Coming to Amerika

In a historical irony, both of my paternal grandparents listed their country of origin as Hungary when they immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s and continued to do so in census records up through 1940, yet both their towns of origin were lost to Hungary after World War I. The treaty of Trianon punished Hungary for siding with Germany in that war, and gave vast areas of its territory (see map) to surrounding countries. Hungary once comprised all the pink areas, but today is just the red-outlined middle portion of the map that includes Budapest.

Dissolution of Austria-Hungary

Dissolution of Austria-Hungary (source:

The town I believe with some confidence was the original home of my grandmother—Maria Krausz—is now part of Slovakia. What on the map is labeled “Czechoslovakia” was split in 1993 into the prosperous Czech Republic and the proud but impecunious Slovakia (on the map, the pink part of “Czechoslovakia”). Similarly, the small town in Transylvania that I believe my grandfather—Ferencz Hegyi—emigrated from is now part of Romania. This remarkable territorial loss helps explain the running street battles between the Hungarian and Romanian boys in the Dearborn, Michigan, immigrant neighborhood where my father and his brothers and sisters grew up in the 1920s.

The history of middle Europe is long and complex and generally unknown to Americans, unless they’ve made a special study of it. I learned a tiny portion when we took our 2013 Danube cruise from Budapest to Bucharest, as I did some pre-cruise reading. I hadn’t known, remembered, or thought about the many years in which that part of the world was under Ottoman rule. Centuries before that, the Roman empire had a significant presence there (some remnants of which are still visible). That influence explains why the Romanian language is more similar to Italian than to the Slavic languages (at least in appearance; the pronunciation is different), and the fact that the Hungarian Parliament conducted its business in Latin until the mid-1800s, so I was told.

One tantalizing possibility is that the Mongolian hordes that repeatedly crossed middle Europe from the East, doing what invading hordes do—raping and pillaging—left a legacy for my family, too. Estimates are that one in every 200 males on earth is related to Genghis Khan. In part that’s because Khan’s forces killed off most of the men where they rampaged, which meant his own genetic heritage had less competition from the existing population. Khan, his son, and his grandsons had dozens of legitimate—and who knows how many illegitimate—sons who spread his genetic code far and wide.

In 1241, Mongol forces conquered medieval Hungary at the Battle of Mohi. An idea regarding how this distant episode might relate to our family—if it does—was unexpectedly sparked by an experience I had in the dentist’s chair. The endodontist required a large number of visits to finish my root canal (don’t ask), and finally said, “No wonder it’s taking so long! You have an extra root on this tooth. I hardly ever see that, except among my Chinese patients.” Thanks, Great Khan.

Gizella, Queen of Hungary

(photo: author)

History also explains the tantalizing bit of information from aunts Gizella and Clara that their mother was actually German, which was always a little confusing. It turns out that the immigration of German-speaking peoples into Hungary was widespread and began in approximately 1000, when German knights came into the country in the company of Giselle of Bavaria (Gizella in Hungarian), the German-born Queen of Hungary’s first king, Stephen I. (Boldog Gizella, in the stained glass panel means “Blessed Giselle”). Hungary by the 1800s had numerous German settlements, which is how Maria could be both Hungarian and German.

According to the manifest of the ship Amerika, which by a process of elimination I believe included my grandmother among its passengers, Maria traveled to the United States from Dobšiná (German: Dobschau) Hungary (photo below). Dobšiná is located in the Carpathian Mountains, “to the south of the beautiful Stratená valley,” near the Hnilec (Slana) River, and enclosed on all sides by mountains.The historic postcard below is of a hotel built near the town’s famous Ice Cave.

In the town’s heyday, local tilt hammers produced high-quality steel, and so it was no accident that during the anti-Habsburg uprisings of the 18th century, it was Dobšiná that supplied swords, cannonballs, and rifle barrels to the rebel armies of Ferenc Rákóczi II. When peace was established between the Habsburgs and the rebels, army workshops in the town had to be torn down. With the lengthy history of steel-making in her home town, Mary’s ultimate residence in the shadow of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and the patina of fine steel grit on every surface must have felt very familiar.

Dobsina Slovakia Ice Cave hotel