Story: Hungarians

Page 1. Immigration before 1956: navvies and exiles

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19th-century arrivals

Many early Hungarians stayed only temporarily. A small number came in the late 1840s and early 1850s, having fled Hungary when that country lost its war for independence from the Austrian Hapsburg Empire. Others came searching for gold in the 1860s. One, Zsigmond Vekey, became a reporter on the Otago Daily Times. The first Hungarians to settle permanently are thought to have arrived between 1872 and 1876, with a few more coming in the later 19th century.

Csongrád to Southland

About 100 Hungarian navvies came to New Zealand from Csongrád, a provincial town in southern Hungary, in the first decades of the 20th century. They came as landless labourers hoping to acquire their own land. One of the group, István Rácz, settled at Tūātapere in Southland some time between 1906 and 1910. In 1911, the Kollát, Szivák and Kókay families, also from Csongrád, joined him. Initially, they worked as labourers in the bush. In 1912 they secured land and grew potatoes, oats, barley and fruit. They also raised sheep and cattle. Records suggest that at least three more families from Csongrád had arrived by the early 1930s.

Fastest opening

Hungary is a landlocked country, far distant from the sea. But the Guinness book of records reports that Mike Rácz (a descendant of one of the Hungarian settlers in Tūātapere, Southland) proved the world’s fastest oyster-opener. He opened 100 oysters in 2 minutes, 42.74 seconds, during Invercargill’s 1986 Festival of the Oyster.

Hungarian community in Southland

Local acceptance did not come easily, but the settlers eventually integrated successfully into Southland life. István Kókay’s son Stephen became a Wallace county councillor. Descendants of the Csongrád families were still living in Southland in the 1990s, but only one of them still spoke a little Hungarian. Though their knowledge of the language had not survived, other descendants were aware of their roots, and preserved photographs, documents and tools which had belonged to their ancestors.

Refugees and displaced persons

Small numbers of Hungarians arrived before and after the Second World War. The pre-war arrivals were mainly Jewish refugees escaping Nazism. A further 198 Hungarians arrived in 1949–52 as displaced persons. They included people fleeing the Communist regime, and probably also a few Nazi collaborators and sympathisers.

How to cite this page:

Ann Beaglehole, 'Hungarians - Immigration before 1956: navvies and exiles', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 September 2022)

Story by Ann Beaglehole, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015