HUNGARIAN AMERICANS

The director uses a multitude of early film clips, photographs, and interviews, adding thereby a new dimension and greater quality. He primarily uses the collection of the ethnographer Elemér Bakó. The documentaries are poignant; he quotes the famous lines from Attila József about a million and a half of our people sleepwalking into America. The film not only shows the promised land, but portrays also the conditions at home alongside the tense feelings of the immigrants.
Interpellations in the parliament can be heard, for example, as early as 1903, and the reason for the large scale emigration is attributed to lost patriotism. 1.2 million people emigrated to the United States from the whole Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, in the years leading up to 1913, including half a million Hungarians. Did they step into the unknown because they felt hopeless at home? This is a question which the film sets out to answer.

“Anyone whose domestic situation was good did not leave; they found America at home.”
There were relatively few people who were driven by curiosity or the desire for selfrealization, although there is one young man who proclaims: “I am an independent, free man and I learned all of this from America.”

MIKLÓS BARABÁS • The Bay of Salerno, 1835
water colour on paper • 240×321 mm • Hungarian National Gallery

Those in search of a new home mostly poured into the East coast, to the industrial districts, and the larger cities. Foreign travel was governed by strict rules. Hungarians could only board ships at Fiume (Rijeka) even though, for example, it was much cheaper to travel from Bremen. Travel agents, as is often the case even today, convinced the gullible and uniformed people. The bellies of the large ships could swallow 2000 people.
People said farewell at the docks with a song and dance, “God be with you my home, I will never return.” The reception was also strictly controlled. New arrivals had to submit themselves to a thorough medical examination. Anyone suffering from tuberculosis, heart disorders, mental disorders, contagious eye disorders, and even pregnant women were immediately turned away, even if they had obtained expensive medical certificates at home.

Lacking language skills, they could find employment in only the most difficult areas, as miners or foundry workers, and were initially housed in dormitories. The “Hungarian district” was one of the poorest – even in multinational cities. Since the proportion of men was higher, women had a wide choice, and could get married easily. The goal in the beginning was to keep supporting the family at home. Soon a Hungarian bank was founded. This is the only success story of the film. The fate of others, even those who settled in, puts the American dream in quotation marks. Later, many brought their families out to America. The situation was naturally more difficult for those with families, since it was hard for children born in America to fit into society, if they returned home.

Aside from the detailed tableau, among the photographs, and interviews, we get glimpses of the remarkable fate of certain individuals. The rhythm and mood of the reminiscences is heightened by the musical score of János Másik and Károly Cserepes, which is on occasion remarkably true to the era. The film follows the immigrants up until the twenties when native-born Americans began to revolt against the “hunkies”, and the immigration quota allowed only a few hundred Hungarians to settle down annually. This is an unusually well-researched and thought-out film, given the restraints of the unrealistically modest budgets available for Hungarian documentaries. In the end, we find out that no miracle actually occurred. The film was made originally for the oddly named Extremely Hungary Festival, and was shown for a year in New York and Washington; it won many supporters.

Fortunately Réka Pigniczky’s film, the Incubator was not afflicted by poverty either. Maybe because the film-maker was born in America, where she began her career as a newspaper reporter, she keeps a close hand on the material.

This is an extremely personal film, just like the director’s previous work entitled Hazatérés: Egy
szabadságharcos története
, (Coming Home – A Freedom Fighter’s Tale) a story in which she researched her father’s role in the revolution of 1956. In her new film, a more sensitive balance had to be attempted, since the director is searching for answers to her own personal problems.
She inspects the lives, and the way in which they relate to their Hungarian background, of the children of those Hungarians who emigrated in 1956, a generation which was not only born and socialized in America, but whose members in certain circumstances speak English a lot better than Hungarian. She wants to know what happens to those who by chance, after the regime change, become “visszidens”, those who return to the home of their parents. As in the case of the director. There is a truly splendid scene in which, in 1984, the cast of Incubator, in a scout camp – an indispensible place to attain an American–Hungarian identity – performed István, a király (Stephen, the King). They meet again after twenty-five years, this time as adults, and prepare a repeat performance of the rock opera. “This will be very awkward or very cathartic or both,” wrote the director in the synopsis of the film. But it was not really awkward; instead it was cute, ironic, and thought-provoking. It is even touching when a little girl of three or four years sings the songs without a single mistake because she has learnt them by heart from her parents CD collection. The continuity is unquestionable. The current guests of the scout camp are in their forties and speak their mother tongue with an accent and with mistakes, but they speak it, nonetheless and somehow they are attached to their country and their culture which they only learned because their parents requested them to. In many instances, they only attended Hungarian Sunday School because a visit to McDonald’s was their reward. But they do not regret their dual identity. They became richer, not financially but in the spirit and the soul. It is not easy to answer the question of where one’s home really lies, for those who were born abroad and who returned to the homeland of their parents. The sociological studies of Károly Nagy unequivocally prove that the number of North American Hungarians is declining, as is the case in South America, and among Hungarians living beyond the state borders. And of those living within the borders as well, but that is a different question altogether. A close-up look into the lives of dissidents and “vissidents” is an unusual experience.
We feel how little authentic information actually came through the Iron Curtain about those Hungarians who lived far from their homes. On occasion, it would have been more beneficial if Réka Pigniczky, functioning as an actor, reporter, executive editor, and director, would have entrusted the task of director to someone else. There are times when she is just not able to get a grip on the various processes. As a result, the film is at times a little unrestrained, a little wild – but not necessarily long. This was a movie which longed to be made.

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