A message from our Ambassador,
My Hungarian heritage had long been a source of pride and an integral – albeit slightly nebulous – piece of who I was. As a young American I, like so many others, come from a diverse and multi-ethnic family background. People often had the same reaction when they heard my last name. "What type of a name is that?" They guessed Greek, they guessed Italian, they guessed Polish. It was always with pride that I answered: Hungarian.
Growing up, I ate the stuffed cabbage my grandmother cooked. We held annual family reunions, during which time we would roast a pig and douse its fat on vegetables in the traditional, open-fire manner of the agrarian Magyars. I felt connected to my Hungarian heritage when I looked at the pictures of my immigrant ancestors, heard the foreign words my relatives spoke, and saw pictures of the rural place from where the Patakis originally came.
Yes, I had always considered myself proud and relatively well-informed when it came to the country that had given me my last name. But it was not until I traveled back to Hungary that these various aspects of my Hungarian-American heritage gelled into a clear, cogent understanding of where I came from, and how that Hungarian ancestry had helped to make me the person I am.
Years ago, I traveled with my father and brother to the small farming village, Aranyosapáti, in Eastern Hungary from where my great-grandparents had emigrated. I visited the church in which they were married. I saw the farm that would be passed along to another, older son – necessitating my great grandfather's move to the new land of America. I traced the steps that János and Erzsébet Pataki themselves took from the small village on the river Tisza, as they set out from their homes and family for the last time.
From our ancestral village, we then traveled to Budapest – a world-class city about which I'd heard many positive descriptions. Even with the high expectations I had on arrival, I was blown away. I wandered the city, enraptured by the stately architecture of the iconic Chain Bridge, the Fisherman's Bastion, St. Matthew Cathedral, and the Széchenyi Baths. Walking along the banks of the Danube at night, as snow fell on the illuminated monuments that spoke of a history of Empire, warfare, artistic and architectural innovation, and above all, a people's resilience, I kept having one thought. Why isn't Budapest more of a destination? Why do we hear about Paris and London and Rome – but not Budapest?
Since that first, eye-opening trip, I've had the great fortune of traveling back to Hungary several times. These visits have included trips to the medieval fortress at Eger, where a few hundred besieged Magyars bravely fought off thousands of Turkish warriors, and in doing so, drove back an army of foreign invaders from Europe. I've driven across the country, from the western border of Austria to the eastern borders of Romania and Ukraine. And I've also had the pleasure of visiting pockets of the Hungarian diaspora in Transylvania, a region still populated by Magyars.
From speaking with the people who live there, I can say that those Hungarians know, perhaps better than anyone else, just what their heritage means to them.
My Hungarian heritage is something I'm incredibly proud of, and something I wish to explore ever further. This exploration will come not only from mining the history of my own family here in America, to see how the Patakis have done as immigrants who built their homes in the New World, but also by returning to Hungary, to understand how, and where, it all started. ReConnect Hungary will make this possible for me and hundreds of other young Hungarian- Americans.
Hungarian-Americans make up only a small portion of the United States population, but our impact has been large and undeniable: there are the brilliant scientific minds of Edward Teller and John von Neumann; the creative leaders like the Barrymores, Jamie Lee Curtis, Mariska Hargitay and Bela Lugosi; the humanitarians and writers Elie Wiesel and Joseph Pulitzer; the athletes like Joe Namath and Rebecca Soni; and politicians, including Secretary of State Kerry, Governor Ventura, Congressman Lantos, and yes, my father, Governor George Pataki.
We may be few, but we have every reason to be proud. ReConnect Hungary will be integral in fostering these journeys of rediscovering our roots, and in the process, moving forward with a greater understanding of who we are and where we come from.