MINORITIES RESEARCH

Gyula Borbándi

The Future of the Cultural Workshops of Hungarian Diaspora in the West

A cultural workshop-according to the Dictionary of Hungarian-is a place where organised intellectual work is being done. The Hungarian communities in the West abounded in such workshops, and especially so during the decades when hundreds of thousands of Hungarians fled to western countries so as to be able to live in free societies and to plan in accordance with their nature, desires and needs, and also so as to be able to work for the restoration of their country's freedom and sovereignty.

Regarding the latter task, one had to have a strong national consciousness as well as a familiarity with Hungarian culture if one wanted to succeed. Among the most important distinguishing marks and peculiarities that characterised the waves of emigrants after the Second World War was loyalty to national traditions and a determination to remain Hungarian and to raise one's offspring as a Hungarian. It was self-evident that all this could not have been established by volition only, but a church community, a school, youth organisations, cultural events, an intellectual milieu, libraries, journals, and an entire institutional framework making the exchange of ideas possible were all needed. It is a historical credit to the Hungarian emigrants that all these were established and were operated until the end of the psychological condition of emigration.

Ever since the sweeping political changes of 1989-90 and the expiration of political emigration as a category, the intellectual activities by the Hungarian communities in the West have greatly been reduced, or in some cases completely eradicated even. Rather surprising, this was a natural development and could be predicted with relative certainty. At the most, we can be astonished and upset by the tragic speed at which the process was completed. The location of the cultural activities of the Hungarian living in the West, along with the terrain of encountering Hungarian culture, was no longer the system of institutions of the host country, but numerous opportunities were offered by Hungary also. For any Hungarians living in the West the cultural services befitting his interests and demands are just as easily available in the national communities of the Carpathian Basin, as in the countries they happen to dwell. The geographical distances do, of course, play a part in this, and it is far from indifferent in this respect whether someone lives in Vienna or in Sao Paolo. In consequence, the need for Hungarian institutions and organisations in a foreign country is directly proportional to that country's distance from the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarian spiritual and intellectual life in some of the Western European countries show a much more depressing picture than it does in Australia or South America, for example.

The telling signs of decline are all too familiar: a number of magazines and newspapers have gone out of business, Hungarian book publication has all but vanished, there are hardly any more Hungarian theatrical companies, the number of schools have drastically been reduced, most of the intellectual clubs, once so thriving and brilliant, are now merely the shadows of their former selves, often you are just as likely to hear foreign words spoken at the congregations as Hungarians, and in the youth organisations it is frequently put to vote whether to speak Hungarian or the language of the host nation.

Béla Pomogáts, the President of the Hungarian Writers' Association, has recently summed up the lessons of his American journey in the following: "the Hungarian communities in America are visibly diminishing, their institutes decaying, and their communal cohesion weakening. Earlier on we could find thriving Hungarian communities and colonies in the United States and in Canada, virtual Hungarian settlements... At one time Cleveland and Detroit had proverbial Hungarian districts; by now these have dissolved and integrated into the metropolis. Not so long ago we could still find in New York, around 40th East Street, a well-defined Hungarian colony, complete with Hungarian churches, institutions and shops. By now all this is largely history, just as the once so powerful Hungarian colony of New Brunswick has gone into a state of decay..."

Just a few days ago I picked up the excellent circular Tájékoztató (Informer), published by the American Council of the World Association of Hungarians, only to learn that Sándor Püski's bookshop in New York, one of the intellectual points of reference in America, had closed down on June 1, 1998. The favourite meeting place of New York's Hungarians and the visiting Hungarians from Europe does not exist any more, the significance of which was on par with the once famed American book shop in Paris. The Püski shop in New York will in all likelihood find its biographer, just as its Paris predecessor, now an established entry in literary history, had done.

A few years back, while I was working on my second history of the emigration, I already touched upon some of the worrying signs of decline and decay in the hope that the process would still be reversible, with the Hungarians in the West discovering that most of them would live their lives in the current neighbourhood and the young people would probably build an existence and develop their talent here. Some people advised me that I had been far too pessimistic, seeing the future in much darker tones than it actually deserves. While I am prepared to admit that some promising signs do exist, among others in the town in which I happen to live, I still think that to reverse the present unfavourable tendencies would require great determination and vigour. Perhaps the gravity of the present situation and the worrying direction of changes can still be changed for the better. We must have faith in that, although shrinking in size (which at the same time gives hope for the future, as it means that the political conditions force nobody to leave the country), we Western Hungarians continue to abide by our Hungarian origins, the Hungarian language and traditions and the service of Hungarian interests abroad.

In the interest of the above goals we should above else make sure that the existing institutions continue to operate. I primarily have in mind the religious communities, the churches and the religions organisations. The Catholics fare worse in this regard than the Protestants do. Due to its universal character and hierarchical structure, the Catholic Church is much more vulnerable to assimilation, than are the Protestant denominations based on the strong independence and self-government of the congregation. No matter how difficult this might be to effect, the Hungarian Catholic congregations and organisations should never relinquish their independence and Hungarian as the language of the sermon. Opposition to the local bishop's decision is always a risky undertaking, but perhaps with active devotional work in good Hungarian spirit and with successful communal activities the unfavourable administrative reforms could be forestalled. Even amongst Hungarians of the Protestant faith there might be some tendencies towards ethnic assimilation, but due precisely to their relatively broader autonomy and communal freedoms, these churches could perhaps discharge their national mission and tasks more easily.

Another problem of burning actuality is posed by the maintenance and operation of Hungarian schools-mostly weekend institutions. There was a time when all sizeable Hungarian settlements had their Hungarian school. By now the situation has changed drastically. It would be worth contemplating on ways of founding new schools and making it possible for children of Hungarian parents at least to acquaint themselves with the basics of reading, writing and speaking in Hungarian, as well as with the most important facts about Hungarian history and geography. This task can no longer be put off in larger Hungarian settlements and every community will be judged according to its ability or inability to establish a school where there is a demand for it.

To resuscitate the defunct Hungarian magazines, newspapers and bulletins would be near impossible, and in any case would require immense determination and sacrifices. In the countries across the Atlantic nothing much has changed in the departments of literature and political press, although there, too, problems might emerge from time to time. In North and South America as well as in Australia it was not so much the political turn in Hungary that posed problems; there a general setback was caused by ageing and a lack of funding. Nevertheless, efforts and sacrifices were made everywhere to preserve at least the most important organs.

The loss of Új Látóhatár, Katolikus Szemle, Irodalmi Újság, Magyar Füzetek and Nemzetőr has naturally left a great void. Although still in circulation, the latter is more of a Budapest than a Munich paper, despite its parallel publication. As to its appraisal of the Hungarian situation, it is closer to the opinions present in the Hungarian media, than to a specific Western view.

While filling in completely the void left behind by the missing magazines seems impossible, it would be worth a try to alleviate the sense of loss. It is an encouraging thought that two of our big monthly magazines in Europe, the Catholic Életünk and the Austrian Bécsi Napló stand on sound financial grounds. Both do a great job in informing the readers and orienting them in Hungarian matters. It would also be worth a try to supplement the existing bulletins of nation-wide, local or in-house circulation with literary materials, commentaries and relevant information on Hungarian, in this expanding the readers' horizon. Augmented both in size and in content, Angliai Magyar Tükör published in London (one example where the above-mentioned expansion has already begun), Protestáns Híradó of Cologne, Duna of Switzerland and Híradó published by the Hungarians' Association of Sweden seem the most suitable and best fitted to make up for the loss of the above magazines. As to Életünk and Bécsi Napló, mentioned above, both should consider the possibilities of enlargement. In the case of Életünk, it would perhaps be of use to complement the traditional religious and devotional material with an increased amount of literature and information relevant to Hungarians in the West. Bécsi Napló-similarly to Életünk-has by now become a magazine of European outlook, read throughout the continent. Should this expertly edited and largely informative magazine be published monthly, rather than once in every two month, that would be a great profit to all. Increasing the frequency of publication would necessarily imply additional costs, which the publishers might perhaps finance, in this way giving jobs to additional employees.

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The conditions in book publishing continue to offer no hope. Most of the problems arise from the fact that the costs of book publishing are incomparably higher in the West than they are in the Carpathian Basin. This is the cause, and also the explanation, of the phenomenon that the Hungarian publishers in the West have one by one gone out of business, and all those that have survived have their books printed in Hungary, using the country as a base for distribution. Most of the Hungarian authors living in the West are obliged to send their manuscripts either to Budapest or to some other Hungarian towns, or even to some of the neighbouring countries. Books published there cannot, however, be purchased in the West. It is a matter of pure luck when and where people can get hold of them on their journeys in the Carpathian Basin. The situation is not likely to improve in the immediate future.

The prospects are much brighter regarding the situation of the Hungarian intellectual circles in the West. Assuming, of course, that the demand and the determination is there. Even if we do not see signs of it, we can never abandon the hope regarding its realisation. More specifically, we cannot abandon the hope that extensive and successful work would be done in the following decades in the interest of bringing together the Hungarian intelligentsia and promoting the cause of their orientation in Hungarian questions. After the political changes in Hungary, these intellectual circles seem to have forgotten about their original mission, which was the enrichment of Hungarian culture amongst the members of the diaspora scattered all over the world, the strengthening of their national conscience, and the formative influence on their behaviour. Instead, they tried to take part in the social processes in Hungary and the countries of the Carpathian Basin. The results in that regard fell far short of the successes they achieved in the Hungarian communities of the West. There are no signs of any intention to found similar new organisations. It appears that the climate is not favourable for such undertakings, even though there is a powerful demand for it. To suggest but one solution, some cultural societies established with a view to aiding intellectual orientation amongst Hungarians could extend their spheres of activity, and in addition to holding lectures for local audiences, they could decide to organise annual meetings, conferences and workshops.

I have the feeling that Hungarian intellectuals with a propensity to attend such social occasions live in sufficient numbers in all major countries, and they would welcome the possibility to participate in them in their own locality, or at least in their own country. On occasions I encounter the view that Hungary's official participation in the tasks discharged by Hungarians residing in the West to promote Hungarian interests would be desirable, including intellectual and financial support.

I am not among the advocates and promoters of this view, because I feel that it is better if we take full responsibility for the projects that we launch for our own purposes, with all the associated obligations. Communication and co-ordination with Hungary are both useful and valuable, but the tasks in this regard rest on the shoulders of the Hungarians in the West. Similarly to so many other things, this requires strong determination, relentless enthusiasm and a great deal of sacrifice.

At the moment it is too early to tell how the newly elected government envisages its relationship and co-operation with the Hungarians living in the West. Its initial position and chances are better than those of the previous government. Viktor Orbán and the coalition parties were received more favourably than their predecessors had been. The Prime Minister's remark, in reference to József Antall's words, about a nation undivided by borders conjured up pleasant reminiscences and generated hopeful expectations in the majority of the Hungarians in the West. This much can be said with clear conscience, even if the statistical surveys and opinion polls-nothing of the sort having been conducted-do not bear it out.

My personal view is that the new government can draw on a lot of trust in its work, and it can be safely said that its plans inspire hopes, even if many people might have noticed that in its program no mention was made of those members of the nation who live in diaspora in the West. Hungarians living outside Hungary's borders are, indeed, discussed in the document with due emphasis, yet the context makes it clear that these are Hungarians living in minority in the neighbouring countries, rather than Hungarians in the West.

The tasks and duties of Hungarians living in the West are clear and unambiguous. They have to solve their problems on their own, regardless of how they are seen by people-politicians and private persons, officials and institutions, people concerned and people unconcerned. As long as they are aware of their position, role and national obligations, and as long as they are willing to make sacrifices for themselves and their homeland, history will probably not blame them for not doing as much as they could have done.

 

Vissza