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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of New Zealand’s Hungarians came as refugees after the 1956 uprising against Communism. New Zealand reacted rapidly to the Hungarian refugee crisis and offered to accept 1,000 of the 200,000 seeking refuge. The response demonstrated the country’s alignment with the West against Communism in the Cold War. A total of 1,117 refugees actually arrived between 1956 and 1959. They were carefully selected to ensure they would be assets to New Zealand.
On 4 November 1956, 10 days before the Russians sealed the border between Hungary and Austria, Louis Tóth and his wife took the train from Budapest to the border and walked across. They were among the 1,117 refugees accepted by New Zealand. When he arrived, Louis knew little English and his knowledge of his adopted country was minimal: ‘I knew as much about New Zealand as New Zealanders probably know about Hungary.’ He started work in a sawmill in Southland, then moved to Wellington, did a library course and became a university librarian.
When the first 66 Hungarians landed at Auckland’s airport in December 1956, Department of Labour officials reported that, ‘A weary, bewildered and white faced group of people disembarked, facing the ordeal of landing, unknown, in a new country with strange customs, different laws, and above all a foreign language’. 1
Temporary reception centres were set up at Māngere, Trentham and Woburn. Although the government intended to disperse the refugees throughout New Zealand, most ended up in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Voluntary agencies worked with Department of Labour officers to help the new arrivals find accommodation and employment, and to learn English.
Most of the Hungarian refugees were male (about 700 men to 400 women). Many were single and in their 20s. They included professionals, skilled tradesmen and unskilled workers. There were also some family groups with young children.
Some of the refugees, particularly young men who were without family in New Zealand, experienced difficulties settling in. There was a report of drunkenness and fighting among Hungarians in 1957. A few encountered problems with New Zealand neighbours who had some difficulty adjusting to foreigners. New Zealanders helping the refugees were advised how best to respond to a new arrival whose ‘conduct may depart from the established norms of the society in which he is placed’. 2
This extract comes from the report of a welfare officer, who writes of the feelings of political mistrust among new refugees:
‘From a political point of view these Hungarians are harmless, I consider, even if some of them do happen to be, or have been, members of the Communist Party. I have been told that rumours have been spread according to which I am not in fact a Hungarian Welfare Officer but merely a paid agent of the Government to spy on their political beliefs. Some of the refugees do not approach me with confidence’. 3
Fitting into their new country was above all assisted by the plentiful employment opportunities in the 1950s. It is likely that by 1958 most of the new Hungarians of working age had found suitable employment.
Around 300 Hungarians arrived between the early 1960s and 1970s, some as refugees fleeing from Communism in Eastern Europe. After that time, an irregular stream of migrants continued to come from Hungary. Since 2000 the flow has increased, though the number is still very small.
Small ethnic communities usually struggle to retain a distinct cultural identity. Immediately after their arrival, Hungarian refugees tended to marry other Hungarians, but by as early as 1959, many were marrying non-Hungarians. This contributed to their rapid integration. The retention of language and culture has been difficult in mixed New Zealand–Hungarian households, particularly because the community has not been replenished by further significant migrations since the refugees arrived after 1956.
Existing associations were reinvigorated by the arrival of the 1956 Hungarians. To welcome new arrivals, new clubs were also formed in the main centres by Hungarians already in New Zealand. However, most clubs folded in the 1970s. Mistrust within the Hungarian community, divided by political and religious beliefs, contributed to the demise of the Wellington club.
Interest in joining Hungarian associations revived in the mid-1980s. In 2003, cultural groups existed in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Community activities continue to be popular. They include receiving overseas visitors and celebrating Hungary’s national day. Specialist radio programmes are broadcast on Access Radio and Planet FM. There are Hungarian language classes, and a bulletin, Magyar Szó, is published every three months.
Hungarians have cropped up from time to time in New Zealand literature. Examples include Bruce Mason’s play Birds in the wilderness (1958) and Alan Duff's novel Szabad (2001), which is set in 1950s Budapest during the revolution. In Janet Frame’s novel, Living in the Maniototo (1979), one of the characters is a former refugee.
St Stephen’s Day (20 August) is Hungary’s national day. On that day in 2003, the Magyar Millennium Park was opened in Wellington. It was created to promote Hungarian–New Zealand relations and understanding. An expression of Hungary’s presence and cultural heritage in New Zealand, it also marks the community’s appreciation toward their adoptive country.
The park features plants typically found in Hungary. A decorative wooden gate (székely kapu), carved in Transylvania and gifted by the Hungarian government, stands at the park’s entrance. A carved wooden plinth (kopjafa) symbolises freedom.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Hungary.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Bart, István. Hungary and the Hungarians. 2nd ed. Budapest: Corvina, 2002.
Beaglehole, Ann. Facing the past: looking back at refugee childhood in New Zealand, 1940s–1960s. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, 1990.
‘Refugees from Hungary.’ Labour and Employment Gazette 7, no. 2 (May 1957).
McGill, David. The other New Zealanders. Wellington: Mallinson Rendel, 1982.
Magyar Szó: Newsletter of the Hungarian Community in Wellington, 1990–.