This is an abridged version of the interview originally published on 777.hu.
The Pigniczky–Szentkirályi couple from Cleveland, Eszter and Endre, are known by many in North America; even by those who are not scouts or folk dancers. Eszter’s sister, Réka, has made several documentaries about Hungarian Americans—that is where the name Pigniczky may be familiar to many. A conversation about family, languages, scouting, folk dancing, and where and who needs to preserve Hungarianness and faith more.
Your sister has made quite a few films about your parents’ arrival in America (Memory Project, Megmaradni (Surviving), Hazatérés (Homecoming), Inkubátor (Incubator), etc.), but I have not seen their written story yet…
My father, László Pigniczky, was born in 1930, and as a freedom fighter in [the Hungarian Revolution of] 1956, he was sent to a refugee camp in Italy through Yugoslavia in January of the following year. He was sponsored by his godfather András Kószó, who brought him to Lansdale, Pennsylvania. My father immediately sought out the Hungarians there and went to all kinds of events, and that’s how he met my mother, who had been expatriated in a different way. My mother and her family lived on the Austrian border; my maternal grandfather was a cantor and very anti-establishment, so he was thrown out of his job and put to work in a metalworking factory; thus, they couldn’t stay either. In the autumn of ‘56, my grandparents, with their daughters, that is, my mother, Katalin, my aunt Zsóka, and their nephew Pityu, went over to Austria. For them, it was uplifting to arrive there because the locals were very well prepared to receive and care for refugees. From there, they were quickly sent on to Switzerland, and the three children were sent to the Hungarian high school in Klosterburg Kastl, where my mother graduated.
When my parents met, it soon became clear that they were both scout leaders. My mother and her family became scouts in Kastl, Germany, while my father was involved in the so-called ‘underground’ Hungarian scouting after it was banned in Communist Hungary. Soon after the founding, my parents became troop leaders and did the work together. I was born in May and was already with them at the scout camp in the summer. We, the children were also a wonderful recruiting tool for my parents because they were looking for childminders for us, who, at the same time, attended the scout camps as well and when they saw how much fun it was to be there, they already came to camp as scouts the next time.
What was the inner drive of your parents, and why was scouting so important to them? Or to you, because you are a lot like your parents…
I never asked them that question, as it was completely natural to me in my whole life that they were scouts and I was one too. And it was the same with our children. But anyway, every scout has an inner drive, they just need the right conditions to be able and willing to work as scouts and for their Hungarian identity. Often it comes naturally who will be a leader. I cannot say exactly what fueled the flame in my parents, but I do know that remaining Hungarian in the big Unites States was vital then, and still is, for my mother, who supports many Hungarian organizations through her work to this day. And what is the most effective way to preserve their Hungarian identity? By educating young people to do so.
And the best way to educate young people is through positive experiences, and that’s where scouting comes in, which strives to raise people of character and loyal Hungarian citizens.
Scouting is just one of the many youth programmes in Hungary, but in America, it is one of just two, if I consider folk dancing as a separate activity, so the stakes are much higher here.
The stakes are as high in Hungary as they are in the diaspora.
There, Hungarianness may be given, but it may not have value.
It usually happens in other Hungarian scout associations that they use international framework stories on excursions and camps instead of bringing our own Hungarian stories, and sometimes they don’t even understand why it is so valuable and important.
I strongly believe that we have to shake people up to make them feel Hungarian; for example, they should not be ashamed to sing the National Anthem out loud, which I have often experienced in Hungary. That is why the stakes are as high in Hungary as they are here in America. Here, in the great prosperity, we also have to shake people up, to make them want to do something, want to participate in the community, and maintain it as well. But we don’t really need to invent anything new because our predecessors have already pretty much invented everything. The various waves of immigrants and refugees before the First World War, after the Second World War, and then the ‘56ers all paved the way.
In Hungary, preserving Hungarian identity is a long-term issue, but here it is a short-term, even existential issue.
What is short-term and what is long-term? Short term is a human lifetime. So, if you don’t involve a child between 8 and 14, you can forget about that one in terms of scouting and being Hungarian. After that age, it is almost impossible to convince him why both are so important. Maybe, when he becomes a parent and sees the point of scouting because he wants to make a man out of his child, he might try it. But this is a short-term issue in Hungary, too. Just look at how quickly villages and communities are being disbanded. We have to build the future around children.
How did you meet your husband?
I have known Endre since I was nine. In the annual leadership training camps for the children of leaders like Réka and me, the so-called model subcamps were created, so that the children of the leaders could be somewhere, and so that the scoutmasters and assistant scoutmasters could not train on each other but on living (smaller) children, i.e., ‘on a sample’. That’s where we met with Endre. He is a bit younger than me, so he was always in the same subcamp with my sister. At that time, there were so many of us that each year belonged to a separate patrol, a separate age group; nowadays we have children in scouting in three-, four- and five-year age groups. So, we were never together with Endre later, in any camp except the first one, but we always knew about each other.
In ‘93, at the leadership training camp, we met by chance at Nagyrét, the field at a scout park in upstate New York. I briefly told him I lived in California and invited him to come, but I knew he would never come. Why would someone from Cleveland go to California? Yet, in April ‘94 Endre called me and said he was in California, and I should show him San Francisco. We had a mutual acquaintance, also a scout leader from San Francisco, and he called him first to show him the city, but Jenci Rácz was busy at the time and referred Endre to me. We spent a day together and then got married in August the following year. I moved to Cleveland in November and have lived here ever since. Our first son, Keve arrived in ‘96, then Bendegúz in ‘97, Vajk in 2000, and our only daughter, Enese three years later.
Besides scouting, another very important part of your life is folk dancing. The members of the Cleveland Hungarian Scout Folk Ensemble (Clevelandi Magyar Cserkész Regös Csoport), well known in North America, are scouts and can be seen performing at all major folk dance events. Nevertheless, I’ve been told by many people: it is either scouting or folk dancing, you cannot have both…
At the Magyar Tanya they were not called ‘regös’ folk ensemble—we danced within the scout patrols. My parents were amateur dancers, so they took dancing to the same level as it was taught abroad at the time. In any case, when I was seven years old and first visited Hungary, I noticed the old ladies who sang folk songs, and I learned the songs from them. At the age of nine, when we were in Hungary again, I received Hungarian folk recordings, listened to them, and made notes, knowing only half the words, but I learned them all. But the most important thing was that our parents always sang to us, my father, my mother, and my grandmother, too. So, the singing heritage comes from them. And the dancing comes from the fact that I danced all the time as a scout; it was as natural as scouting itself. When I was 13, I told my mother that I wanted to be an ethnographer, and she said no way. But wherever I lived, I was always scouting and in tune with folk dancing as well, because there were dance groups everywhere at the time.
Regös folk dance and scouting are close to my heart, and I believe that
scouting and folk dancing should not be separated—in fact, they strengthen each other.
Every scout should learn folk dance. After all, it is also a way of practising movement improvement and getting to know Hungarian traditions better, which is much more enjoyable than just learning dry texts about ceramics, pottery, and carpentry, for example.
What is the history and present of the 50-year-old Cleveland Hungarian Scout Folk Ensemble?
Scouting together with the regös folk dance was not invented in the diaspora. As early as the mid-1900s, there were already regös patrols going out into the villages to do research. The legacy of [Hungarian politician and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Hungary] Pál Teleki is that Hungarian scouting is based on two pillars: the Bible and Hungarian culture. Thus, in Hungarian scouting, one cannot be separated from the other. Here in Cleveland, we have weekly activities on Tuesday evenings, just like we water at Easter, put up a Maypole in May, and play nativity scenes and sing carols at Christmas. Regös folk dancers do not only dance: when we are not preparing for a show, we do crafts, tell folk tales and ballads, or play folk music—in other words, we deal with the entire Hungarian folk tradition. And we, like the old ones, go to the villages to do research as well—our trips to the small village of Kazár in Hungary are all about that, too. And we are present at all the folk dance festivals, such as the Pontozó and the Hungarian Day in New Brunswick. Right now, we have the Scout Day going on and I’m so proud of the scouts because they performed a dance that they learned on our last trip to Kazár.
How big is the dance group and where did you get your beautiful garments?
We have only one folk dance group, the Scout Folk Ensemble, which has fluctuating numbers, now with 24 children aged 14–18 and two leaders. We don’t have our own orchestra or any more children’s groups, but the younger scouts are learning enough that we could prepare them for performance for Scout Day in just two sessions. Most of our costumes are designed, embroidered, and sewn by the regös folk dancers, together with their parents and grandparents. Later, we bought the pieces that we could not produce. In addition, we also have kind donors who have donated some garments to us. Our costume collection now includes 30 different costumes, of which we have 6–20 [kinds of traditional Hungarian] sets: palóc (Paloc), matyó (Matyo), székely (Szekler), csángó (Csango), as well as traditional costumes of the Szatmár, Kalotaszeg, Szilágyság, Küküllő, Mezőség, the Southern Great Plain, Sárköz, Kalocsa, Tápé, Somogy, and Kapuvár areas.
Back to the family: what do you do when you are not scouting?
When the children were small, I went to the ‘adult world’ once a week. First, I worked in a programme where we helped girls who hadn’t finished secondary school yet but already had babies: we took care of the children while the mothers went to class to finish school. I was an administrator in this US government programme for two years until it expired. After that I started working for Gyuri Kovács’ Smartronix company as a marketer, then I was a baker at Lajos Mezősi’s bakery and managed his finances in between. I went to different festivals to sell things and organized the stalls—it was a busy period. In the meantime, I started working in the school office, and then, at the school where my husband is an English and German teacher, I have been the administrative assistant to the principal for six or seven years now.
Our children attended not only weekend Hungarian schools, but also weekend German schools in addition to the regular American school. It’s worth noting that the German government pays the teachers to teach German to the locals in evening classes. Endre spoke to the children in German, and they responded to him in German for a long time. Fortunately, I understood enough German to be able to chime in when I needed to. But the family language was always Hungarian. So, they had Hungarian school on Mondays, Bible class on Tuesdays, if I remember correctly, then from the age of 14 onwards, regös folk dance classes, German school on Wednesdays, some kind of sport on Thursdays, scouting on Fridays, and excursions on the weekends…
Why did Endre speak German to his Hungarian children in America? Was it some kind of family expectation?
No. After World War II, many of the Hungarian refugees of ‘56 usually spoke German as well, so they typically learned English as a third language. Therefore, their children were all taught German in school, not Spanish, which more people in this country would have understood. I also studied German in secondary school, but it was not at the expense of Hungarian at home—it was just an optional language at school. However, it is a bit different in our family. Endre continued to study German at university as well—it just stayed with him. He wanted to be an English teacher, but he was so good at German that he got a degree in it, too. He got both his jobs because he could teach German, and only then was he asked to teach English as well.
We wanted to pass on this knowledge of languages to our children because we believe that the more languages you know, the more you are.
I understand you are a devout Catholic. How important is religion and its practice to you?
Yes, I am a Catholic. My father was a Catholic and my mother was a Lutheran. When my parents divorced, my mother, being a Lutheran, still went to Catholic church with us because when they got married, she made a vow to raise us as Catholics. I respect that about her. I like to go to Catholic Mass because I know it and therefore it is comforting. The homilies make me think and I look forward to the time at Mass to reflect on what happened that week and evaluate what I did well, what I did wrong, what I should improve, and what I can be thankful for. It’s a kind of refreshment. I especially like it when the sermon is well constructed and delivered, and when the cantor and choir sing beautifully. Mass is only a part of my spiritual life, but a significant part.
But this was not always the case. I’m not saying I was ever an atheist, but there were times when it was particularly difficult to go to church and pray. In fact, there were times when I was even angry with God when things happened in my life that I couldn’t see the meaning of or the reason for. Almost everyone has a process when it comes to spirituality, everyone is a seeker somewhere. I want to get to my best self through my faith in God, which is also my scout identity, but I know that’s not everyone’s path. In scouting, we have a duty to say that there is such a path.
The Scout House is in the courtyard of the Saint Emeric Roman Catholic Church, yet few scouts go there. Why is that?
Our scouts go to church, just usually not to Hungarian churches. This is also because, for example, there are many of them who go to religious schools, and they are expected to go to church where they go to school. Besides, many Hungarian churches don’t have Bible classes, so the students go to the local American churches to attend them. Hungarian scouting is ecumenical, so the patrols in Cleveland are not only Catholic. For example, today on Scout Day, there was not only a mass but also a Protestant church service, which the scouts attended. By my estimate, one-third to one-half of the current active scout families are Protestant. On major holidays we support the local Hungarian churches in larger numbers, but especially our headquarters, the St Emeric Church. When we go there, the regös folk dancers also dress up in regös costumes to make the occasion more festive. There are eight Christian Hungarian churches in Cleveland, all of which are very important to us and to the Hungarian people living here.
We try to provide Hungarian-language masses and services at camps and on excursions as well. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to listen to them in English because we can only find an American pastor, but sometimes we cannot find anyone at all who can come to say mass or hold a service. This can give quite a headache for the organizers, both locally and federally. The scout leaders are aware that at all levels the main focus is on character building, and they are up to the task. Personally, I try to work with everyone at the level they are at and help them develop their spirituality, their Hungarian identity, as well as their scouting skills.
All the photos in this article are courtesy of the Pigniczky family.
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