Lost Generation: Second Generation Hungarian-American Identity in the 1930s

By the second half of the 1930s, a second generation of Hungarian-Americans grew up and formulated and expressed its Hungarian identity in a way fundamentally different from that of their parents. Many of these people spoke broken Hungarian, or did not speak the language at all, and were reluctant to join and support the organizations founded by their parents (various societies, churches, and newspapers). The first generation Hungarian-American organizations and newspapers, along with the Hungarian government, sounded the alarm. But was this situation really so hopeless?

These children had few reasons to preserve their Hungarian identity: soon after the Great Depression had exhausted the United States economically as well as emotionally, the mass influx of European refugees began and caused anti-Semitic feelings to rise and one hundred percent Americanism to come to focus again. As part of the Americanization program, new education acts were introduced in various states as early as the 1920s limiting the teaching of foreign languages in ethnic schools. This regulation limited the children's opportunities to learn Hungarian in an institutional form, and drove many of them to American public schools.1 Susan M. Papp mentions, "the Americanization propaganda undermined and ridiculed the way they lived, the way they were raised and the idea of a Hungarian neighborhood."2 As a result of that, many children consciously turned their backs on their parents' ethnic identity, left the Hungarian churches and organizations, and Anglicized their names.

First generation Hungarian-Americans and their organizations, churches, and newspapers soon took steps to halt the process of assimilation that started in the 1920s. English-language newspapers and columns, intended specifically for the second generation, were introduced, churches began to use English at the services, and the organizations established youth departments. The Hungarian government launched a comprehensive program to seek ways of helping emigrant Hungarian communities. The program manifested itself in two Hungarian World Congresses (1929, 1938), one of whose main foci was the assimilation tendencies of the second generation. Little did these first generation and governmental initiatives improve the situation, however. It seemed that for these children, their Hungarian ethnicity proved to be a reason to feel ashamed, instead of being an emotional asset. The children, most of whom have never seen Hungary, were, for long years, unable to internalize the approach of their parents to Hungarian culture. Still, as the first generation community began to die out, they were soon urged to make a decision: Should they abandon their ethnic roots, or should they shoulder the maintenance of Hungarian identity?

In the 30 September 1937 issue of the Chicago weekly, Interest, an open letter appeared written in a firm Hungarian voice in reply to the article "Second Generation" by Dezső Sulyok, a member of the Hungarian Parliament, who wrote about the loss of the Hungarian-American second generation in the August 22 issue of Pesti Napló. Second generation Hungarian-Americans protested: "Now that there is a second generation movement in progress all across the United States, rallying American-born youngsters of Hungarian origin on a cultural basis regardless of religious or political differences to enhance the reputation of Hungary, support the Hungarian cultural objectives, establish closer relations with Hungary, and organize tours to the old country, it is twice as much painful and stunning..." that Sulyok wrote about them as "a lost value and a perished treasure."3 Based on sporadic information found in Hungarian-American newspaper articles and secondary resources on various initiatives on their part, it is my thesis that second generation people did proclaim a second generation movement to preserve their Hungarian identity, created independent Hungarian societies (drama troupes, orchestras, sports clubs etc.), held Hungarian nights, participated in American festivals, and organized, together with the first generation, Hungarian Days. I have found examples for this in Chicago (IL), Toledo (OH), Cleveland (OH), and Los Angeles (CA) in the Hungarian resources such as the Interest magazine of Chicago, the Toledo weekly, the Californiai magyarság weekly, Zoltán Fejős's A chicagói magyarok két nemzedéke, 1890-1940, and Susan M. Papp's Hungarian-Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland. Further research on available Hungarian and American resources (press organs, archival materials, and secondary resources) will shed light on other initiatives, which will in turn help me define second generation Hungarian-American identity and the understanding of these people of their ethnic roots. At present, however, there are more questions than answers related to the approach of this generation: How can one characterize the nature of these initiatives? What was the goal of the second generation? Who was their target audience? Was it the Hungarian-American community or American society? Did they establish their own forums (newspapers, organizations), or did they take over the first generation organizations and proportion them according to their second generation values? Did they organize activities that were only characteristic of their generation? Finally, was there cooperation between second generation communities from various cities and other ethnicities? My Ph.D. research focuses on this as yet unexplored aspect of Hungarian-American culture, in order to reveal parallels among the aspirations of Hungarian immigrants and other, East Central European ethnicities in the United States, while examining the relations of this phenomenon to American social life and politics.

1 "Usually, only one hour daily was permitted for the Hungarian language, and the law reduced the maximum number of students allowed to 30-40 per class." Zoltán Fejős, A chicagói magyarok két nemzedéke, 1890-1940 (Budapest: Közép-Európa Intézet, 1993), 168.
2 Susan M. Papp, Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University, 1981), 245.
3 Sulyok's article was featured in the September 2 issue of Interest in full, as well as in Szabadság, Verhovayak Lapja, and some radical socialist and communist Hungarian-American newspapers in 1937. Imre Tóth, András Matesz, and Imre Kolibár, "Nyílt levél Sulyok Dezső orsz. képviselő urhoz, Budapesten," Interest, 30 September 1937, 1, 4. Translation mine.


Fejős, Zoltán, A chicagói magyarok két nemzedéke, 1890-1940. Budapest: Közép-Európa Intézet, 1993.

Papp, Susan M., Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University, 1981.

Tóth, Imre, András Matesz, and Imre Kolibár. "Nyílt levél Sulyok Dezső orsz. képviselő úrhoz, Budapesten." Interest, 30 September 1937, 1, 4.

Vissza az oldal tetejére