Marissa Tejada Benekos
The Greek presence in Hungary dates back to the fifteenth century, but a community didn’t emerge until the mid-eighteenth century. Today, the community numbers several thousand, with about half in Budapest–a mix of Greek Civil War refugees, their families, businessmen, and students who fell in love with the city and stayed. Marissa Tejada Benekos offers a glimpse of this small, yet vibrant Greek community on the Danube.
Grand marble Turkish baths, Roman amphitheaters and Gothic cathedrals linked by impressive bridges create an arresting harmony that has earned Budapest a befitting nick name as the ‘Paris of Central Europe.’ This harmonious beauty caused one young Greek man to fall in love with the Hungarian capital at the age of nineteen. That was over two decades ago.
“When I came I thought, ‘wow, I am home’,” recalls Kostas Nakos as he remembers the first day he arrived in Budapest to study sociology at the prestigious University Eötvös Lor nd, where he later also earned his PhD. “Except for its ancient Greek statues, Athens is the opposite of Budapest in terms of this outward beauty. Budapest has this special refinement, it really is an architectural paradise.”
The ‘souls’ of each city are just as different, he adds. “Even after twenty-two years living here, I must admit there are some other things I can’t understand culturally but I can accept. Hungarians have a saying, ‘we should keep two steps distance from somebody or something’. I see this as quite different from Greeks who will discuss any subject from the weather to politics to just about anyone on the bus or in the park. Athens may not be so pretty on the outside, but this forward interaction between people, even strangers, along with the closeness of friendships among its chaos is a different kind of harmony that cannot really be found any where else.”
Although he missed Greek cultural norms upon moving to Budapest, Nakos’s desire to teach drew him to stay for good. As a student, he saw a surprisingly keen interest from Hungarians to learn Greek. He says many of his peers would know Greek words and phrases without even have had visited Greece. This observation impressed Nakos which gave him the idea to launch a career in teaching Greek as a foreign language, a choice that would eventually bind him to his roots in his new country. Nakos is currently a professor at the Institute of Ancient Studies in the Modern Greek Department at his alma mater.
“As a Greek, I believe there is a basic need to feel tied to Greece and teaching the language helps me living abroad. The first thing I like to know is why my students want to learn Greek. The new students tell me they love Greek summers or love the Greek philosophers but the really honest ones say they are in love with a Greek,” he says laughing. “Whatever the reasons, I am proud to teach our language especially to Hungarians because they know what its like to know a difficult and complex language. That is why to read and write Hungarian or Greek means you can understand the cultures better. But with learning Greek I believe you become a kind of a poet because our language is very unique, in its own way, and that is just one more reason why I am proud of my roots.”
Putting down roots
The first Greeks to come to Hungary were aristocrats who, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries moved to conduct trade and business. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the real waves of migration began due to Greece’s unstable political climate. By the second half of the eighteenth century, ten thousand Greeks had immigrated to Hungary.
“There is a respect here, I think, that started with the first mass wave of Greek immigrants. Hungarians look back to this first Greek diaspora as playing a key role in the re-birth of Hungary after the Ottoman times. Our immigrants helped to resettle and revive the country,” says Spyros Bendeguz Agardi who was born in Hungary to a Hungarian father and Greek mother. Today he is an active member of several Greek-Hungarian associations. “You will find Greek influences throughout the city today. Greeks were involved in the construction of the famous Chain Bridge, the Ludovica, and the Hungarian Scientific Academy.”
In the late 1940s, a significant wave of Greeks, many of them children, came to Hungary to flee the Greek civil war. Hungarians welcomed them as political refugees in Budapest and especially in a unique small village built just for them. The town, which is sixty kilometers outside the Hungarian capital, was named Beloiannisz after the Greek communist leader Nikos Belogiannis. To this day, its mayor is traditionally Greek although the number of the Greeks has dwindled to about 300 out of a total population of 1,200.
According to the Hungarian government census, there are around 4,000 Greeks living in Hungary, with half of them residing in Budapest. Agardi says for all of the Greeks that remain in Hungary, an important part of their political esteem comes from the fact that they are considered a national minority.
“Greeks are one of the thirteen national minorities here,” he explains.
In 1993, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a law to recognize individuals’ minority rights to help preserve ethnic identities. This law legitimizes associations, movements, and political parties but also mandates the unrestricted use of ethnic languages. Two years after it was enacted, a group called the Self-Government of the Greek Minority in Hungary was created. In 1998, Greek local self-governments were established. Today there are thirty-five across the country.
“Since Greeks have more than a century of history in Hungary, we had this opportunity to be recognized and along with that are not only political but economic privileges,” says Agardi who held a five-year term as president f the self-government organization, beginning in 2007.
The community today
This important minority status Greeks proudly hold in Hungary is one reason the community remains so organized. Their office on Vecsey street, is just a few blocks from the Hungary’s impressive parliament building. It is also where the Hellenic School is located. On the first floor of the building, Evangelia Tsaroucha, the director of the school, leads me to a back room where shelves of books neatly line its walls up to the ceiling, the spines clearly printed in bold Greek letters.
“The children’s programs are funded by the state and they only have to pay if they want to take an official test which we, of course, prepare them for,” explains Tsaroucha as she opens up one of the many Greek language test workbooks stacked in front of her. “They go to school to learn other languages besides Hungarian and after all of that they come here to learn Greek–which I think they like more,” she continues with a smile.
Tsaroucha immigrated to Hungary sixty years ago as a young girl. She taught Greek at the university level for many years before taking on the cultural language programs at the Hellenic School. Today, more than 250 children are enrolled to learn Greek language, history, and geography.
“Because of our minority status we have funding to finance school programs. This support helps us to provide Greek books, distribute publications, to have events–it’s a great asset for the kids to learn about their culture.”
Tsaroucha and the Hellenic School staff create an atmosphere unlike any other Hungarian classroom. Here, desks are neatly lined up in each room surrounded by posters of the Greek alphabet, paintings of Greek war heroes, and photos of Greek presidents. Maps of Greece and its islands are tacked onto each wall. In the long hallway, the younger children have taped up their blue crayon drawings of the Greek flag. Each one is signed with a name like Dimitris, Nikos, Eleni, or Katerina.
For Voula Avgouropoulou, a trained classical pianist, teaching these young Greeks about Greek culture is very dear to her heart. She spends her weekends teaching music at the center.
“There are traditional instruments that we teach like bouzouki, toumberleki, and guitar as well as singing and learning our folk songs,” says Avgouropoulou who, like Nakos, came to Budapest as a university student. She was accepted at the Liszt Ferenc Music Academy after completing piano studies at the Classical Conservatory in Athens. Just like Nakos, she quickly fell in love with Budapest’s architecturally romantic charm. Eventually she also fell in love with a Hungarian and married. She continues to stay active in the Greek community, helping to start the music school through the support of the municipality five years ago.
“The music school is just one of the many goals and projects we all would like to see really take off here. For example, we also want to renovate this building and eventually we’d like to have an amphitheater. They are expensive plans which we realize are ambitious in the middle of a crisis,” she says.
In the meantime, Avgouropoulou connects her fellow Greeks through a community magazine she edits. Called Ellinismos, it was launched in 2009. “It is eighty per cent in Greek and twenty per cent in Hungarian. We write about our events, we keep up with celebrations and local elections. We feature articles on Greek wine or food and interview folks from the smaller Greek communities in the countryside.”
Budapest–where Avgouropoulou is now raising her two young children, Marcos and Thanos–still claims the largest Greek community in Hungary. “I want my kids to speak Greek, It is so important to me that there are Greek families here to help influence them. My three-year-old speaks two different languages: Greek with me, Hungarian with my husband,” she says. “When I first came here, I was surprised how the Greeks in Budapest really keep all the things that make them feel Greek. So we are quite active, we try to keep the customs. In comparison to back in Greece I feel like Athenians don’t keep the customs quite the same way like we do here. Here, there is a truly deep appreciation for our culture. For myself, I love that I can hear my language right here in Hungary, hear my music. That’s how I feel connected.”
Budapest has a number of Greek restaurants including Dionysos, Zorbas, Pireaus Taverna Rembetiko, Gyradiko, and Knossos Taverna that are run by members of the Greek community. Avgouropoulou says Greeks also attend a Russian Orthodox Church called Evangelismos Theotokou. A small, makeshift Greek Orthodox Church called the Chapel of Saint Stefanos and Hierotheos holds services inside of a flat located in the posh and centrally located street, Vati Utca.
Besides the self-government association, numerous groups meet in the city to celebrate their Greek ties. These groups include the Cultural Association of the Greeks of Hungary, the Association of Greek Youth of Hungary, the Organization of the Greek Ladies of Budapest, the Cultural Society ‘Karyatides’, and the Greek Traditional Dance Association ‘Chelidonaki.’ Many take an active role in participating Budapest’s public cultural events.
“What makes our Greek diaspora different is that it’s a part of our identity to be Greek. Like every different nationality, we have some special characteristics. I believe it is big to have the kind of past we share,” says Avgouropoulou. She takes a long pause before she continues. “I can’t really express to you exactly what I mean by this. I don’t know many people who would be shy or ashamed about Greek culture and our past. We emphasize our Greekness even in a place like Hungary where it can be challenging to be a foreigner.”
Like Avgouropoulou, Nakos is raising two young kids with a Hungarian spouse and sees a culturally-rich future for them in Hungary.
“I came here in my adulthood so I feel Greek by definition still…but this Greekness will be question for my kids. They will be living here and speaking like a native yet they have Greek names. Here in Hungary I think they’ll be exotic because these very names will set them apart but they will also be a catalyst to what wakes up their identities. I believe the next step is to be proud of it, understand yourself and why you are different; it’s the same I believe for every minority.” He continues to describe a feeling that he believes has united the Greek-Hungarian community together after several generations, a feeling he is all too familiar with himself.
“There must be a place inside of our souls because it is just enough to know that maybe just your grand dad is Greek. When you are young it may not be so important but if you grow up to go abroad and you are of Greek heritage, you truly see there are these special differences in you.”