On January 6, the Cicelle Rozgonyi Girl Scout Troop no. 38 celebrated the 70th anniversary of its foundation. The celebration at the Hungarian Scout House in Garfield, New Jersey was attended by the current troop members as well as older scouts and former troop leaders.
It was a fun-filled tea party with an unexpected snow storm outside and nostalgic conversations and viewing old photo albums, as well as a trivia game on the history and presence of the local Hungarian scout troops that brought together in a friendly competition everyone from the youngest scouts to the oldest participants in their eighties.
At the beginning of the celebration, Fanni Kozma, the current leader of the Hungarian scout troops in Garfield, told the audience about the inception of the troop. In June 1952, a three-member girl scout troop named Árvalányhaj was formed in Passaic, near Garfield. Gabriella Kormann, building on her scouting experience in a refugee camp in Germany, invited her friends Ágnes Nagy (Paulovits) and Emőke Zágon (Kovács) to join her and launch the first patrol. The three girls were so eager and persistent in their scouting devotion that soon after other local girls (typically from refugee families who fled Hungary at the end of WWII and spent years in refugee camps in Germany before they could have immigrated to the US), such as Sarolta Karácsony (Marshall), Katalin Pongrácz (Jámbor) and Ágnes Varga (Kazal), became also interested in joining, so by November of the same year already two patrols were operative. In addition to their regular meetings, they organized weekend trips and summer camps. During the difficult start-up period, Father János Gáspár, the local priest of the Hungarian parish of St Stephen in Passaic, started to support the fledgling team and let them use parish premises (rooms of the Hungarian weekend school) for their gatherings. In the meantime, boys attending the Hungarian weekend school were plotting to form a Hungarian boys scout troop. On January 2, 1954, the Executive Committee of the Hungarian Scout Association (abbreviated MCSSZ in Hungarian) approved the operation of the girl troop by admitting it to the association, under number 38 and named Cicelle Rozgonyi. The young commander Gabriella Kormann (later on Mrs. Pál Jámbor) led the girls with great enthusiasm. Over the years, many others who started scouting in refugee camps in Germany became members of the local troops.
The two current Hungarian scout troops in Garfield build on the legacy of these enthusiastic and tenacious early scouts.
Over the past 70 years, there have been countless events, excitement and challenges, too. Troop membership fluctuated over the past decades, but increased to 66 members in total this year. The current troop leader is most proud of the strength of the community. As she pointed out, few scout troops are as fortunate as Garfield, since its former leaders are actively supporting the troops. For example, former troop leaders and deputy leaders organize and lead meetings and programs and many of the Scout House governing body chairs are still actively involved with various events. ‘The leader is first and foremost an example, and the former leaders of the Cicelle Rozgonyi Troop take this responsibility seriously. Current scouts see a fantastic example of how commitment to the community means service for a lifetime. Let’s thank all the scouts, leaders and parents for their enthusiastic and steadfast support over the past 70 years and for leading by example’, concluded her welcome speech.
The Garfield boy scouts were certified in 1956, under number 6 and named Gábor Áron. Fanni explained that the founders first rented a building in Clifton for scout home purposes and then were allowed to use the basement of St Stephen church in Passaic. They have been in the current building since ‘69, which is owned by the Hungarian Scout Association Abroad (abbreviated KMCSSZ in Hungarian) and maintained by the Garfield scouts (and their parents). It’s much better for the children and the community to have permanent premises that gives them stability: they know where they are coming to, who will be there and where their equipment and belongings are, so the weekly meetings in the Scout House have a comfortable atmosphere. ‘ We can plan our activities more freely and we can rent out the house which helps to maintain it. We set the conditions for the rent, so we use it in the way that works best for the troop. When we have to meet at four in the morning before leaving for a camp, we can sleep over here. And in our storeroom we keep fifty-year-old secret treasures…’, she said smiling mysteriously.
Gábor Bodnár, the founder of KMCSSZ, also lived in Garfield with his large family, and the house bears his name, ‘In his honour and as a constant reminder that his dedicated enthusiasm and untiring energy help us in our work’. I found in the commemorative book published for the 50th anniversary of the local Hungarian troops that is full of old photos and personal stories. There are a few lines from the then seven-year-old Fanni declaring that her favourite part of scouting was cleaning…When I recalled this, she laughed and said: she was one year old when she moved from Budapest to New York with her family and their intention at the time was to stay for three years, then five…25 years have passed since and they are still here. As she recalls, her parents were very much looking for a Hungarian community where their three daughters can belong ‘for the short time they would be here’. A Hungarian acquaintance told them about Hungarian scout camps, so in the summer of 2002, the eight-year-old eldest sister left for a scout camp, and in the autumn of the same year Fanni was also eligible to start scouting. Both of her sisters, Kata and Blanka remain active scouts until today. Kata, a mother of four small children, recently organized the Northern New Jersey Hungarian Christmas Fair at the Passaic parish, cooperating with the scouts, the church, and the Hungarian weekend school in Montclair; and she ran the trivia game at the Scout House celebration on her own, which, given the loud and enthusiastic 70 participants of very different ages, was an exciting, but definitely not an easy accomplishment.
One of the biggest challenges in scouting, especially in the US, is keeping the young adults of college age (who typically move out from home and far from childhood communities) as well as the young and not-so-young scout parents (having young children and struggling with work-life balance issues) involved in the scouting activities. When I asked about her motivations, Fanni explained that she had so much very positive experience with scouting since she was a little girl, and although she also went to a distant university in Buffalo, she chose it because she knew there was an operative Hungarian scout troop there, so she served in troop number 58 named Toldi Miklós for five years. Even before she moved back because he wanted to be closer to her family and got a job nearby, she was told by Garfield scout leaders that they were expecting her back and counting on her… ‘Scouting has been the only really stable point in my life, I love it; it gives me the confidence and self-assurance to assess and deal with situations, which I don’t have in any other field.’ She recalls that she was initially motivated by the need to speak Hungarian well, as she thought at the time that they were moving back to Budapest soon. Like other young people today, the siblings used to speak English among themselves, which made their parents feel bad, but later this changed: now they only speak Hungarian to each other and feel awkward speaking English among themselves when needed in the company of English speakers. ‘It is a very good feeling that we preserved the Hungarian language, and it is because our parents took it very seriously.’
In this context, the team leader also highlighted another constant challenge that they face: ‘This community understood what we were going through:
we are neither ‘real’ Hungarians (living in Hungary) nor ‘real’ Americans (born in the US); we are Hungarians, but in a different way;
and living this ‘double identity’ was sometimes challenging, and it still is.’ As a young child it was even more challenging, with constant identity confusion and clashes of schedules, as she had to choose between activities and friends every weekend. However, it is scouting (as is the case with American Hungarian children’s communities in general) that can ease this tension: ‘In scouting, my age group developed the feeling that we were each other’s relatives, because on weekends we couldn’t visit grandparents as they lived far away (often back in Hungary); instead, we went to scouting. This was true for most of the scouts of my age: we were the extended family for each other that people used to see at weekends. We stayed together late into the night on Saturdays, we went out together, we got praised or scolded together; we grew up taking it for granted.’ She wanted to give back to the troop, so she took over as troop leader two and a half years ago.
The current troop leader’s commitment and awareness extends also to planning, as succession is also a crucial and sometimes sensitive issue for the Hungarian scout troops in exteris (as in the case of other Hungarian organizations in the diaspora). Fanni has a definite idea of how long she will be a troop leader and she is trying to find the right successor from the very beginning. ‘What helps is that our troop is now in a very nascent phase; it is the easiest time to get young people to come in and get them interested, and then it is easier to pass the leadership on.’ Since she first expressed these thoughts to me in 2022, a lot has changed: my own children have become active members of the Garfield troop (including one who became a patrol leader), we, parents are active members of the governing body of the Scout House, and through various scouting events and my work as a journalist I got to know a lot of other scout leaders (not only from Garfield but across North America). I realized they mostly face the same issues and similar challenges, but not all of them are as lucky as those of the Garfield troop. I wish the Garfield Scouts a lot of perseverance and creativity for their hopefully long future. And of course: keep up the good work!