Back to Home


What does it mean to be Hungarian?

Margaret Botos


          I wonder if you have ever had the experience of introducing yourself to someone who comments “That’s an interesting name, may I ask what your ethnic background is?”  When you tell them it is Hungarian, they ask “What country is that?” and you answer “Hungary”.  Some people do not even know where Hungary is located. They might know that Hungary is in Central Europe but more than likely they will not.  They might ask if it is near Poland, which it is and then they will probably ask if Hungarian is a Slavic language.  Hopefully, you will be able to tell them that it is not a Slavic language and that it is unrelated to any other European language.  If they are interested, you might go on to tell them that it is not a Finno-Ugric language and is related to the Sumerian language.   Some people do not even know who the Sumerians were, so unless you have a few hours to spare to enlighten them, it would be best to leave it at that.  At least they will have learned that Hungarians are not Slavs.

          What does being Hungarian mean to you?  Does it mean just that you go to a Hungarian picnic and a Christmas party every year or that you join other Hungarians in commemorating March 15 and October 23?  Are you proud to be a Hungarian or are you afraid you will be teased and called Atilla the Hun?

          You may have been lucky enough to travel to Hungary with your parents to visit relatives there.  You may also be lucky enough to have parents who speak Hungarian and who have taught you to speak some of the language so that you didn’t feel so strange when you got there.  When you travel, do you like to know where you are going?  Do you like to look at maps and see what the country looks like?  If you look at a map of Europe, you will see that Hungary is located in Central Europe.  The map that you get today shows you only the small picture of Hungary, the Hungary that was left after the First World War, after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 gave away large chunks of Hungary to the neighboring states. Anyone visiting Hungary today, goes to this little part.  If they want to visit the ancient coronation city of the Hungarian kings, Pozsony, they have to go to Slovakia and tour the city of Bratislava which used to be called Pozsony.  The Slovaks have not allowed the Hungarians to speak their language or keep their customs, and all the signs are in the Slovak language.  There are no stores with Hungarian names.  The street signs are all in Slovak and the Hungarians are not allowed to speak Hungarian in the streets.  Many Hungarians still live in Felvidék which is now Slovakia.   The same situation can be found in Rumania.  If you want to visit the ancient city of Koloszvár, you will follow the signs to Cluj.  The Hungarian city of Gyulafehervár became Alba Iulia.  Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, used to be Nándorfehérvár, where János Hunyadi was victorious against the Turks.   In Serbia, old Hungarian towns, such as Magyarcsernye,  Magyarkanizsa, Magyarpadé, became Nova Crnja, Kanjiza and Novi Padej.  The Hungarians were not allowed to have their own schools and were not allowed to speak their language in public.  Because of this oppression, many Hungarians left their homes and came to America.

          Who are the Hungarians? Are they just those people who live in Hungary? Of course not.  There are huge numbers of Hungarians who live just outside of the borders of present day Hungary, who are treated as second class citizens in their own homeland which has been taken over by their neighbors.  They struggle to keep their language and culture alive in countries which do not allow them to speak Hungarian in public or to gather to celebrate their national holidays, or to wear their national costumes.  There are also the emigrant Hungarians.  These are the people who fled to America and Canada, to England and other European countries, to Australia and Argentina.   They struggle to remain Hungarian in their new countries where they are not oppressed but where there are so many other influences which cause their children to choose not to learn their language although they take them to Hungarian events to try to maintain their culture and teach them about their history. 

          What does it mean to be Hungarian?  Some people say that the emigrant Hungarians are more Hungarian than the Hungarians in Hungary!  Why do they say that?  Well, those who live in Hungary and who have no problems with speaking their language or celebrating their holidays, have become complacent.  That means that they don’t really care too much because they are able to make a living and they are no longer oppressed.  They do not want to appear to be too nationalistic because patriotism is frowned upon and  they are afraid of being labeled as neo-nazis.  They have no real feeling of pride in being Hungarian.  Why should they?  They are taught in school that they are the descendants of barbarian Magyars who came from Siberia in AD 896 and conquered the Carpathian Basin.  They are not taught that their history goes back many thousands of years and that they are the oldest nation in Europe, that they were the first in the world to discover the wheel, and to smelt metals, that they are even older than the Sumerians and related to them.  They are not taught about what happened at Trianon, and many of them do not know that Transylvania used to be part of Hungary.  They are not taught about the Hungarian heroes, and are not encouraged to be proud of being Hungarian.  They do not have pride in their past because they have not been taught about the antiquity of their nation.  They admire Americans, and love to learn English.

          Hungarians are discouraged from flying the Hungarian flag. Gergely Pongratz who was the leader of the Freedom Fighters at Corvin Circle during the Revolution of 1956, was attacked and beaten up because he displayed the Hungarian flag on his car.   What a different picture visitors from Hungary and other parts of Europe have when they come to America.  They are amazed to see the American flag flown almost everywhere.  The flag represents the pride in the nation.  It is carried in the front of parades, flown on state and federal buildings, draped on the coffins of our military men, and displayed proudly in front of the houses of many Americans.  It reminds you of your national pride.  I was born in Britain and whenever I see the British flag, I have a special feeling.  I am sure that you do too, when you see the American flag when you are abroad.  That feeling is called patriotism, a love for your country.  It is also a love for your heritage and your ancestry.  It is being proud to be who you are. As a Hungarian American you have the opportunity to be proud of belonging to two countries and the opportunity to learn two languages.

          We all know that America is the melting pot.  In order to be an American, you have your roots elsewhere.  You are Americans, but you are also Hungarian Americans.  It has been said that to be a good American, you must first be a good Hungarian, Pole, German or Englishman.  Since Alex Haley wrote his epic “Roots”, there have been many efforts by all ethnic groups to research their roots.

          You may have heard the saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  This means that knowledge is power and you too have the power to make a difference.  Of course first, you have to have the knowledge.  Most Americans have very little knowledge about Hungarians.  You are Hungarian and you know that you are descended from the Huns and the Magyars.  You all know the legend of Hunor and Magor, the sons of Nimrud, who followed the enchanted white stag to a beautiful land and there found the daughters of King Dul of the Alans.  Hunor married one and founded the Huns and Magor married the other and founded the Magyars.  This may be just a legend but it shows the antiquity of the Huns and the Magyars.

          Mention to anyone that you are proud to be the descendant of Atilla the Hun and they think you are crazy, because everyone knows that Atilla the Hun was a barbarian, right?  Well, it is not right.  It is what is generally believed but if you know the history of the real Atilla, you can educate those people who laugh at you because your name is Atilla or because you are a Hun - garian.

          Atilla was born in the year AD 400, the son of a Hun king.  He learned to ride a horse before he could walk, was instructed in the use of the bow and arrow before he was three and the saber before he was five.  He became an expert horseman, marksman, and swordsman even before he reached his teens.  He organized the boys of his clan into small regiments and would train them, conduct military exercises with them and lead them into mock battles.  He learned to speak Hunnic and Gothic, as most people did in the Hun Empire.  Before he became an adult, he had also learned Latin and Greek.  Soon after the death of Atilla’s father, a Roman hostage was sent to the court of the Huns.  His name was Flavius Aetius, the son of a prominent Roman general.  Aetius was a few years older than Atilla but the boys became good friends.  While Aetius was learning about the Hunnic society, Atilla was learning from him about the Roman world.  A few years later, Atilla was sent by his uncle as a hostage to the Roman court where Atilla learned much about the tactics of the Romans.  Amadéé Thierry, a French historian writes:

          “Aetius first learned about military tactics among the Huns, while Atilla did so among the Romans.  Like a hunter who studies the paths in the jungle, so (did Atilla study) the shortcomings of (Roman) society, the weaknesses of the Roman people . . . the incompetence of their emperors, the corruption of their statesmen, the absence of morality among their masses;  in other words, everything that could in any way be helpful to him later, and could serve as an inspiration for his boldness and his genius.

          Atilla and Aetius were bound together by a strange friendship, which revealed itself in the exchange of small gifts and services.  (Later) the Roman would supply the Hun with Latin secretaries and interpreters, while the Hun would send the Roman unique gifts, including amusing artifacts and once even a midget.

          These two men respected each other, and secretly even feared each other.  They were like two rivals, who knew that perhaps one day they would have to face one another on the battlefield.  They also believed that only they were worthy to measure each other’s strength.”

          During his several years as hostage, Atilla saw the weakness and corruption of the Romans and concluded that the empire was ready to fall to the first serious rival.  He vowed never to give up the old ways of the Huns and he kept to his promise throughout his life.  He always lived a simple Spartan existence even at the height of his power. The Greek envoy, Priscus, describes a banquet Atilla gave in AD 449, in honor of the Eastern Roman Embassy:

           “The cupbearers gave us a cup, according to the national custom, that we might pray before we sat down.” He describes a luxurious meal served on silver plates, with wine served in goblets of gold and silver.  Atilla was dressed simply in contrast to the other Huns and he ate from a wooden plate and drank from a wooden goblet.

          Atilla’s empire grew and his soldiers waged one successful campaign after another, weakening the Western and Eastern Roman Empires.  Finally when he was about to conquer Rome itself, the Romans sent Pope Leo to plead with him for mercy.  Atilla decided to spare Rome and withdrew his troops.  Wess Roberts writes: “Attila was less savage than the Romans, who cast thousands of Christians to wild animals for mere entertainment.  In comparison he was less cruel than Ivan the Terrible, Cortes or Pizzarro.”  “ In his sparing of Rome, he showed more mercy than did Denserich, Belizar, the Norsemen, the Germans and the Spanish mercenaries who all pillaged it without regard.”  He goes on to say “Attila’s legacy is generally unfamiliar to us in the Western World.  We are naive about his historical importance as a genius civilizer, his open-mindedness and richness of views, in all of which he exceeded Alexander the Great or Caesar.”

          So is it any wonder that Hungarians, who know their history and are proud of their ancestors, become annoyed at the media and references to Atilla the Hun and his barbarians?

          Well, you may say, there isn’t much I can do about it anyway, so why get bent out of shape?  Obviously, you won’t accomplish much by ranting and raving about the ignorance of everyone you meet but you can do a lot, even so.  If everyone who hears a false statement about Hungarians ignores it and just carries on with his life, the lies continue and are believed.  But if you take the time to write a letter, relate what you know to a friend or even study and write books, in the long run, changes will be made.

          We have been writing letters for years to newspapers, magazines, and radio stations.  Most do not answer, but sometimes there is a promise to correct the mistakes in a later issue.  When he was in fifth grade, my son discovered something in his weekly reader from school which he knew was inaccurate.  He wrote a letter to the editor of the publication and was happy to receive a response thanking him for his observation and a promise to correct it. 

          I have been married to a Hungarian for more than forty-five years and I have learned to speak the Hungarian language.  I love Hungarian music, folk dancing, Hungarian food and Hungarian embroideries and I am very proud of being a friend of the Hungarians. If I can develop this love for a country which is not my own, then you who have some Hungarian blood in your veins, must be very proud of your ancestry.  If you know the Hungarian language too, that is an added achievement you can be proud of because Hungarian is the most expressive language in the world. Sir John Bowring, an English poet of the nineteenth century who spoke many languages and translated Hungarian poetry into English, greatly admired the Hungarian language and believed it to be the oldest and most beautiful language in Europe.

          Some second or third generation Hungarians no longer speak the language of their parents and grandparents.  Even if you do not speak the language, you can still be a proud Hungarian with a love for your origins and the country of your ancestors.  To develop this love, you have to nurture it.  I have developed a love of things Hungarian by listening to Hungarian music, reading about Hungary and the Hungarians and listening to lectures.  Hungarian music, for example, has a unique character and is very recognizable.  It has often been referred to as Gypsy music, which implies that Hungarians are gypsies.  Hungarians are not gypsies.  Gypsies are a nomadic people who originated in India.  In about AD 1300 they migrated to Persia, now Iran, and continued to travel north into Armenia and North Africa.  In about AD 1500, they reached the European countries where many of them settled in Spain, France, Hungary and even England.  They were skilled at playing the violin and since  the Hungarian folk songs were  mainly accompanied by the violin, they quickly learned to play the Hungarian folk music.  They made a living, playing Hungarian folk music at restaurants and weddings and since many of the groups that now play Hungarian music are gypsies, this is the way the misunderstanding arose.  Gypsies migrated into Spain and played Spanish music too, but the Spanish music is not referred to as Spanish Gypsy music. One of the small ways that you can make a contribution to improving the image of the Hungarians in the world is to explain to people that Hungarians are not gypsies or barbarians.  Of course, you do this when the opportunity arises, when the subject comes up in conversation or when you are watching a movie with a friend and there is a reference to Hungarians.  For example, we were listening to a concert on the radio which included some Hungarian Folk Music.  The commentator introduced the pieces as Hungarian Gypsy music.  My husband was very upset and immediately wrote a letter to the radio station.  We did not get a reply but the commentator was probably more careful after that in introducing Hungarian music.  Just last month, I was watching a program on TV where a man described another as having the manners of Atilla the Hun.  If you had been watching that program with a friend you could have enlightened him about the elegance of Atilla’s court.

          You have probably noticed that  when you come to the Hungarian celebrations, there are many older people and few young people.  Hungary needs the young people. The older people who have been fighting to keep the culture and the traditions alive will eventually die and the baton will be passed to the younger generation.  You have the duty and the responsibility to learn about your history and teach others.  One way to do this is to form a group of young people (anyone under 50 is young to me) who would be willing to prepare a short talk in English or Hungarian to present to the older generation at your monthly meetings.  It need not be any longer than 10 minutes.  There are so many Hungarian heroes, inventors, poets, writers, scientists, even legends that you could learn about and introduce to your Club.  You have a wonderful opportunity with the Internet.  There should be information there that you can access.  If not there, then ask some of the old folk here.  They all know about Janos Hunyadi and how he saved Hungary from the Turks.  They could provide you with all sorts of material about the oppression in Rumania or Slovakia, or about the 1956 Revolution.  They would love to sit here and listen to one of you give a talk, in Hungarian or in English.   You could even make this into a competition with prizes to encourage young people to take part. 

          If the Western leaders in 1920 had known some Hungarian history, they would not have carved up the country in the way that they did.  We need to educate the western leaders and politicians to help them understand why the Treaty of Trianon was unjust and why they should not give away any more of Hungary.  Who is going to teach them if the Hungarians don’t?  You are needed now.  In the words of Petöfi, “Itt az idő. Most vagy soha!”