HUNGARIANS. Cleveland was at one time referred to as “the American Debrecen” following the popularly held belief that it was the city with the second largest population of Hungarians, outside of Hungary, after Budapest. Although this title did not hold up statistically (best estimates in the early 1900s would globally rank its Hungarian population as, perhaps, fourth largest), the popular name of “the American Debrecen” remained with the Cleveland Hungarian community in published books and magazines for many decades.
Hungarians came to Cleveland because of job availability, accessibility, and, as more Hungarians settled here, the proximity of countrymen. Hungarian immigration to Cleveland occurred in 3 distinct waves: turn-of-the-century immigration (1870-1924), the largest and most influential wave; post-WORLD WAR II "displaced persons;" and post-1956 refugee immigration. Hungarians who first arrived settled at the easternmost edge of the city, which became the Buckeye Rd. Hungarian neighborhood, and formed a smaller settlement on the near west side. Significant Hungarian immigration to the city began in the 1870s. They came because land was scarce in their homeland and cheap labor was plentiful. The majority were single men or men who had left their families behind, because they initially intended to return home with enough savings to purchase land. They lived in boarding houses, run by the few women who had immigrated with their husbands. By 1900 there were 9,558 Hungarians in Cleveland.
A distinct Hungarian settlement evolved during the mid-1880s, with the first families settling close to the factories where they worked: around Madison St. (now E. 79th) and Woodland Ave. from E. 65th onward. At the eastern outskirts of the city, the streets were unpaved and dark, but the area was attractive because housing was cheap, residents could walk to work, and they could live with their countrymen. Reportedly, older, more established immigrant groups treated these newcomers with disdain, ridiculing their dress and Old World ways. Until there were a substantial number of their countrymen in the city, Hungarians were wary of speaking their native tongue in the streets for fear of reprisals.
Hungarians initially found work at EBERHARD MFG. CO., Mechanical Rubber Works, Natl. Malleable Steel Castings, Ohio Foundry, Standard Foundry, Van Dorn Iron Works, Glidden Varnish, Cleveland Bronze, and Carlin Bronze. They earned a reputation as hard-working and tolerant, and according to some sources, employers sought them out when hiring. As more Hungarians found accommodation and employment in Cleveland and wrote to their relatives and friends at home, more Hungarians immigrated to Cleveland. This process of "chain migration" was especially evident on the west side of the city, where several hundred immigrants from the same Hungarian village settled, lured by the success of THEODOR KUNDTZ, who established his own cabinetmaking company in 1876. By 1900 Kundtz Mfg. employed 2,500 skilled workers, most of them Hungarian immigrants. Kundtz became one of Cleveland's wealthiest industrialists and built "Hungaria Hall" on Clark Ave. in 1890 for the community. However, the number of Hungarians on the west side was not large enough to support such a massive community center, and it was later sold to a Czech Sokol (Sokol Nova Vlast).
The first organizations established by the Hungarians were self-help/sick-benefit societies. Other organizations were founded for the added purpose of establishing a church. Through the efforts of King St. Ladislaus Roman Catholic Men's & Women's Sick Benefit Society, Rev. CHAS. BOEHM was sent to Cleveland; upon his arrival, he established the first Hungarian Roman Catholic church in North America, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Cleveland was the first location of several Hungarian church denominations in North America: the FIRST HUNGARIAN REFORMED (1891), Roman Catholic (ST. ELIZABETH'S CHURCH, 1892), and Greek Catholic churches (St. John's Greek Catholic, 1892). In the 1890s these 3 denominations built churches on lower Buckeye Rd. By the early 1920s, 11 Hungarian churches representing 6 denominations had been established: 7 on the east side and 4 on the west. In addition, there were 3 Hungarian Jewish congregations on the east side. Large-scale projects, requiring the support of all Hungarians living in Cleveland, stimulated a sense of community awareness and pride. A statue of Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth was erected at UNIV. CIRCLE in 1902, when only 10,000 Hungarians lived in Cleveland. The founding of the UNITED HUNGARIAN SOCIETIES in 1902 also promoted unity. This organization was, at its founding, unique among Hungarian-American organizations in the U.S. Major movements of general interest to all Hungarian-Americans originated in Cleveland. The American Hungarian Fed. was founded in Cleveland in 1906 to represent Hungarians and safeguard their rights as American citizens. The movement to erect a statue of Geo. Washington in Budapest was spearheaded by TIHAMER KOHANYI, editor of the Cleveland-based SZABADSAG.
The Buckeye Rd. Hungarian community was a transient neighborhood until 1920. Immigrants known as "migrating birds" came and went—visiting and helping their families in Hungary at harvest time, and returning to work in the factories during the winter, living in boarding houses and not concerned with establishing permanent ties. This situation altered dramatically, however, with WORLD WAR I and the Treaty of Trianon, which imposed harsh economic and political conditions on Hungary. Suddenly the decision of Hungarian immigrants in the U.S. to return or to remain was imminent. Moreover, the U.S. imposed the quota system in 1921, curtailing immigration in any year to 3% of the number of the nationality in the U.S. in 1900; later this was reduced to 2%. More than half of the 1 million Hungarian immigrants living in the U.S. returned to Hungary during and after World War I. In the Cleveland Hungarian community, World War I and the Treaty of Trianon decided the fate of the ethnic enclave. After 1920, an increasing number of residents purchased their own homes and became U.S. citizens. The original Hungarian neighborhood around E. 79th and Holton Ave. expanded from Buckeye Rd. to Woodland Ave. and E. 72nd St., and east along Buckeye from Woodhill Rd. to E. 125th St. Hungarian businesses soon dominated the entire span of Buckeye. Clubhouses were built, and churches, which until then were wooden structures, were rebuilt in stone. In the development of the Buckeye Rd. Hungarian community, 1920-30 is known as the period of expansion, while 1930-60 is designated as the period of stability.
Cleveland's Hungarian immigrant population rose from 9,558 to 43,134 by 1920. Hungarians constituted 8% of the city's foreign-born population in 1900, and 18% in 1920. The Buckeye Rd. neighborhood became a dynamic ethnic community. The 7 churches and 8 clubhouses were in constant use. The community's social calendar included the following regular events: 12 grape harvest festivals, 11 New Year's Eve dances, 14 picnics, 12 plays, 20 banquets, and over 100 Hungarian weddings. In addition, lectures, forums, civic and political meetings, bazaars, and card parties were weekly held at clubhouses and halls. Six Hungarian-language newspapers served the community. The largest, Szabadsag, reached a daily circulation of 40,612 in 1940. By 1920 there were more than 300 Hungarian-owned businesses and 81 Hungarian organizations in Cleveland.
By the 1930s many Cleveland Hungarians were becoming acculturated to the American way of life, but many retained their native tongue and customs. At this time a substantial number of 2nd-generation Hungarian-American youths were active in the community, forming their own social and civic groups. During the Depression, organizations assisted the community through hard economic times, including charity committees, such as that established by the Women's Hungarian Social Club, homeowners' associations to try to prevent evictions, and several labor organizations, including a Hungarian-language section of the IWW. The Hungarian community, overwhelmingly Democratic, evolved into a political voting bloc during the 1930s. Ward 29 was represented by Hungarian councilmen for nearly 45 years starting in 1921. In Ward 16, Hungarian representation spanned 30 years, 1939-71. Approximately 26 Hungarian-Americans from the Buckeye community were elected or appointed to various city, county, and state offices. From 1931-74, usually 2 and often 3 judges of the 9 on the bench of the Municipal Court of Cleveland were Hungarian. The most influential Hungarian-American politician in Cleveland city government was JACK P. RUSSELL, who became president of the city council in 1957 and held the position for 11 years.
World War II disrupted the Hungarian community of Cleveland drastically: many Hungarian-American youths served and died overseas. In the predominantly Hungarian 29th Ward, 4,305 men (13% of the population) served in the armed forces. Most returning veterans did not go back to the neighborhoods where they grew up, but moved to suburbs to start families, beginning the disintegration of the Buckeye neighborhood. Following the war, the community worked with and absorbed a new wave of Hungarian immigrants, displaced persons obtaining "Home and Job Assurances" needed by postwar immigrants to enter the U.S., and searching for housing and employment once they arrived. Between 1947-53, approx. 6,000 Hungarian immigrants arrived in Cleveland, generally from Hungary's urban centers and from the middle and upper-middle classes. Most were well-educated, emigrated with their families, and were established in their careers when they left. They were handicapped by being middle-aged: losing everything and having to start anew proved extremely difficult for many. The postwar immigrants left Hungary because of changes in the political system, not for economic reasons, and intended to return to Hungary when the Soviet occupation of the country ended, making them émigrés rather than immigrants. They were the most politically conscious among Cleveland's Hungarians, even compared to the later Hungarian refugees of 1956. They founded organizations to maintain their homeland traditions, especially those undermined by the postwar government, and emphasized educating the 2nd generation in their language and heritage through Saturday language schools and the Hungarian Scouting movement. They included many writers and journalists; several new newspapers were founded in Cleveland during the 1950s and 1960s, and they published more books than any other wave of Hungarian immigrants.
The revolution in Hungary in Oct. 1956 brought a wave of approx. 41,000 refugees to the U.S. The revolution was unexpected; the community only recently absorbed the postwar immigrants, but Hungarians in Cleveland reacted quickly. Within the first days mass rallies were held, and organizations initiated relief programs. These refugees were the youngest wave of Hungarian immigrants and the group least prepared with future plans and goals. Unlike previous immigrants, these refugees had to leave Hungary suddenly and unexpectedly; many possessed a technical trade or had several years of university study. They evoked great public sympathy in the U.S. because of their fight against communism, and numerous opportunities, such as scholarship programs, job placement, and financial assistance, were made available to them. It is difficult to determine the exact number of refugees who settled in Cleveland because census data statistics between 1950-60 include many of the postwar immigrants as well, but it has been estimated at 6,000-9,000. Moreover, it is impossible to ascertain how many stayed in Cleveland once they familiarized themselves with English and life in the U.S. Because of their relative youth, technical skills, and single status, they adjusted with greater ease than previous immigrants and exhibited less attachment to community organizations and institutions.
For over 100 years, a distinct and unique Hungarian community has existed in Cleveland, constantly rejuvenated by new waves of immigrants. The Buckeye Rd. neighborhood began declining in the 1960s and experienced an alarming increase in crime during the late 1960s and 1970s. By 1980 few Cleveland Hungarians lived there; but the local Hungarian community was still viable. By the 1980s, there were 113,000 Greater Clevelanders of Hungarian birth or descent. Although the number of Greater Clevelanders claiming Hungarian descent dropped to 61,681 in the 1990 census and the number of people of Hungarian birth resident in Cleveland was a mere 924, the community remained active. Old organizations were replaced by new ones, founded by 2nd or 3rd generation Hungarian Americans, consisting mainly of folkdance groups, cultural organizations, and civic clubs. Even within the old Buckeye neighborhood, which was almost totally devoid of Hungarian residents, a heritage museum was established at St. Elizabeth's church, and both remained focal points of Hungarian pride and culture in 1995. All of these new organizations epitomized an ongoing attempt to preserve cultural traditions and an awareness of ethnic background among the American-born children of Hungarian immigrants.
Susan M. Papp
Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
View image at Cleveland Memory.
View image gallery at Cleveland Memory.
Papp, Susan. Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1981).