Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Hungarian General Benevolent Society in Schenectady

A recent donation of material related to the Hungarian General Benevolent Society was a great addition to the collections of local ethnic societies that we have at the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives. While Hungarians did not immigrate to Schenectady in the numbers that Italians and Poles did, their culture had still had quite an impact on the area.

Some marvelous mustaches on display in this unlabeled photo. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
The Hungarian Benevolent Society was founded in 1895 when a group of Hungarians sent a petition to the Department of Insurance of the State of New York for permission to organize and legally carry on the benevolent work of its members. They were granted permission to do so as well as a charter. The 60th Anniversary booklet of the society gives a short history, stating that "These high-minded Hungarians knew that 'there is strength in unity' and that by uniting with each other in a fraternal organization they would realize their aims more fully in giving aid to each other when sickness or death visited their families." Unfortunately, shortly after they formed, the group disbanded. The booklet mentions that it was possible that the members had to look for work elsewhere.
This collection has some great colorized photos. This one shows members of the Benevolent Society in traditional Hungarian dress. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
Another group of Hungarians would reform the society at the turn of the century. This group would grow and by the late 1910s, they bought a hall in order to "express their cultural and social life more fully." The hall was located at 933 Pleasant St. and was named the Hungarian Hall. It would become the center of the society's activities and Hungarian culture. It was also the location of the frequently occurring Hungarian Grape Festival which was first held in 1910.

The Caravan Gypsies were one of the more popular Hungarian music groups. The group was led by Julius Desmond Csegezy. Included in the group was Steve Hidegh, Joseph Palmer, John Skoda, Illes Sebestyen, and Paul Oleshak. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
An article from the September 21, 1954 issue of the Schenectady Gazette ( describes the Grape Festival in great detail. Hungarian gypsy music was one of the highlights of the festival which featured Illes Sebestyen playing the cymbalom (a hammered dulcimer), two fiddlers, a cellist, and a double bass player. The festival was opened with a goulash dinner which took place in the garden in the back of the hall. An arbor was constructed from birch trees, it was covered with bunches of grapes and apples. After the dinner, the band led costumed participants in a march around the garden.

"Onlookers had a chance to observe the white skirted men with their fancy black boots and the women with their voluminous white skirts, smartly embroidered bodices, colorful shawls and posied headdresses. The Hungarian tri-color, red, white and green, was in the sashes worn by the men and the decorative designs of the women's skirts." - D.E. Ritz, Reporter from the Schenectady Gazette

Dancers and musicians on stage at one of the Hungarian Grape Festivals. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives.
The author goes on to write that they were taught to dance by Deszo Simonovich, a survivor of the Dachau Concentration Camp. He was described as a "marvelous dancer he whirled us through the 'fris' or quickstep and the preceding 'lassu' or slow movement." The dancers would spin around "until they felt like the inside of a spiral, then unwhirled in the other direction." After dancing, everyone was hungry again and went inside for more food and even more dancing.

The Hungarian Hall was not the only meeting place for Schenectady's Hungarian population. The Hungarian Tavern on 1423 Broadway opened on Saturday, October 22, 1938. Couretsy of
Hardships would hit the society after World War I and during the depression. In early 1943 the Benevolent Society would merge with the Hungarian Men's and Women's Social Society to form the Hungarian General Benevolent Society. After World War II, the area saw an influx of Hungarian immigrants who escaped from the Communist rule of Mátyás Rákosi. 

This was a great concern for Schenectady's Hungarian population. There are several form letters to various American political figures from Andrew Toth, the society's president throughout much of the 1950s. In the letter, Toth writes that "For ten years this godless rein plundering the country and holding the people in terror and slavery. Tens of thousands are in prison, concentration and slave labor-camps." He received responses from many of the politicians he wrote to, one in particular came from the Department of State. This response included a statement from President Eisenhower, United Nations sessions regarding the situation in Hungary and a letter to the president of the U.N. Security Council from Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. regarding Hungary.

This collection also includes photos from the Grape Festival and other celebrations that were organized by the Benevolent Society. Although small, this collection is a great example of the culture that Hungarians brought to Schenectady.

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