How a revolution created a rich cultural community in our city. Written by Krystyna Cap and originally posted November 4, 2009
(2015 edit: the Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre has since moved to 1170 Sheppard Avenue West, Toronto, ON M3K 2A3)
The Hungarian connection to Canada can be traced back to 1583, when the English explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert embarked on a search for the Northwest Passage that took him and his crew to the shores of Newfoundland. Enlisted as his chronicler was the well-known sixteenth-century Hungarian poet and humanist Stephen Parmenius of Buda, whose impressions of the New World were committed to posterity before he drowned off the coast of Newfoundland in August of that year.
It would be another three centuries before Hungarian migration to Canada began in significant numbers, particularly as temporary economic sojourners, and later permanent immigrants, travelled from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire to populate the far reaches of Canada.
The 2006 census recorded more than 300,000 Canadians claiming Hungarian descent. In Toronto, Hungarians number just over 53,000. Although any vestiges of a distinct Hungarian enclave have largely disappeared from the city’s downtown core, Toronto’s Hungarian population remains a vibrant, active and rich part of our city’s history and culture.
A Brief Outline of Hungarian History
The Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre, located at 840 St. Clair Avenue West, was the “largest Hungarian community centre outside of Hungary.” Longstanding members of the community recall when the “Hungarian House” was originally located at College and Spadina, before the location became too small to continue serving the existing needs of the organization and its community.
According to a report researched and compiled by Professor George Telch, Publisher and President of Kaleidoscope Publishing, and his wife Rósza (Rose) Dancs, Chief Editor at Kaleidoscope Publishing, numerous organizations have been formed by members of the HCCC, including folksong circles, heritage museums, heritage language schools and myriad social and cultural organizations and associations. Its many musical events and plays, as well as regular Saturday night dinners and dances draw energetic members of the community. Frequently, Hungarian House welcomes performers from Hungary proper, such as the international award-winning Balassi Kórus from Budapest, who performed this past August to a delighted audience for St. Stephen Day celebrations.
Hanging in the main auditorium of “Hungarian House” are a collection of paintings, which depict significant events in Hungarian history from the tenth century to the present. With Professor Telch as my guide, the historical significance of each piece was explained in context, from celebrated princes and revolutionaries to military triumphs and significant milestones in Hungary’s social, cultural and political development.
In Europe, the Hungarian presence goes back more than a thousand years, with the original tribes settling in the late ninth century. Led by Arpád, the founder of the earliest indigenous Hungarian monarchical line, the Magyars came to flourish in Central Europe, despite repeated attacks, victories and defeat at the hands of surrounding aggressors.
By the eighteenth century, the Hungarians, like many Central European nationalities, found themselves under the rule of one of the large European dynasties. Under the Habsburgs, Magyar nobles and Hungarian nationalists opposed Germanization efforts. After suffering a crushing blow in the abortive revolution attempts of 1848, the Hungarians succeeded in securing a compromise, or Ausgleich, from Emperor Franz Joseph, who created the dual-state known as Austria-Hungary in 1867.
Like most Eastern European immigrants, Hungarians began arriving in large numbers in the 1880s and 1890s. At home, increasing land scarcity, widespread industrialization and an economic recession beginning in 1879 negatively impacted agricultural jobs, prompting immigration to Austria proper, Germany, Romania and elsewhere on the continent.
Initially, Hungarian immigrants favoured the United States, drawn to the mining areas of Pennsylvania, Cleveland and Chicago and the manufacturing belts of Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. Immediately preceding the First World War, less than 2% of Hungarian emigrants arrived in Canada, the vast majority of them settling, albeit temporarily, in Alberta and Nova Scotia. Those that travelled to Ontario assumed low-paying and often dangerous employment in the construction and manufacturing sectors, or seasonal positions in agriculture, which would allow them to send remittances, however meager, back to family overseas.
With the introduction of stricter immigration policies in the United States after the First World War and mounting unemployment, inflation and poverty in Hungary, immigrants arrived in Canada in ever increasing numbers. The interwar period saw the number of Hungarian immigrants jump to more than 34,000. Many who arrived in the 1920s travelled to the Canadian West, while others settled in Ontario and Quebec.
In Toronto, Hungarians were geographically dispersed. Although many lived in the downtown core-between College, University, Bathurst and the lakeshore – smaller enclaves sprang up in the “Junction,” Lakeshore and New Toronto.
Tibor Lukács, a retired Toronto schoolteacher, arrived in Canada in September of 1958, first living in Halifax’s Pier 21 for five-and-a-half months. Mr. Lukács’s family eventually moved out into the city, before his father saved enough money to move the family to Toronto.
“There was a Hungarian community in Toronto,” he said. “We knew that we would fit in a bit easier.”
Mr. Lukács recalled the Hungarian enclave in Toronto where, from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, a number of small shops lined the street between Bathurst and Spadina on Bloor Street. Hungarian churches, including the Catholic, Evangelical, Presbyterian, Reform and Lutheran, and the then-‘Hungarian’ House were also located downtown.
Nick Balega, owner of the Blue Danube Sausage House in Etobicoke, recalled the area from College to Dundas – one of the hubs of the community – as almost 80% Hungarian.
“My dad started [his business] on the corner of Baldwin and Spadina,” Mr. Balega said. “My grandfather had a butcher shop and slaughterhouse in Hungary. When he moved to Budapest for more employment opportunities, he worked with a salami maker. When he emigrated to Canada, he took the recipes he had learned with him and began experimenting to make them work in Canada. Over the next four to five years, he modified the recipes, changed them and made them leaner for the North American community.”
The 1956 Revolution
With the conclusion of the Second World War, Soviet troops occupied Hungary, installing one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive regimes under the leadership of Mátyás Rákosi. Forced collectivization, purges and terror underpinned the regime.
In 1956, a student-led demonstration against the regime and its oppressive policies began in Budapest and spread throughout the country. Although the Soviets crushed the revolution, Hungarian resistance remained strong in the face of large-scale arrests and subsequent deportations.
According to historian Robert H. Keyserlingk, the Hungarian revolution was “one of the most dramatic demonstrations of deep opposition to Stalinist-type control in Central Europe.”  Although the democratic West was initially subdued in its “demonstrations of moral outrage,” when Canada opened its doors to Hungarian refugees, between 37,000 and 40,000 arrived.
Canada’s response to the Hungarian refugees of 1956-57 was groundbreaking – its impact tremendous on Canada’s immigration policies. Though initially reluctant to accept immigrants after the Second World War, Canada became a willing and open recipient of refugees, and Toronto one of the largest receiving areas. Within years, the Hungarian community more than doubled in size. Close to 40,000 Hungarian refugees found asylum in Canada, making it the country’s largest intake of refugees in history.
“1956 was a turning point in Hungarian history,” said Mr. Lukács, Director of the Rákoczi Foundation’s Oral History Project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. “Between 1948 and 1955-56, it was absolutely hell in communist Hungary…You lived in fear and trusted no one.”
In partnership with the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO), the Rákoczi Foundation spearheaded the volunteer-based project, which conducted interviews from immigrants who remembered the events of ’56.
According to Susan Papp-Aykler, President of the Foundation and the exhibit’s manager, volunteers borrowed and rented tape recorders and even fielded English and French written submissions. The exodus exhibit has since travelled around the country, making appearances at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Pier 21 in Halifax, Calgary City Hall and the University of British Columbia and elsewhere. The Canadian Embassy in Budapest requested an exact replica of the exhibit, which was produced in English and Hungarian, rather than the English/French version that toured Canada wide.
“The exhibit’s main point is to demonstrate [that] Canadians opened their arms and hearts to Hungarian refugees and [that] it changed the way that Canada looked at similar and later waves of refugees,” said Ms. Papp-Aykler. The oral history project is significant not only for the Hungarian community but for its wider impact in Canadian history. “Canada opened its doors to the first non-English, non-French-speaking penniless refugees who came with the clothes on their backs,” she stated.
Toronto’s Hungarian Community Today
The Rákoczi Foundation had its origins in the early 1950s, with the aim of preserving and promoting Hungarian history and cultural traditions, particularly to the younger generations. Although the focus of the organization has changed over the years – in the 1970s it became heavily involved in publishing books about Hungarian history and culture and, later, with promoting youth activities and leadership – Ms. Papp-Aykler maintains that the organization’s foremost aim is to further cultivate the strong connection Hungarians have with Canada, as well as to build important cross-cultural relationships at the local, national and international levels.
George Telch and Rósza (Rose) Dancs are also community leaders, representing a significant portion of the Canadian-Hungarian press from Montréal to Vancouver. In addition to their work with the Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre, they have built strong working relationships with the Hungarian media in Europe and with the Canadian Ethnic Media Association. They also publish the bimonthly, bilingual cultural and literary magazine, Kaleidoscope.
The Hungarian community in Toronto has seen numerous changes, as well, though many recall its earlier roots in the heart of the city.
“I consider myself first generation Canadian,” said Mr. Balega. “All my memories are of Canada. What we’re doing at the Blue Danube Sausage House is being passed on to the next generation. We are building a new facility – bigger, better, more modern. We are coming into the twenty-first century, equipment-wise and facility-wise, but we are still going to maintain the taste of home and the procedures of home with the care and specialties that came to this country from our father.”
When asked what he thought was important to share about the Hungarian community with Torontonians, Mr. Lukács said, “Let them know that we took a shared part in Toronto and in the vibrancy [of the city] and what it is today. We are part of that. We try hard to fit in, in a way that doesn’t say, ‘I’m Hungarian and that’s all there is to it.’ We are involved on numerous levels and we try to do our best everywhere, not just for Hungarians. We want Torontonians to get to know us more.” And, indeed, the Hungarian community in the city welcomes both Hungarians and non-Hungarians alike.
For more information about any of the organizations contained herein, please visit:
Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre at http://www.hccc.org/
The Hungarian Exodus 1956 Memorial at http://www.1956memorial.com/
The Blue Danube Sausage House at http://www.bluedanubesausagehouse.com/
. “Ethnic Origin (247), Single and Multiple Ethnic Origin Responses (3) and Sex (3) for the Population of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2006 Census – 20% Sample Data,” Statistics Canadahttp://www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/data/topics/Retrieve ProductTable.cfm?ALEVEL=3&APATH=3&CATNO=&DETAIL=0&DIM=&DS=99&FL=0&FREE=0&GAL=0&GC=99&GK=NA&GRP=1&IPS=&METH=0&ORDER=1&PID=92333&PTYPE=88971&RL=0&S=1&ShowAll=No&StartRow=1&SUB=801&Temporal=2006&Theme=80&VID=0&VNAMEE=&VNAMEF=&GID=838003 (accessed September 23, 2009).
. George Telch and Rózsa (Rose) Dancs-Telch, “The Hungarian Community of Toronto,” (unpublished profile, 2009), 3.
. The patron saint of Hungary, Vajik, descended from the pagan chieftain Géza was baptized “Stephanus,” or “István” in Hungarian and went on to unite previously divided Magyar tribes in the closing years of the tenth century and embraced Christianity in 1001 A.D. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1183 A.D. According to Telch and Dancs’s profile of the Hungarian community in Toronto, Hungarians in the city have been celebrating St. Stephen’s Day since 1937 “with church services, lectures and cultural programs.”
. Paul Bödy, “Emigration from Hungary, 1880-1956,” in Struggle and Hope: The Hungarian-Canadian Experience (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1982), 28.
. Ibid., 29.
. Carmela Patrias, Patriots and Proletarians: Politicizing Hungarian Immigrants in Interwar Canada (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), 76-8.
. Robert H. Keyserlingk, “Introduction,” Breaking Ground: The 1956 Hungarian Refugee Movement to Canada, ed. Robert H. Keyserlingk (Toronto: York Lanes Press, Inc., 1993), viii.
. Dreisziger, 76.
. Tamsyn Burgmann, “Hungary’s loss, Canada’s gain: A memorial project vividly conjures up the flight of 40,000 Hungarians to this country in 1956 and ’57,” Toronto Star, June 24, 2007 (accessed August 4, 2009), .