|A SUMMARY OF
HUNGARIAN IMMIGRATION INTO
PASSAIC, NEW JERSEY
by Judith Magyar
Walking through Lambert Castle and its beautiful surroundings – if you can screen out the shush of traffic from route 80, is like a time-journey back to 19th century Passaic Valley, when industrialization and urbanization just began to take over the rural agricultural landscape.
The Lambert family’s story is a typical chapter in the large volume of success stories in America.
An entrepreneurial man, along with his family settles in a basically virgin area, where all the potential conditions are present to start a business. The river for energy and transportation, the land where factories and housing for workers could be built.
Mr.Lambert’s and his contemporaries’ idea worked – by the late 19th century Passaic Valley became an important if not the best known textile manufacturing location in North America and there were other industries that flourished, as well.
In the early phase of industrialization, skilled laborers were brought into this area who worked for high wages. As demand in the number of workers increased and economic conditions, especially in Eastern Europe produced an abundant pool of available manpower, a new phase began: unskilled, low wage workers filled the factories and were settled in the vicinity.
Low wage by American standards of the times meant a high earning when compared to job opportunities in the old country. Workers were recruited, through middlemen and advertising to make the journey, work, and then return to the old country with a lot of money.
Many did just that, even went back-and-forth a number of times, but a sufficient number eventually stayed here, brought their families – wives and children, had more children. Communities were soon formed, with a need for social, religious and economic infrastructure.
You can read about how the Hungarian community manifested itself in 19th century Passaic in a study I did back in the early 1980-s as a project in anthropology, when attending Montclair State University.
Those holding an appreciation for Hungarian heritage, cherish and bow their heads to their predecessors who built their community. There are the places of worship, which were erected not only from monetary contributions of the immigrant workers’ meager wages but from their physical labor as well, around which social and cultural activities have also centered. The Hungarian churches in Passaic are still the foremost drawing powers for the community.
Immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century had a place where they were welcome and could belong to.
The following are the various major waves of immigrations by Hungarian ethnics to the Passaic area:
First were those I talked about before: the laborers, in the 19th century, as early as the 1880-s.
From the early 20th century to the 1920s emigration for economic reason continued. Later, with the Great Depression these people had a hard time maintaining their livelihood. It was further aggravated by a sense of jealousy on the part of English speaking immigrants, that Eastern European immigrants did not speak the language, yet were taking away job opportunities. The result was a tendency to lose the mother tongue, encouraging to speak English even at home.
When it was thought that the Hungarian ethnic community is thus deteriorating, a new wave arrived, as a result of the World War II period, when families fled from the political, social terror and the mere destruction that befell Hungary. The post World War II immigrants are called "displaced", who spent years in European refugee camps, awaiting their quota to be accepted by receiving countries could finally start a new life in America, the Passaic area included.
This layer of immigrants represented a whole cross section of society in the Old Country, from the working and peasant class to nobility and aristocracy. Some characteristics were common and united them: an appreciation for freedom, willingness to work, great sense of ethnic pride, the need for quality culture and heritage to nourish and instill in their children.
This manifested itself in building a school, next to St.Stephen's Roman Catholic Hungarian Church, where several subjects were taught in Hungarian, joining in the Hungarian Scouts in Exile movement, which was banished by the communists in Hungary and neighboring countries behind the Iron curtain. Clubs started, stage plays, choirs, picnics made community life colorful and thriving.
The next major influx of Hungarians was following the defeat of the 1956 revolution, when citizens in Hungary revolted against the communist rule and Russian oppression. Unfortunately, the Revolution, through trickery and an iron fist was crushed. The lack of Western support to this date is still said to be a factor in the defeat. Had it happened, the history of Hungary, other Eastern European countries and in fact the entire European continent would have shaped differently. Nevertheless, maybe as an act of guilt, western countries, some more willingly than others, accepted refugees. The US gave immediate permanent residency, jobs and different forms of aid to them.
Even though it must admitted that immigrant community life was not attractive to all as we refer to them "1956-ers", there were plenty of them who did join the earlier immigrants in the nourishment of ethnic life.
In the 1960-s, 70-s and 80-s Hungarians from within the borders of present day Hungary trickled in, and Hungarian ethnics in larger numbers arrived from Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Yugoslavia. Each of these countries were granted a piece of Hungarian land back in 1920 and Hungarians living in these areas found themselves citizens of a foreign country and whenever possible deprived of their ethnicism. There was a growing anti-ethnic movement against them and their economic opportunities were curtailed, which culminated in the 1970-s and 80-s and caused them to flee to foreign lands. Passaic again was a welcoming ground for these Hungarians. There was a portrait of one such family on display at Lambert Castle Museum, the Tamas family, who live in Clifton.
Hungarians have continued to arrive in the Passaic area through the 1990-s. However, it is not necessarily where they settle, but is rather a place to congregate for religious, social and educational purposes. Two educational opportunities in the Passaic community are the Hungarian Scouts, which has a home in Garfield, and the Hungarian Saturday School, directed by Mrs. Kerkay, who is by the way, also the chief curator of our museum and the exhibit at Lambert Castle. Her helping "elf" is her husband, Laszlo.
Whereas in the old days there was a synagogue, and a Baptist church attended by Hungarians, today the Reformed Church on 4th Street and St.Stephen’s Catholic church on 3d street remain active.
The churches have auditoriums, where dances, stage events are held regularly, another place of social gathering is the Hungarian Citizens League on New Schley Street in Garfield.
It must be mentioned of course, that descendants of the early immigrant groups have largely dispersed throughout not only the state of New Jersey, but across the United States too.
The American-Hungarian Museum calls Reid Library on Third Street home, for which the museum is extremely grateful to the City of Passaic. The Museum was established in 1981, to be a visual and intellectual reflection of the history and heritage of Passaic area Hungarians.
Reid Library itself is a landmark of Hungarian community life, it used to have a large contingency of Hungarian language books, which Hungarians gladly borrowed, even the librarian was Hungarian.
In the building the museum maintains a permanent exhibit to visitors by appointment, and conducts programs throughout the year, held on Sunday afternoons. The museum also goes off-base on demand or invitation, it presented exhibits and programs at the State Museum in Trenton, in Newark, various libraries, schools, city halls, at the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, thus sharing Hungarian heritage with fellow ethnic Hungarians as well as other ethnic groups and the general public.
The museum has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Arts and from the State of New Jersey too. Its most steadfast supporter is the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council, which enables the museum to present artifacts, artists, lecturers, performers of the highest quality.
The exhibit and program series at Lambert Castle was also made possible in part through their support and through the kind invitation and hospitality of the Lambert Museum itself.
The exhibit and programs were prepared to represent American-Hungarian past and present culture and hope to succeed in it by a satisfied crowd of visitors and audiences.
(for the Opening of the American-Hungarian Museum’s
Exhibit at Lambert Castle Museum, 2005, september 9)