Article Index

 

The United States' entry into World War I was an especially trying test of the neighborhood's loyalties. As it was for Germans, this was a difficult time for Hungarian-Americans. Their old homelands were now at war with their new country, forcing them to prove their American patriotism and loyalty. Acquiring citizenship and purchasing Liberty Bonds were two of the easiest ways to do this. A neighborhood businessman named János (John) Strick, for instance, was declared the "first citizen of Toledo" for purchasing $20,000 worth of Liberty Bonds during the war. Commitments to the new homeland were also reinforced by the post-war dismemberment of the historic political units of East-Central Europe. The Austro-Hungarian Empire vanished from the map, and residents of northeastern Hungary found themselves in the southeastern region of the newly created Czechoslovakia. Thus, for many in Birmingham, there was no longer even a homeland to return to. Many residents were convinced that their fate had been decided by the war. Like it or not, they were now destined to become Americans.

The period between the World Wars was one of neighborhood consolidation and psychological adjustment to life in America. Due to changes in U.S. Immigration laws, large-scale immigration came to an end at the same time that post-war realities discouraged the thought of returning to Hungary. A generation was coming into its own that had learned the assimilation lesson and grown up speaking primarily English. Birmingham's secular organizations and the three established churches encouraged neighborhood residents to secure American citizenship, become fluent in English, and get involved in American society and politics. These second-generation Birmingham residents broke into the American mainstream through the professions, business, and politics. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of such Hungarian-American owned businesses as Kinsey's (Kigyossy's) Funeral Home, the Weizer-Mesteller's furniture store, and Tony Packo's restaurant.

Birmingham did not escape the effects of The Great Depression, but the neighborhood's cohesion, the support of the churches and social organizations, and the overall spirit of kinship and solidarity saw most of the residents through the hard times. As the interviews in this volume tell repeatedly, people took care of each other, and the community institutions supported their efforts. An example is the way the people cooperated to "liberate" coal from trains coming through Birmingham, with the tacit blessing of the priests.

Two prime movers in sustaining Hungarian consciousness in Birmingham during this period of its history were Monsignor Elemér Eördögh and Dr. Géza Farkas, both of whom are important enough to merit detailed discussion. Elemér Géza Eördögh was born in Kassa, Hungary (now Kosice, Slovakia) on July 4, 1875, into a family tracing its roots to 1232 when it was ennobled by King Andrew II of the House of Árpád. Eördögh received a solid university education, including seminary training at Kalocsa, and was ordained a priest on November 18, 1897 at the age of twenty-two. Initially, he ministered to the needs of a Slovak and German parish in Hungary. He came to the United States in 1911. After a stay in Throop, Pennsylvania, he arrived in Toledo in 1913 and was installed as the pastor of the Magyar parish. From the beginning, Father Eördögh put his heart and soul into his assignment. Though plans for a large new church building had been made before his arrival, he took charge as the actual construction and fund-raising began. From his installation until his death, Father Eördögh provided the church's goals and the strategies to achieve them. Almost all of the present structure was built under his supervision.

After World War I, Father Eördögh's family fell victim to Hungary's dismemberment: his brother and sister were separated by the new international borders. Since he himself associated "home" with upper Hungary, which became part of Czechoslovakia, his commitment to staying in Toledo was surely reinforced. Henceforth he would be a Hungarian-American priest, in spite of his strong links to an aristocratic past in Hungary. His mission became more inextricably intertwined with the fate of the working people of Birmingham. He was still old world upper-class in his personal habits, his ability to "wine and dine" guests, and in the selection of some of his official visitors, which included such luminaries as Countess Bethlen, Otto von Habsburg, and Cardinal Mindszenty.

He saw the parish as his primary concern, but even here his mode of operating was still "old school." He was a hard task-master and a strict disciplinarian, establishing a 9 P.M. curfew for the parish children and managing to keep the youngsters, at least until they were sixteen, out of the local saloons. The force of his personality alone was enough to contain most of his congregation within behavioral limits that he personally defined.

Recognition came from the Toledo city fathers, prominent citizens of Birmingham, the Church hierarchy, and even officials in his former homeland. He became Monsignor Eördögh on November 9, 1929, and received Hungary's second highest award, the Hungarian order of Merit, for his work on behalf of Hungarian-American immigrants. In 1938, he became chairman of the U.S. Hungarian contingent of the International Eucharistic Congress, and in 1939 he was appointed the U.S. Representative to the St. Ladislaus (László) Society of Hungary. Msgr. Eördögh offered his Golden Jubilee Mass on November 16, 1947. But ill health began to take its toll, and in the last eight years of his life assistant pastors took over most of his responsibilities.

The other seminal figure in this period of Birmingham's history was Dr. Géza Farkas, editor and publisher of the Hungarian-American newspaper Toledo, which began publication in 1929. A first-generation immigrant who received his formal education in Hungary, Farkas shared the editing work on the newspaper with his wife Rózsa until her death in 1948. After that he worked alone, often even setting his own type to bring Toledo to its readers. Born in 1878 in the western Hungarian town of Egerszeg in Zala County to upper middle-class parents, Farkas initially saw his vocation as the priesthood, but soon turned to legal studies and received a law degree from Pázmány Péter University in Budapest in 1899. Law did not appeal to him, however, so he started to work for newspapers.

Farkas visited the United States in 1904. He had intended only a brief stay, but settled in Cleveland and within a short time became the city editor of its Magyar Napilap (The Daily Hungarian). He stayed in Cleveland until 1908, when he moved to Toledo. In Toledo he worked for the Imperial Austro- Hungarian Consulate and also started a steamship ticket and foreign exchange agency. Farkas became well known as a major travel agent in Birmingham. He became involved in national politics quickly and served as the Hungarian- American manager of William Howard Taft's 1908 presidential campaign. He acquired American citizenship in 1911.

Between 1908 and 1929, Farkas was an advisor to the Birmingham community in legal, personal, and even family matters. He was an active and public-spirited citizen who helped his people organize churches, fraternal societies, and benefits for the sick and poor. He was also a respected spokesman for the neighborhood and an important link between the Hungarian community and city authorities.

Farkas's many-sided but practical personality is mirrored in the pages of Toledo. It was not a sophisticated paper but a simple weekly concerned with providing working people with useful information. Toledo straddled an important period in the history of Birmingham, the United States, and the world. Beginning publication at the start of the Great Depression, it remained the sole voice of the Toledo Hungarian-American community until the end of 1971. Forty years of history are reflected in its pages, including the perspectives of the editor and the reactions of his readers to such international developments as World War II, the Soviet occupation and communization of Hungary, the Korean conflict, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. But it also covered events in the civic life of Toledo and Ohio, interweaving them with the day-to-day concerns of the churches, clubs, businesses, and cultural institutions that connected Birmingham's citizenry to the nation and world.

Even though assimilation continued, old Hungarian customs, festivals, and food practices continued in Birmingham during these decades. During this period it was not seen as contradictory to be a fiercely patriotic American while maintaining traditions from the old country. These customs were not practiced in any conscious effort to preserve the Hungarian heritage. They were simply the way one lived life. Summer was greeted by the Corpus Christi procession. Young girls in white dresses and boys in their best clothes marched down the street to pray at highly decorated outdoor altars set up in front of homes. Flowers were scattered on the streets and tree trunks were painted white to make the neighborhood look cleaner. The Harvest Dance was celebrated in autumn when all the backyard and vacant-lot gardens had yielded their crops. Children dressed in traditional costumes and marched behind a band wagon (later a truck) to inform everyone that Harvest Dance was that night. At the dance hall, grapes would be strung from a temporary arbor, and the adults would dance the Csárdás. They would attempt to steal the grapes as they danced, and the children were responsible for arresting the culprits. Everyone was caught, and then they would be brought before the "judge," who would levy a fine. The proceeds always went to a worthy neighborhood cause.

Christmas was not only the celebration of Christ's birth and the occasion for bringing out the best Hungarian food, sweets, and delicacies, but also the time when the Bethlehemes folk play was enacted on the streets, in the bars and neighborhood homes, and finally at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The players would collect donations of food, drink, and money from their audiences. [See the appendixes for a translated text of the play.]

The feast of St. Patrick was also a major celebration in Birmingham. While many Toledoans flocked to the local bars to celebrate Ireland's patron saint, March 17th found the people of St. Stephen's participating in a solemn novena honoring the Virgin Mary and celebrating the Hungarians' Irish Madonna. An interesting and little-known story lies behind the celebration. During the English Civil War, the persecution of Catholics in Ireland led many Irish clergymen to escape to mainland Europe. Bishop Lynch was given sanctuary by the Bishop of Györ in Hungary, was made an auxiliary Bishop of that diocese, and eventually died there. After his death, it was reported that a painting he had given to his benefactors was seen to sweat blood for three hours. A copy of the painting was given by the Bishop of Toledo to St. Stephen's Church, and led to the adoption of Ireland's patron saint in a Hungarian parish.

Easter was a tradition-rich time in Birmingham as well. On Palm Sunday, parishioners at St. Stephen's brought pussy willows to church to be blessed as they had done in Hungary, where palms were unavailable. On the Saturday before Easter, baskets of Easter food wrapped in native embroidery were brought to the church to be blessed. The folk art of decorating Easter eggs was practiced. This was a time of jubilation, when the fasting and sacrifices of Lent were over. The climax of the season was the Easter Sunday Mass, but the folk customs continued into the next week. The Monday following Easter was dousing day, a tradition that originated in the villages of Hungary. Originally, the young men would throw buckets of water on the young women, or pick them up and drop them in horse-watering troughs. In Birmingham, the ritual became more stylized and dignified. Young men would ask to sprinkle the young lady of the house, sometimes with a bottle of perfume and sometimes with a homemade concoction. In some cases, they would enter the bedroom and sprinkle the girl before she awoke. But the most common setting, especially among family members, was the breakfast table. For outsiders, including potential or actual boyfriends, the entrance of the house was the customary site. Often the sprinklers would be given coins or Easter eggs. For the younger boys, this custom became an excuse to throw water balloons at the girls. On Tuesday, it was the females' turn to douse. It is said that even the U.S. Mail carriers stayed away from Birmingham on Easter Tuesday.

As is true in most European and American ethnic communities, social rites of passage, like the seasonal events, were centered on the church. Births were marked with baptisms, and young adulthood was recognized by confirmation. The biggest celebrations surrounded weddings. Divorces were extremely rare; marriage was for keeps and for bearing children. Once a marriage was announced, Birmingham watched for male members of the wedding party to walk the neighborhood with a ceremonial cane tied with ribbons proclaiming the event. Some wedding celebrations would last for days. Gypsy orchestras would play and beer and wine would flow freely. Father Eördögh, in fact, confined weddings to the early days of the week so St. Stephen's parishioners would not be suffering from too much celebrating by the time of Sunday Mass.

Funeral rites are well documented in the interviews in this volume. The bells of St. Stephen’s were rung when a member of the congregation died, with one sequence for a man and another for a woman. Between the death and the burial there was a vigil, a time when men stayed in the deceased's home guarding the body in tribute to their lost friend. During the night they would talk of their loss, but they would also play cards, tell stories, and drink beer. After the funeral, especially if the person had been important or affluent, a band would lead the procession to the cemetery.

 

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