Hungarian Heritage Apparent Across Western PA

Friday, April 15, 2016 - 9:00pm

BY SHIRLEY MCMARLIN  | Friday, April 15, 2016, 8:57 p.m.

Hungarian culture has its place in the Western Pennsylvania melting pot. There are Hungarian restaurants, social organizations, churches, publications and language classes.

This year's 60th anniversary of the 1956 revolution in October will bring new attention to those with Hungarian ancestors, with events planned in Pittsburgh.

“I don't know if you'd say we're a vibrant community,” says the Rev. Imre Bertalan, executive director of Bethlen Communities. The retirement community in Ligonier Township was founded as an orphanage in 1921 by the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America.

“We're more of a low-key community,” Bertalan says, “but if you look in the phone book, you see many Hungarian names.”

The Census Bureau estimates that about 42,995 people, or about 2 percent of the population, in the seven-county Pittsburgh metro area have Hungarian ancestry.

The first large influx of Hungarians to the United States came in 1849-50, following the failed revolution of 1848. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nearly 700,000 Hungarians followed. Immigration surged after World War II, with a significant number of Jews leaving their homeland. A final wave came after the failed 1956 revolution against the country's Soviet-backed Communist rule.

The Hungarian, or Magyar, language is alive and well at Bethlen Communities.

“About 20 to 30 percent of our residents speak the language,” Bertalan says. “We do our best to keep the culture and traditions and the language alive.”

The center has a Hungarian-language service the first Sunday of the month and periodic performances by dance or music groups from Hungary.

A language class has met weekly since November, led by a Bethlen resident and retired minister, the Rev. Alexander Jaslo, and Milan Cvetanovic from northern Serbia, an intern with the Hungarian government's Diaspora Program who is organizing the Bethlen Communities' archives.

“We were supposed to have eight sessions, but we rebelled and wanted more,” says class member Becky Bell of Ligonier.

“Our goal is to learn three or four expressions per week,” Jaslo says. “We don't overload the brain, but we are making progress. Learning with laughter is good.”

The Magyar language has been taught off and on at the University of Pittsburgh, with the last classes ending in 2015. Claude Mauk, director of Pitt's Less-Commonly-Taught Languages Center, says Hungarian 1 will be revived this fall, and if interest warrants, more advanced classed will possibly follow.

Pitt is also home to the Hungarian Room in the Cathedral of Learning. Dedicated in 1939, it was one of the first of the Nationality Rooms.

Those craving Hungarian food can make a stop at Darlington Inn in Ligonier Township. The local watering hole and Hungarian-Transylvanian restaurant has been owned since 1996 by Hungary natives Laszlo and Elizabeth Kastal.

In Hazelwood, Jozsa Corner's menu celebrates his Hungarian heritage.

“I exclusively use my grandma's recipes,” says Alexander Jozsa Bodnar, 74, proprietor of Jozsa Corner. “I was pretty much tied to her apron strings in the old country.”

Born in Budapest, Bodnar's parents and grandparents came from different regions of the country, making him “57 varieties of Hungarian.”

That rich heritage is reflected in specialties such as goulash, chicken paprikas, dumplings, stuffed cabbage, homemade kolbasz, porkolt stew, braided breads and desserts like nut, poppy seed and apricot rolls and palacsinta, the Hungarian version of crepes.

Hungarians immigrants brought their Christian faith, too. In 1924, six churches from Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey came together in Duquesne to form the Independent American Hungarian Church, now the Hungarian Reformed Church in America.

Five Hungarian Reformed churches remain in Western Pennsylvania — Hazelwood, Munhall, Duquesne, Springdale and McKeesport.

Heritage is very important to the small congregation of the Duquesne church, says secretary Barbara Revak of West Mifflin. Songs, prayers, the invocation and benediction are offered in both English and Hungarian.

A group of parishioners regularly gets together to make goulash and chicken paprikas for sale. They sell homemade kolbasz in November and nut horns at Christmastime.

Among the region's most influential sustainer of Hungarian culture is the William Penn Society on Pittsburgh's North Side.

“The association was created in 1886 by 13 Hungarian coal miners as a fraternal benefit society, just like a lot of the other ethnic groups had,” says fraternal department secretary Judit Ganchuk.

Nowadays, it sponsors extracurricular activities, including a summer picnic, with this year's set for Aug. 27 at the Hungarian Culture Center of Northeast Ohio in Hiram.

One of the largest and most eagerly anticipated events is the Hungarian Heritage Experience, Ganchuck says. The weeklong summer camp offers beginner and intermediate language instruction along with Hungarian meals, arts and crafts and history lessons.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750