LÁSZLÓ HÁMOS REMEMBERED AT NEW YORK MEMORIAL EVENT
Family, friends and colleagues gathered at New York’s Hungarian House on May 11 to remember the life and legacy of László Hámos, President of the Hungarian Hu-man Rights Foundation (HHRF), who passed away after a long illness on April 16.
Former Hungarian House President Charles Vámossy, serving as Master of Ceremonies, welcomed the audience, first and foremost László’s beloved wife Zsuzsa and their children, Júlia and Dániel. (Read the full speech here.) Mr. Vámossy mentioned the HHRF staff present for whom László was leader, mentor, and friend over decades of cooperation: Emese Latkóczy, “László’s right hand, left hand, maybe even both feet”; Zsolt Szekeres, HHRF’s “gray eminence and ever-present problem-solver”; and HHRF’s colleagues from Budapest and Cluj (Kolozsvár) Péter Józsa, Csilla Zsigmond and Árpád Zsolt Moldován.
The first number was Mendelssohn’s Trio No. 1 in D Minor, played by Júlia Hámos (piano), Gergana Haralapieva (violin) and Ari Evan (cello), and preceded by Júlia’s introduction:
This piece represents my father’s spirit. While I chose a career that was at first foreign to him, it took him no time to completely identify with the point of music, which is to express the soul. That is what he has given to me: the unfaltering truth that each and every soul has something to say, and that like with music, the more selflessly you listen, the more it yields in return.
The first speaker was Jenő Brogyányi, who in 1976 co-founded HHRF’s predecessor organization, the Committee for Human Rights in Rumania (CHRR) with László. Mr. Brogyányi recalled their initial projects – a full-page ad in the New York Times and a street demonstration to protest the Ceausescu regime’s campaign of forced assimilation against the Hungarian national minority of Romania. At first an ad-hoc group of young people that included Bulcsú Veress, CHRR developed into a unique force among Hungarian-American organizations:
CHRR’s governing principle was this: to play by American rules on an American field. It was László who turned these principles into praxis. He created the Hungarian-American playing field. …Thanks to him, masses of volunteers sorted lists and stuffed envelopes, right here in the Hungarian House. A community with a practical purpose came into being.
László gave the Hungarians of the West the means to look to the future and take action…. He dedicated his life to connecting the Hungarian past to a Hungarian future. And as many times as that stone rolled back down the slope, László, like Sisyphus, pressed his shoulder against it once again, against his stone, and he pushed and rolled it back up… the good that came of his life is beyond measure.
“Tomorrow we’re going to Komárom” – This is how George Pataki, former governor of New York, quoted László Hámos’ words on one of Gov. Pataki’s early visits to Hungary. Though Gov. Pataki had never heard of Komárom, the next morning found him in that town, in a region of Slovakia that is home to an ethnic Hungarian community. Briefed by László, Gov. Pataki spoke at a local Hungarian college and called upon Slovakian officials to protect minority rights at a moment when Slovakia had just passed restrictive regulations against minority language use. This trip was followed by many others in the company of László and other Hungarian American leaders – including visits to Transylvania, and two months ago to Subcarpathia, where Gov. Pataki met spoke out against the Ukrainian government’s repressive policies against the local Hungarian minority.
We went to Beregszász, we went to Munkács, we went to Ungvár… we knew what László Hámos wanted us to do, we knew we were raising the flag on behalf of Hungarian human rights…
Finally, Gov. Pataki recalled László’s sustained commitment to the ReConnect Hungary program, which emerged from an idea proposed by Gov. Pataki’s daughter Allison. “László didn’t just say, “Great idea – good luck!” He said: “Let’s do it.”
László had a profound impact on my life as a Hungarian-American, to get involved, to not just sit back and read articles and get upset, but actually to do something about it…. The best way to honor his memory is to commit to doing what we can to keep those wonderful organizations and causes alive.
Two musical numbers followed. Led by members of the Hungarian Scout Troop of New York, to which László had also belonged, the audience sang the Hungarian folk song “Tavaszi szél”. With Benjamin Hochmann, Júlia Hámos played Franz Schubert’s Divertissement a la hongroise duet for piano – the same piece they had played for László at his last Thanksgiving dinner, to his great pride and enjoyment.
Gábor Dömötör, vice president of the Hungarian Scout Association in Exteris, recalled that László often cited his scouting years as a formative influence for his later activities.
As Hungarian scouts, we believe in our responsibility to act as useful and positive representatives of our Hungarian heritage, to extend and preserve the good name of the Hungarian nation… László carried out this responsibility to the highest degree. His exemplary activity over several decades won respect from Hungarians in the West, from American officials, Hungarian minority communities, and the government of Hungary.
Over the past 40 years, HHRF has hosted nearly 100 interns at its New York office. Árpád Krizsán, then a student from Vienna, recalled the impact of working alongside László in the early years:
He empowered people by setting an example and inspiring them to do what needed to be done. A few weeks into my stay in America, he sent me off to Washington DC with a list of Congressmen and told me to gather their sig-natures on a House Resolution. And I did!
I once asked him why he does what he does. His answer: “If I don’t do it, possibly no one else will.” I always remembered these words. Now it is our turn to step up and continue the work.
Peter Coy, a family friend and New Jersey neighbor, recalled the Hámos family home as “Budapest in Bergen County”, and László as a devoted family man.
László was humble, soft-spoken, a careful listener and eager learner. He was immensely proud of Zsuzsa and thankful to her. He treasured his children, Julia and Danny. He was devoted to his brother and parents and Zsuzsa’s family. The more time we spent with him, the more extended family and friends and colleagues we discovered. All of us were blessed to know and love László, a dreamer and a doer, a free spirit with a backbone of steel, a man who cut his own path through life.
A letter of farewell by Mihály Sebestyén Spielman, a Hungarian journalist who lives in the town of Tirgu Mures, Transylvania, was read by Mr. Spielman’s brother András.
I was in New York in 1996, and he invited me to his office, in the heart of Manhattan. He had heard about me, or knew my name somehow, maybe some of my writings, I don’t know. But he interrogated me thoroughly about our lives, what was going on with us, what we believed in, how we managed. I couldn’t really tell him anything new, but he listened to me patiently. He understood our lives, because that was his interest, his career path, his pursuit, the grounds of his purpose, both in reality and often in virtual space. For a long time, HHRF was a trustworthy and important acronym that gave us hope. And László was its soul.
Andrea Lauer Rice, now president of the Hungarian American Coalition, re-called her fateful meeting with László in 1988, organized by Andrea’s mother Edith Lauer.
My mother invited me on a mother-daughter trip to New York City. As a college student, I thought this meant sight-seeing, shopping, maybe a Broadway play. But László had organized a demonstration in front of the Romanian Consulate in New York. I did not expect that I would end up with a placard in my hand, demonstrating against the razing of Hungarian villages in Transylvania by Ceausescu.
In 1991, when I became the first intern for the newly formed Hungarian American Coalition – of which László and HHRF were founding members – he and Zsolt Szekeres joined forces to teach me about “educating” law-makers and decision-makers in the halls of Congress – who often had no intention of learning about the plight of Hungarian minorities. He helped me craft my first letter to a government official, ask my first question at a Congressional briefing and invited me to lead my first workshop session. And I was just one of many who got trained at what could be called the “László Hamos Academy of Advocacy.”
Finally, Dániel Hámos recalled his father’s life as “nothing short of inspiring”.
Unlike most so-called change makers of his generation, he was a rebel with a cause. He ditched his elite education and job at a top law firm to do what he loved – which, fortunately for us all, was protecting people and cultures
in need. He didn’t have a work week, he had a career. His passion allowed his work to become intertwined with his life.
The success of others inspired him more than his own. That’s what HHRF was about, that’s what Reconnect is about, and that’s why me and my sister had every opportunity we could ask for.