In my search for clues to the mystery of Hungarian talent I talked to so many Hungarians and heard mention of so many more that I gained the impression of a large representation in the cultural wave. But I must have confused quality with quantity. Though they constitute the fourth largest national group, the Hungarians in my file are fewer than a hundred, about 5 per cent of the total wave. They themselves explain that they seem more numerous because they have the gift of ubiquity - and some do seem to be in more than one place at the same time - which multiplies the effect of their presence. Indeed, they travel so frequently, so fast, and so unexpectedly that there is certain ground for this belief. But there may be a better explanation. Hungarian intellectuals began to emigrate earlier than those from other countries (except Russia), impelled by the political events that have tormented their country since the end of World War I; the Béla Kun revolution, the Whites' reprisals, and the veiled dictatorship and open anti-Semitism of Admiral Horthy's regime. Some of these early emigrants reached the United States in the twenties, so that there are actually more Hungarians in this country than my file indicates, but not all belong to the wave under study.
Not all the early Hungarian emigrants came directly to this country. Among those who did not, there were many students who sought to finish their education outside Hungary: while the Hungarian gymnasiums were excellent the universities were poor and the numerus clausus excluded from them all but 5 per cent of the Jewish students. German universities were the most favored by Hungarians, though some students went to Austria, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. The fact that many went to Germany was ground for a casual remark made recently by one of my Hungarian friends: "Why make so much fuss about the Hungarians? They were all educated in Germany anyhow." But this is too broad a generalization.
True enough, the most brilliant Hungarian physicists, Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller, and the great aerodynamicist Theodore von Karman obtained their doctoral degrees at German universities, and mathematician-physicist John von Neumann received part of his university education in Germany (and part in Switzerland). Most outstanding Hungarians, however, studied in Hungary or went to universities within the territory of the old Austro-Hungarian state. In the strong group of mathematicians who were to emigrate to the United States, Von Neumann was an exception:
Paul Erdös and Cornelius Lanczos hold degrees from the University of Budapest; George Polya, Tibor Rado, Otto Szasz, and Gabor Szegö; studied at the University of Vienna. The prominent psychoanalysts Franz Alexander, Therese Benedek, Sandor Rado, and Géza Róheim received their education at Hungarian universities. Alexander underwent his psychoanalytic training in Berlin many years after receiving his Hungarian medical degree. All Hungarian musicians whose background I could check, including composer Béla Bartók, conductor Antal Dorati, and violinist Joseph Szigeti, were products of Hungary.
If the German education of Hungarians is an unwarranted generalization, it is a fact that many spent time in Germany before coming to the United States, and only Béla Bartók and Géza Róheim, amoung the men mentioned above, remained in Hungary until the last moment, after the outbreak of war in Europe. Polya was in Switzerland from 1914, Erdös went to England in 1939, and Szigeti spent several years in Switzerland. But all the others lived in Germany before deciding to cross the ocean -- and so did other famous Hungarians I have not yet mentioned. I need to name only those connected with the German Bauhaus, whose spirit they were to bring to the United States: artists and designers László Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes, and architect Marcel Breuer (all trained in Hungary). When Hitler came to power in Germany, the Jews and leftists among the Hungarian émigrés were forced to leave the country. A few came directly to the United States, but larger numbers went to England and spent several years there.
A very colorful, "very Hungarian" man of the older generation was play wright Ferenc Molnár. His family name had heen Neumann, but he had changed it to the Magyar word Molnár ("miller") so that his works would not be thought those of a German. In his years in New York, where he settled in 1940, he was surrounded by Hungarian émigrés and American intellectuals who were attracted by his charm as much as by his fame, his plays were popular in New York and as early as 1908 four companies were performing The Devil simultaneously. Later the Hungarian setting of his Liliom was a challenge to American stage designers, who responded to it with great success. Liliom was further Americanized as the musical comedy Carousel. Among Hungarians notable in fields not yet mentioned are economists William Fellner, George Katona, Karl Polanyi, and Tibor Scitovsky; musicologists Ernst Ferand and Otto Gombosi (they followed a fellow Hungarian
musicologist who came to this country in the late twenties, Paul Henry Lang): physicians George Gomori, Imre Horner, and Stephen Rothman; physicist Marcel Schein; and art historian Charles de Tolnay.
Economist Karl Polanyi belonged to an exceptionally talented Hungarian family, several members of which "made good" in the United States. Legend has it that the Polanyis' intellectual heritage came from their mother, "Cecil-mama;" an extraordinary Russian-born woman who introduced Freudian views in her renowned salons and was still devouring books at the rate of three or four a day while lying on her deathbed in Budapest. In the tradition of the Hungarian upper classes she kept two homes, in Budapest and in Vienna, and so it happened that her oldest son Karl was born in the Austrian capital. (But after her husband's business collapsed, the Polanyi family lived in poverty.) In his early years Karl, the founder and animator of the Galileo Club which did so much to stimulate young Hungarian talent, was secretary of the Radical Citizen's Party in Hungary. In the thirties he settled in England and became a co-founder of the Christian Left Movement in 1936. In 1940 he came to America where he taught first at Bennington College, and then (after a few years back in England) at Columbia University from 1947 until his retirement in 1961. In Bennington he wrote his first major work, The Great Transformation, widely influential in America as a critique of laissez-faire economics, as his brother Michael commented in a Ietter to me. "It powerfully appealed for including in any consideration of economic principles the effects of economic action on social life. . . . This work was followed by thirty years of study bent on elucidating the ubiquitous balance between strictly ecunomic and purely social values. . . " This study and its applications to examples of primitive societies affected the course of economic anthropology.
Among American scientists Karl was known as "Polanyi's brother."
The "real Polanyi" was Michael. Michael Polanyi studied medicine
and physical chemistry in Budapest and at the end of World War I settled
in Germany where he won his reputation for work as a physical chemist at
the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. But he was interested in economic questions,
and when he moved to Manchester he was appointed professor of sociology.
Since his retirement he has given himself to the philosophy and epistemology
of science and has Iectured extensively in England and in the United States.
Karl and Michael were the best known of the Polanyi family, but it is their
Laura Polanyi Striker, who accomplished the most unusual feat. Cecil-mama did not think rnuch of her daughter, or so the gossip goes, and nicknamed her "Mausi" (Mousy), but Mausi became a historian, was active in peace movements, and came to this country. Here she was called upon to rule, once and forever, on the veracity of Captain John Smith and his account of his adventures. A bitter controversy had flared up at various times on the credibility of his stories of voyages, fights, loves, and captivity in Hungary and Transylvania. It was claimed by some scholars that the battles he described were never fought. If so, Captain Smith was a fabricator of tales whose whole around including information about early Virginia, could not be trusted. Captain Smith's biographer Bradford Smith felt that only a Hungarian scholar would be able to investigate the matter satisfactorily. He turned to Karl Polanyi for advice, and Polanyi suggested his sister Laura. Though she was almost seventy years old, she accepted the assignment with zest. She delved into old documents in Hungarian, Latin, and English that she found in the United States and into the material that was sent to her by J. Franz Pichler, archivist of the Central Archive of Styria in Graz, Austria, whose research she directed by correspondence. She established dates of battles and other events, and found conclusive evidence in favor of Captain Smith's stories. Thus she reaffirmed his reputation. When Bradford Smith's biography was published in 1953, it contained a scholarly appendix about Captain Smith's travels in Hungary by Laura Polanyi Striker. Four years later, she published as corroborative evidence her own translation of the Latin manuscript of Henry Warton's The Life of John Smith, English Soldier and accompanied it with a learned essay on Captain Smith in seventeenth-century literature.
The Polanyi tradition continues. Laura Polanyi Striker's daughter Eva Zeisel is a successful designer in New York, where she settled in 1938. Trained as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, she was attracted by the craft movement in central Europe of which the Bauhaus was the inspirer and acquired experience in designing china for mass production. China and pottery remained her chief specialty, but she has also designed tubular metal chairs, lamps, and other household articles. She is one of only two industrial designers for whom the Museum of Modern Art has arranged a one-man show, and she has participated in many exhibitions in America and abroad. Through her fifteen years of teaching at the Pratt
Institute her influence has spread and her pupils are in leading offices of industrial design.
In the hearts of most Hungarians in America there lingers a pride in their national origin, which is somewhat different from the mild nationalism of other foreign-born. It is as if they felt that being a Hungarian was an asset in American life. Géza Róheim, the psychoanalyst, is said to have cultivated his national character consciously and proudly and pushed Hungarianism, to its extremes. When László Moholy-Nagy was compelled to raise funds for the New Bauhaus only months after its opening and his arrival in America, all he could rely on for success, according to his wife Sibyl, was "his personality-alertness, enthusiasm, Hungarian accent, and personal magnetism. . . ." A saying attributed to Eugene Wigner and widely circulating among Hungarians puts the matter in a nutshell: "To be a Hungarian is not all, but it helps, it certainly helps."
Not only the jokes about themselves and their peculiar traits but also their great contributions to America single out the Hungarians as a group. The names of Wigner, Szilard, Teller, and Von Neumann are in all histories of the wartime atomic project. Outside the atomic field, Von Neumann's greatest influence was as principal inventor of the large computers that smooth the functioning of modern life. Before his death in 1964, Szilard Iaunched the idea for and directed the organization of the Council for a Livable World, an imaginative plan by which our relations with the Communist world might be improved through an intelligent steering of American foreign policy. Wigner is still moving ahead on that path of physics and technology which has already given us atornic weapons and atomic reactors. And Teller may yet see one of his great projects come true: world government achieved through temporary military strengthening, the manipulation of weather by man, and the abatement of air and water pollution in the state of New York (he was a consultant to Governor Rockefeller). To von Karman also Americans have a debt of gratitude: he is regarded as the man who had the greatest influence on the development of high-speed air- craft in the United States and was repeatedly an adviser to the air force and the leader of programs to develop the first jet propulsion and rocket motors. If Béla Bartók and the United States did not understand each other in his lifetime, after his death he has made a triumphant corneback and is now a favorite of American musical audiences, who acclaim him as one of the great modern composers.
(Laura Fermi: Illustrious Immigrants. 2nd Ed. The Intellectual Migration from Europe 1930/41, p.111-116.)