IN MEMORIAM LÁSZLÓ HÁMOS (1951-2019)
The Hungarian Human Rights Foundation (HHRF) announces with profound sadness that László Hámos passed away on April 16 in New York, after a long and bravely borne illness.
László Hámos was co-founder in 1976 of the Committee for Human Rights in Rumania, which in 1984 became the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation. He remained at the helm of HHRF for the past 43 years. His vision and commitment sustained a movement, and fundamentally shaped the community of HHRF co-workers and supporters throughout the world.
László was born in 1951 in Paris to Hungarian parents (his father was born in Slovakia, his mother in Romania) and raised in a New Jersey suburb of New York. A graduate of the Mount Hermon School (Massachusetts), he studied international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. After working at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, he started his own legal research and litigation support services company in Manhattan, before giving up the legal career to work full-time at HHRF.
In his youth, László was formed by the Hungarian-American organizations in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood – the scouts, the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Hungarian House. Proud of his Hungarian heritage, László had an equally strong sense of American identity. In the 1970’s, U.S. foreign policy singled out Romania, alone among Communist East bloc adversaries, as a “Most Favored Nation”. As László often told the story, it was as a U.S. citizen that he found this intolerable: the U.S. government (“Our government!”) chose to overlook the Ceausescu regime’s human rights violations, including a systematic campaign of forced assimilation against the Hungarian minority. On May 8, 1976, he and a group of fellow Hungarian-Americans decided to exercise their civil rights: they organized a demonstration at the Romanian consulate in New York. The Committee (later Hungarian Human Rights Foundation) was born.
Initially an ad-hoc group of young volunteers, HHRF changed the way Hungarian-American organizations operated. Instead of looking inward or backward, HHRF embraced the unique power of “hyphenated Americans” and their potential, as ordinary voters, to influence their elected Congressmen and other decision-makers. Uniquely among Hungarian-American groups at the time, HHRF used the concept of human rights as the morally and legally acceptable “handle” to get U.S. policymakers at international forums to raise the issue of rights violations against Hungarian minorities. To document these violations, HHRF gathered, translated and published first-hand information provided by courageous underground activists in Slovakia and Romania (at a time when the web did not exist, the fax was a novelty, and Eastern bloc countries banned copy machines). In the mid 1980s, Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza – who was partly of Transylvanian-Hungarian origin – was duly impressed by László’s work and became HHRF’s major benefactor and board member until his death.
László was a natural leader: he inspired co-workers by his clear thinking, problem-solving approach, and heartfelt desire to help those in need, often at the expense of his own well-being. In documentation, his sole goal – from which he never gave an inch – was to produce top-quality and airtight text. The high standards paid off. Under László’s leadership, HHRF developed into a trusted clearinghouse of well-researched, reliable information (“Our only asset is our reputation!”), and over the years built up a network of bipartisan U.S. allies in Congress and State Department willing to use their offices to speak up on behalf of Hungarian minorities, themselves “voiceless” behind the Iron Curtain.
László wrote and edited several volumes, position papers and scholarly articles on human rights, in addition to presenting more than 1,000 pages of written testimony at 27 hearings before various Congressional committees. He lectured at Cornell, Princeton, Yale and Columbia Universities and served as a consultant to the news media, other international human rights monitoring organizations, as well as U.S. and international governmental bodies.
Since 1976, László met with six U.S. presidents. He participated in three 1994 discussions with President Clinton and Vice President Gore regarding NATO enlargement. In March 1990, he arranged and participated in the Oval Office meeting between President George H. W. Bush, cabinet members and Rev. László Tőkés, the Hungarian Protestant minister from Romania whose resistance sparked the 1989 revolution. Over the years, László held several hundred personal meetings with Members of Congress, White House and State Department officials organized for Hungarian community leaders from East Central Europe after the fall of Communism.
László’s personal example directly inspired a new generation of leadership in the larger Hungarian-American community. Since 1984, HHRF hosted 73 interns in New York and Washington from around the world. Many of them would continue professional activities related to human rights. None would forget their late-night conversations with László, the stories he told, the habits he kept, or his kindness.
In 1991, HHRF was a co-founder of the Hungarian American Coalition, and László continuously served as Board and Executive Committee member since that time. In 1996, he was elected Director of the Hungarian Reformed Federation of America (HRFA). In his capacity as Chairman beginning in 2008, he successfully led the Federation’s merger with GBU Financial Life in 2011. Until Fall 2013, László was Chairman of HRFA’s successor organization, the Kossuth Foundation. He also served as President of the 64-year-old American Hungarian Library and Historical Society in New York.
László played a decisive role in preserving and developing two emblematic buildings belonging to the Hungarian American community: the Hungarian House of New York, and the Kossuth House in Washington, DC. He developed new initiatives to promote cultural identity among the 1.5 million Americans of Hungarian ancestry, notably the 2012 launch of ReConnect Hungary Birthright Program under the patronage of former New York State Governor George E. Pataki.
László also won respect throughout the world-wide Hungarian Diaspora. László represented Hungarians in the West at meetings of the Hungarian Standing Conference (MÁÉRT) and the Carpathian Basin Hungarian Parliamentarians’ Forum (KMKF) in Budapest. Between 1998-2002, he served in a pro bono capacity as Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister of Hungary. Awards recognizing his and HHRF’s achievements include: the “For Minorities Award” (Kisebbségekért Díj) in 1996; the “Middle Cross of the Hungarian Republic” (Magyar Köztársasági Érdemrend Középkeresztje) in 2001; the American Hungarian Foundation’s Abraham Lincoln Award in 2007; and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Arany János Medal, bestowed in 2011.
László Hámos is survived by his wife, Zsuzsa Erdélyi Hámos, daughter Júlia and son Dániel; parents Ottó and Margit Hámos, brother Árpád, and numerous family members in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
He is also mourned by HHRF Board Members Emese Latkóczy, Zsolt Szekeres and Péter Józsa, and by many other co-workers and associates who benefited over the decades from his friendship, character and vision.
The Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, recognizing the invaluable contributions of László Hámos to the Hungarian nation, will provide full funeral honors.