I grew up on Cleveland’s near west side in the mid-1950’s. It wasn’t the best time to grow up, I suppose, nor was it the best place. It was a time of black leather jackets and zip guns and ducktail hair and the near west side — a working-class neighborhood of Central Europeans, Appalachians, and Puerto Ricans — celebrated those things. We would gather at night, the other kids and I, at Nick’s Cafe and flash new blades and newer American four-letter words.

Then, after awhile, I stopped going to Nick’s, realized that a zip gun is just as lethal as any other, and started staying home and off the streets. Home was a small, walk-up apartment completely isolated from the dangers and excitements of the streets outside. It was book-filled and it echoed with words which were never four-lettered and rarely American. My parents and I spoke Hungarian and more often than not the words were about literature and politics and culture, a soft and wonderful contrast to the harsh realities outside.

I realize now that that bare little walk-up and the carefully-wrought world my parents built there saved my life. There was no future in zip guns and black leather jackets and the kids who weren’t fortunate enough to have a refuge from those things wound up leading futureless lives.

My father is a Hungarian writer and at that time he was editing a Hungarian newspaper. He lived in a completely Hungarian world, set in this strange, sharply-contoured American context, while my world teeter-tottered between the two. He would listen to the Hungarian programs on our second-hand radio and then I would take the radio into my room and listen to Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and Elvis. He would sit, at dinner, and talk about the ramifications of Stalin’s death and then I would sit at the kitchen table with the newspaper and ponder the ramifications of Al Rosen’s grand-slam home run against the New York Yankees.

Home was a sort of gathering place for many of the Hungarian writers and journalists and artists of that decade. I met these men and women, listened to their jokes and peeves and opinions, but it was only years later, in post-adolescence, that I realized the many things I had learned from them. They were poor, naturally; we were all poor. They all did their clothes-buying at the Salvation Army and the Volunteers of America. One of them even confessed that, during a particularly moneyless month, he had put himself on a cat food diet. Cat food was cheap, filled with vitamins and minerals, and sort of tasty if you sprinkled it with paprika. But what sustained these men and women was a devotion to their craft — to their books and articles and paintings, as well as a passionate love for the old country, for Hungary.

I must confess that in my childhood I was more caught up with the zaniness, the eccentric individualism of these “characters.” It was only years later that I saw them in realistic, sometimes heart-breaking perspective. They had endured the most cathartic, the most existential travail. Fleeing their homelands without possessions … Refugee camps where they ate stale bread and pine-needle soup … Countless cattle-call auditions to be granted entry to countless countries. And then, finally, they had come to this new country, where they worked as janitors, as dishwashers, as floorsweeps and, if they were lucky, on assembly lines. Writers and journalists and artists unable to practice their craft for a living, punching time-clocks, worried about the prejudices of foremen who didn’t particularly like DPs.

Yet they survived all these cataclysmic things. Their life-force remained somehow intact. Their spirits were not crushed. They continued to do the writing and the painting they were devoted to, even if they had to do it suffering the exhaustion of eight and ten hour shifts.

Susan Papp has rescued them from anonymity. She has revealed their many and varied accomplishments in America. She has paid a massively-researched and lucidly-written homage to a heritage which she and I both share and respect. Hers is a labor of love and sweat and keen intelligence.

About a year ago, on my way back from New York to California, I stopped in Cleveland and my father and I walked down the streets of the near west side. We looked at that little walk-up where we had lived and we stopped at Nick’s Cafe for a cup of tea. The sun shined. A warm wind blew in from the lake. It was the first time since my childhood that I’d been back there. Not unpleasant chills skittered down my spine. I recalled old faces and I heard old voices, many of them dead. But they’ll always be alive for me and, thanks to this study, they’ll be alive for generations of others.

Joe Eszterhás

San Rafael, California

May, 1980


Hungarian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

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