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Hungarian Immigration in Australia

by Attila Urmenyhazi

Hungarian refugees arrive in Australia after the Hungarian uprising, 1956

Hungarian refugees arrive in Australia after the Hungarian uprising, 1956

National Archives of Australia, A12111:1/​1956/​5/​34

As a small ethnic group, Hungarians have lived in Australia since colonial times, and have often contributed constructively to their adopted country. Their experience as newcomers has generally been harmonious and their integration into Australian society smooth. Many have found success in their adopted country, but not without hard work and frustrating times, starting with the struggle to acquire the command of English so necessary for career advancement and social involvement. The Australian Dictionary of Biography and the associated website ‘Obituaries Australia’ have published 59 biographies and obituaries of Australians of Hungarian birth, and others who, although identifying as Hungarian, were born in the neighbouring countries after the vast reduction in Hungarian national borders in the aftermath of World War I.[1]

In most cases, the Australian Hungarian community’s origins can be traced to four distinct refugee-migrant waves, each resulting from political and social upheavals in Hungary. The USA and Canada were always the first choice destinations, with Argentina in third place and, by comparison, only a trickle came to Australia according to pre-WWI public records.[2] The first wave of Hungarian arrivals in Australia followed the 1848-1849 Hungarian war of independence against the Austrian Empire. The loss of that war and the impact of continued repression by the Austrian rulers resulted in the arrival of political refugees seeking freedom and opportunities in a promising new country, the colonies of Australia. Back in Europe, Hungarians experienced Austrian despotism until 1867, when a political compromise was reached with the declaration of Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, which accorded the kingdom of Hungary equal status through national sovereignty, equal rights for its citizens and development parallel with Austria in every field.

According to official records, the first Hungarian in Australia was trader, later pawnbroker, Isaac Friedman (1805-1875) who arrived in Sydney in 1833 with his wife and son, from London aboard the barque Enchantress.[3] Their first step on Australian soil was a stopover in Hobart, a colonial town which impressed them, with its attractive harbour side and busy waterfront, surrounded by leafy streets lined with humble but neat cottages. After five years in Sydney, the family returned to settle in Hobart. A deeply religious man of Jewish faith, he was one of the founding committee members of the first synagogue in Australia. Moreover he was the main funds provider and backer of the building’s construction and refurbishment. Consecrated in 1845, the National Heritage-listed building, in Egyptian revival style architecture, is at 59 Argyle Street, Hobart.

The first wave of Hungarian migrants numbered no more than a hundred, and comprised ex-army officers, soldiers and resistance fighters, some of them landed gentry, with a sprinkling of adventurers among them. They knew that after a long and unfamiliar sea voyage to a faraway land, and with a bit of luck, they could be rewarded for their determination. What attracted many of them were the Victorian gold fields, well-known in Europe, and they joined the rush to try their luck as prospectors. In due course, they became established settlers to pursue their own lives as colonials once the diggings became unproductive. A few among them moved on to California as experienced diggers in the new, booming gold fields there. Four of the first wave Hungarians became well-respected in their fields of endeavour during the Victorian gold rushes. Their achievements have been documented in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and in some cases their obituaries published by the ADB website ‘Obituaries Australia’.

They include: Ernest (Ernõ) Leviny (1818-1905), an outstanding goldsmith, silversmith, artistic jeweller, and businessman; Sigismund Wekey (Zsigmond Vékey) (1825-1889), ex-army officer, prospector, solicitor and author; Charles (Károly) Nyulasy (1825-1903) ex-army officer, mining engineer and inventor of subaqueous blasting for minerals, and hotel and later drapery shop proprietor; and Béla Makutz (1857-1923), an expert safe maker and later a safe manufacturer in Perth, Western Australia.

A devastating depression in rural Hungary in the late 1890s and early 1900s saw over 1½ million Hungarians, mainly from poverty stricken rural peasantry, emigrate. At the turn of the century about 53 per cent of agricultural properties were tiny holdings, offering only a marginal existence to large families. The majority of migrants went to North America and some to Argentina, and less than fifty came to Australia to work in agriculture. For those who came, Australia was well equipped to offer the conditions they desired: achievable socio-economic well-being through equal wages, affordable tracts of productive lands, peace and the unfettered pursuit of their dreams. More than half of them went to Queensland to work in the sugar cane fields, and others to Western Australia to work on wheat farms, work that was familiar to them. The rest settled in the other states of the mainland, on country properties. As rural workers they integrated successfully into Australian society without leaving any particular trace, other than their original names and national origin on State and Commonwealth naturalisation records.

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I (1918) and the Treaty of Versailles-Trianon (1920) reduced by 72 percent the size of Hungary. This left some 6.6 million ethnic Hungarians living, not in their own country, but in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine (USSR), Romania and in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later to be Yugoslavia) as ethnic minorities. Discrimination after 1920 against these sizable Hungarian minorities in most of the countries adjoining Hungary brought a steady migration to Australia, to free themselves from the injustice and lack of opportunity they faced at home. This movement was not a ‘wave’, but rather a steady stream, year-in and year-out, of Hungarian migration by professionals and their families sponsored from within Australia.

The second period of Hungarian migration was also minor compared with the later ones. From the mid-1930s in Hitler’s Germany, the gradual oppression of German Jews, and open threats to European Jewry, caused many, including Hungarian Jews, to liquidate their property and migrate to overseas destinations while it was legally possible. Until the outbreak of World War II, Australia offered a safe haven and accepted some 6,475 new settlers, mainly of Central European Jewry, fleeing Nazi Germany’s legalized discrimination, persecution and manifest threats to their safety. The number of Hungarian-Jewish arrivals in Australia during this period is estimated to have been about 800 persons. Most were businessmen, intellectuals, doctors, architects, and engineers who, through their acumen, hard professional work or further studies for recognition of qualifications, rapidly found their place, and flourished in the host country.

Much later, when the first post-World War II Christian Hungarian refugees arrived en masse, and set up their clubs and associations in the early 1950s, these earlier Hungarian migrants rarely mixed and socialized with them. This was mainly due to sheer resentment of the imposition of many restrictive laws by pre-World War II Hungarian governments against Hungarian Jews. An example was the introduction of the quota (6%) system in higher education intake in order to attain the pro-rata balance of university students according to Christians and Jews in the actual population. The invasion of Hungary in March 1944 brought the formation of compliant, subservient Hungarian governments and saw the rounding up and deportation of the Jewry in Hungary. Until then, Hungary was the last safe country in Europe and, despite some contentious racial injustices, the 700,000 Hungarian Jews and the 100,000 foreign refugee Jews endured. The Hungarian-Jewish people who managed to escape the terror and death of Nazi-dominated Hungary, have difficulty forgetting the bitter past etched in their memory.

Hungarian-Jewish migrants have contributed significantly to Australian society, and have shone in many of their fields of specialization. Among them are several dozen luminaries, such as Dr John (János) Béla Polya (1914-1992), FRACI, scientist, academic and world authority in organic chemistry; Desiderius (Dezsõ) Orbán (1884–1986), art teacher, artist, painter and author; Erwin Aladár Radó (1914-1988), producer, and film festival director; and George (György) Molnár OBE AO (1910-1998) professor of architecture and a celebrity as political cartoonist with the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

The third wave of Hungarian immigration was directly attributable to World War II and its consequences. As in most parts of Europe, the war had caused immense devastation, economic collapse and impoverishment. In Central and Eastern Europe, totalitarian communist regimes came to power, introducing ruthless and inhumane policies. Hungary fell under this kind of repressive rule imposed by Soviet Russia-USSR. Soon after the end of World War II, the Australian government crafted and implemented a mass immigration scheme, designed to boost the skilled and willing labour force in the long-term national interest, as well as to respond to humanitarian needs in post-war Europe. In Hungary, the rise of communism brought an exodus of large numbers of people to refugee holding camps in Austria, Germany, and Italy (Trieste), which were run by the International Refugee Organisation. Escaping to the West was possible until 1948 when the communist regime closed the Hungarian borders. From these refugee camps, alongside many other European nationalities, Australia recruited about 15,000 stateless Hungarians between 1949 and 1952, officially terming them ‘Displaced Persons’, who became widely known as ‘DPs’. Australia did not admit Hungarians immediately after the war (June 1945), as they were still considered ‘ex-enemies’, a policy which was reversed in mid-1948. For a two-year duration, the DPs were subject to work contracts and mandatory job designations, partly to recoup the cost of the voyage, by making them into working, taxpaying, productive new settlers immediately on their arrival. Many now look back on their first years in Australia with bittersweet memories. At the time they were severely handicapped by their lack of English, and faced many years of struggle to have their skills and qualifications recognised in their new country.

Both the location and type of work to which the DPs were assigned were already determined by the authorities so that, after they arrived by boat from Europe, they were assembled in old army barracks converted to refugee holding camps in Bonegilla, Victoria, or at Greta, Hunter Valley, New South Wales. Their hostel accommodation thus was ready and waiting unless they continued on their journey to other jobs, full board and lodging with their first employer. Many of these new arrivals were professional and middle–class people, ex-officers, and tradesmen; very few were without skills. Most of them arrived with their families, and were willing to work hard and attain success in their field, becoming affluent in a relatively short period, despite the hardship of their first years as assignees in jobs unrelated to their skills.

The majority spoke little English, barely sufficient to hold a basic conversation, let alone to engage in discussion with English-speaking Australians. For many, it took years to overcome this serious language handicap and to shed their ‘refo’ tag. Once released from the two-year work bond, the ex-DPs were independent and free to pursue their aspirations, move about, change jobs, and work and live anywhere in the country, thus becoming equals in a free Australian society. Many turned out to be tireless workers and determined money-savers, who were driven by a desire to catch up with the rest of the Australian community, and secure the benefits of a comfortable lifestyle in one’s own home, with financial certainty and a positive future. These post-WWII migrants laid the foundation of an Australian Hungarian community which was to be an example for the fourth wave of refugee-migrants who arrived less than ten years later, after the collapse of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

From this third wave, ten preeminent and inspirational achievers on a national scale were: Tibor Paul (Pál) (1909-1973), conservatorium teacher, musical director, and conductor of international fame; Sir Peter Abeles (1924-1999), entrepreneur businessman, airlines transport magnate, and benefactor; Andrew (András) Mattay (1941-2004), colonel, training director for the Australian Army, and Army Commanding Officer, Tasmania; Alex Pongrass (1923–2000) AM (Sándor Pongrácz) entrepreneur businessman in engineering, boatbuilding, furniture manufacture, joint-founder of the National Soccer League (NSL), and benefactor; Dr John G. Radvansky (János Radvánszky) (1924-2007), hereditary nobleman, and university lecturer-educator; Egon F. Kunz (1922-1997), PhD in literature, history and social researcher, demographer, librarian, and author; Dr George (György) Bornemissza OAM (1924-2014), entomologist-coleopterist, research scientist, naturalist-ecologist, and world authority in his specialisation; Dr Anthony (Antal) Endrey (1922-2010), Queen’s Counsel lawyer, author, cattle farmer, and community leader[4]; Dr Laszlo (László) Benyei AM (1920-2006), lawyer, International Refugee Convention expert, immigration resettlement director, church elder and organist[5]; and Dr Andrew (Andor) Fabinyi (1908-1978) OBE, PhD in Psychology of Aesthetics, journalist, publisher, and internationalist.

The fourth wave of Hungarian migration began after November 1956, again through refugee holding camps in Europe, and followed the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution against communist tyranny and the Soviet hegemony. This national uprising was crushed by Soviet-Russian military invasion and brought a closure of the borders, but not before 200,000 people had managed to escape to the West, mainly to neighbouring Austria, as vulnerable and stateless refugees under United Nations protection. Australia welcomed about 15,000 Hungarians by recruiting them from migrant camps run by the UN’s International Refugee Organisation (IRO). Their fares to Australia were funded by the Australian tax-payer, but unlike the situation facing earlier refugees, there was no impost of a two year work contract. At the time, jobs were plentiful in the country and, despite their lack of English language skills, most of them soon managed to find jobs and establish careers in their trades and professions. The general composition of this fourth wave of Hungarian immigration (the ‘1956-ers’) included tradesmen, university students, factory workers, senior apprentices, ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ types, and a number of professional people. Singles by far outweighed families on arrival and there were more men than women among them.

Most were ambitious, tireless workers, some working in two jobs in order to make ends meet and purchase property. The 1956-ers often benefitted from the support and experience of fellow Hungarians who had arrived less than 10 years earlier, and were already established in their suburban homes with their families, and on the way to modest prosperity. These two groups became united and active, to nurture their common ethnic heritage, speak their language, and participate in social and cultural events. Biographic data is available for the following notable 1956-er profiles from the ADB and OA websites:

Andrew (András) Léderer OAM (1918-2004), butcher-tradesman, smallgoods manufacturer, businessman and employer, and philanthropist; Elemér Kozma (1929-2003), toolmaker, master instrument maker, car parts manufacturer, and employer; Stephen (István) Forgács (1935-2012), machine tool tradesman, shipbuilder-industrialist, large ship dockyard owner-operator, and employer; Dr Otto Abbott-Oerdoeg (Ördög) (1920-1998), veterinarian, and cattle diseases specialist; Rudolf Bozóky (1933-2007), architect, large scale apartment builder, and developer. Other 1956-ers continue to contribute to Australian public life, including Nicholas (Miklós) F. Derera OAM (b. 1919), research agronomist-plant breeder, and adjunct professor at the University of Sydney; Les Murray AM (born László Ürge) (b. 1945), sports journalist, SBS soccer broadcaster and analyst; and Attila Abonyi (b. 1946), soccer administrator, and ex-national soccer player who represented Australia 61 times. Worth mentioning also are two distinguished Hungarian migrants who were not part of any migration wave, arriving under the family reunion scheme: Géza Lakatos (1890-1967) Hungarian army general, and the last constitutional Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Hungary between 29 August and 15 October 1944; and Dr George Berczeller (1914-2008), medical doctor, music composer, pianist of operettas, jazz and medley genre repertoire, and an entertainer par excellence during his stellar Sydney musical career.[6]

In the capital cities, Hungarian communities remain active through their long-established and well-run associations. They assemble regularly, not just to enjoy charity fundraising events, festivals, or to celebrate New Year-Xmas and Mothers’ Day with barbecues, but to commemorate the important events in the Hungarian social calendar: 15 March National Day, 20 August St. Stephen’s Day and on 23 October, the Hungarian Revolution. On these special occasions patriotic oratory is the order of the day in keeping with the spirit and heritage of the assembled. The Australian and New Zealand Cultural Convention, a triennial Hungarian cultural festival, has been rotated between capital cities of the mainland since 1969. Attended in large numbers, the event brings together Hungarians from every part of Australia to bond in camaraderie and enjoy a rich, colourful and vibrant program of concerts, art and craft exhibitions, performances by interstate dance groups and solo artists. Participants partake in lectures and symposiums, dinner dances and balls, playhouse shows, competitions, games, ‘Hungaricum’ product sale markets, and organised day trips. This recurring expression of identity reflects the desire of Hungarian Australians to nurture their heritage and renew their common connections.

The hope of the remaining post-World War II and the 1956-er ex-refugees, now  dwindling fast in numbers, and that of the first generation Australian-born descendants, is to secure the long term future of the Australia-wide associations. They face the challenge of remaining relevant to the expectations of the progeny generation, and to encourage younger Hungarian Australians to take up the baton when they retire. A general expectation, if not heartfelt wish, is that the multigenerational Hungarian descendants in Australian society, now and in future, continue to feel pride in their culture and the land of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents, enough to pay a visit to their ancestral land, the land of the ‘Magyars’, at least once in their lifetimes to connect with the rich and unique cultural heritage of Hungary. From an ethno-sociologist’s perspective, it will be interesting to know in fifty years, when over a century would have passed since their organised social clubs and associations were formed, whether Australians of Hungarian ancestry have succeeded in their efforts to retain their culture and heritage.

Citation details

Attila Urmenyhazi, 'Hungarian Immigration in Australia', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/essay/13/text31510, originally published 17 June 2015, accessed 25 September 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Hungarian refugees arrive in Australia after the Hungarian uprising, 1956

Hungarian refugees arrive in Australia after the Hungarian uprising, 1956

National Archives of Australia, A12111:1/​1956/​5/​34

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Hungarian refugees disembark from the Castel Felice at Port Melbourne

National Archives of Australia, A12111:1/​1957/​5/​34

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the Minister for Immigration Athol Townley, welcomes the first group of Hungarian refugees to arrive in Sydney by Qantas Constellation in 1956

National Archives of Australia, A12111:1/​1956/​5/​1

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the Minister for Immigration Athol Townley, with the first Hungarian refugees to arrive after the Hungarian uprising, 1956

National Archives of Australia, A12111:1/​1956/​5/​8

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Martin Tomanovit, was one of the first of the Hungarian refugees to become an Australian citizen in 1959

National Archives of Australia, A12111:1/​1959/​12/​12