Seeing in Color: The discovery of a father’s coming to America story and his assimilation into American society
Americanization; cultural assimilation, immigration; heritage; refugee
This case is about a Hungarian man named Karoly and his coming to America story. He was born into a life of conflict and had to endure the constant violence of World War II and then the strict rule of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet’s launched a purge throughout Hungary after a failed revolt, he fled to America. Once in America he had to make a choice: to keep his Hungarian culture or to assimilate into the American one.
Anne-Marie never knew much about her father’s past. She knew she was Hungarian and that her father fled during the 1956 conflict between the Hungarian people and the Soviet Union. Other than that, her father’s Old World past was a mystery. It wasn’t until they visited Hungary in 2008 that she discovered her father. She would say, “My whole life I saw my dad in black and white. But when we went to Hungary, I began to see him in color.”
Her father, Karoly, was born into a life of conflict in 1934 in a small peasant town near the Hungarian-Ukraine border. During World War II his father was taken by the Russians as a forced laborer, leaving Karoly and his 4 sisters to fend for themselves. Together they scrounged for food while also avoiding the constant conflict over the strategically important hill that overlooked their small village. According to Karoly there were no good guys in this war. Both the Germans and the Russians destroyed, stole, killed, and raped in equal measure. He and his sisters had to hide in the thatching of their roof in order to evade the soldiers. Once when he was 7, Karoly was taken by the Russians because his long hair made him look like a girl. Luckily when it was discovered that he was a boy he was released.
When the war was over, at the age of 13, Karoly was drafted into the Hungarian Army. By the time he was in his twenties he was a border guard on the Austria-Hungary border. During this time, this border was not just between two countries but between two worlds. Karoly was stationed on the Iron Curtain. His job: to keep people inside.
In 1956, students in Budapest rose up against the Soviet puppet government and after three weeks of “freedom,” the Russian military invaded. The intention of the invasion was to purge the country of any resemblance of a free Hungary and that included many Hungarians in political and military positions. During the chaos of the invasion someone told Karoly “the Russians will be here soon…if they find you they will kill you”. Karoly then crossed the border into Austria, leaving everything that he had ever known.
Karoly became one of the tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees that fled during the Russian crackdown after the 1956 Revolt. He lived in a refugee camp until he was able to go to America through a lottery.
Once he came to the United States, he was determined to become an American and make a life here. One of the first steps he took was to Americanize his name to Charles. Then, with the help of a wealthy Hungarian-American, he was brought to Maryland and was helped to find a job. Charles worked odd jobs and learned English through listening to people talk and watching television, eventually teaching himself how to read. He worked as a truck driver, a laborer, a welder, and eventually bought a welding shop. He married an American woman and together they had three children.
It was the American Charles who Anne-Marie knew as her father. The man who didn’t talk about his life in Hungary, refused to speak Hungarian in the presence of non-speakers, and refused to teach his children Hungarian. He became interested in American politics and became a life-long Republican. He was determined to make his family a traditional American family, and he succeeded.
When Charles returned to Hungary in 2008, he was reunited with the life and culture that he once knew. He saw his sisters again, got to speak in his native language again, and got to see his childhood home again. It was during this emotional trip that Anne-Marie said that she saw her dad for the first time “in color”. She saw her father in his entirety.
Charles’ story is a timeless example of the “American Dream” that has inspired so many people, but at what cost? Is the price of the “American Dream” one’s own culture? Anne-Marie, for most of her life, only knew part of her father. Is that what is expected of immigrants in order to be successful in America?
Charles’ story sheds light on not only the tragedy and trauma of an immigrant and his ability to rise above and create a good life for him and his family, but also the sacrifices that he had to make. He gave up his name, his language, his homeland, and his culture in order to become an American and provide a good life for his family. Many would wonder if it was worth it? For Charles the answer was always yes.
As you consider this case, discuss:
What purpose might it serve for some immigrants to create a clear delineation between the past and the present? Not openly sharing what life was like before immigration is common among many immigrants. Why?
Is there an expectation to assimilate and adopt the culture of the country you live in?
Is there a way to balance one’s home culture while living in another one?
What do you think might’ve happened if Karoly didn’t assimilate into American society?
Beyond language, why would an immigrant want to connect with a community of people of the same culture?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.
Grover G. Huebner, The Americanization of the Immigrant
Jaswinder Singh and Kalyani Gopal, Americanization of the Immigrant: People Who Came to America and What They Need to Know
Alex Nowraseth, The Failure of the Americanization Movement
Laila Lalami, What Does It Take To ‘Assimilate’ in America
Luma Simms, Identity and Assimilation
Ridenour, Thomas, American University, Washington, DC, United States. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org