winning documentary on 1956, Torn from the Flag, and just recently, we sponsored an 8-city tour of Incubator, a film about growing up bi-culturally in the US. We'll hear about the latest exciting project in this realm a bit later tonight.
So, this brings us to today and the new challenges we face as a community in 2011, 20 years after our founding.
In recent years, we have seen yet another new wave of immigration, filled with ethnic Hungarians from the surrounding region seeking educational and economic opportunities. While this new wave of immigrants brings new energy, new ideas and new passion for preserving Hungarian culture in the US, in many communities, it also means there are two different groups with two different agendas – one who speaks the language and is trying to hang onto their traditions, and the other that is made up of 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation Hungarians who may just be trying to find some ways to embrace little bits of their heritage in their busy lives.
Let's be honest, it is becoming harder and harder. Assimilation in a totally peaceful world is very easy, and with each generation there is more and more. Time does not favor the immigrant culture.
On the occasion of our 20th anniversary, President of the Republic of Hungary, Pal Schmitt, sent the following remarks:
Quoting Hungarian writer Laszlo Nemeth, he said "Nationhood is not a land; it is a historic destiny." And who could better understand this truth than Hungarians who live outside the borders of their mother country? If nationhood is primarily a destiny, than every Hungarian is called to keep this destiny alive by preserving and passing on the Hungarian language, culture and traditions across generations.
Hungarians living in the United States have, throughout the ages, demonstrated that even a small nation can have a great influence on the world's way of thinking; their native talent and ideas can shape the fate of larger communities.
In this spirit, the work of the Hungarian American Coalition builds upon two important pillars. First, it brings together the efforts of all groups in the community and supports Hungarian Americans in preserving their identity. Second, taking advantage of its national organization, it builds and furthers a wide-ranging network of relationships between Hungarians and Americans, and in doing so, contributes to the positive perception of Hungary overseas. You may read the complete letter in the Gala program.
President Schmitt has it right, we are all called on to preserve our culture and our ethnic identity, the unique identity of being Hungarian American, of finding the best of both worlds and bringing them together. Let's just mark this down as the next monumental challenge on our ever-changing list.
Twenty years ago no one could have imagined how fascinating and challenging this journey would be. It brings to mind the quote from Mark Twain about never watching laws or sausages being made. I would add to that, never watch a new democracy take hold. The past two decades have presented us with many challenges, on both sides of the ocean. While we are extremely proud of our accomplishments, we are also mindful of the continuing and changing challenges as we begin our third decade of work together.
So many of the people who have made these last two decades as successful as they have been are in this room, although I can't recognize them one by one, I'd like to say on behalf of all of us, thank you.