The history of the Hungarian people suggests that they have always had nomadic tendencies. In fact, historical records suggest that the first Hungarians (or Magyar) had migrated across Asia to eventually settle in the Danube valley in 896 AD. The Hungarian people were distinct from their Slavic and Germanic neighbors in culture and language. While this is an extreme minimization of the epic history of the Hungarian people, it does serve as an analogy for their eventual settlement in Franklin, New Jersey. In this small town in Northern New Jersey, a group of Hungarians were able to form a small community which, for a time at least, kept alive the culture, language and traditions of their home across the world.
Like their ancestors of old, modern Hungarians began moving out to new lands to discover new opportunities. Travel to and settlement in Franklin was no different. The opening of the zinc mine by the New Jersey Zinc Company at Franklin Furnace in New Jersey (the largest zinc deposit in the world) offered a chance for immigrants from many different nations to find work and create a foot-hold on a new life. Many who settled in Franklin planned to stay and begin building new lives. Others, hoping to return to their homelands with greater wealth and prosperity, worked and then eventually left. This ebb and flow of immigrant population was normal in the early days of Franklin and would persist until the decline of the zinc industry in the 1960s. The first major disruption however came much earlier.
The First World War disrupted the plans for many Hungarians. What was once one of the largest nations in Europe became divided in 1920 to become one-fourth of its original size under the Treaty of Trianon. Many Hungarians suddenly found themselves as minority groups in surrounding countries as the borders became redrawn. For the worker in Franklin, this posed a new problem and choice – stay established in America and try to bring family here, or return home to friends and loved ones in a changed (or even new) nation.
“Following the First World War, after the dismembering of the Hungarian nation … the Hungarian in America did not want to return to the land of his birth. The pioneer Hungarian was able to cope with the situation in the stone quarry, in the coal and iron mines, [and] by the blast furnace… The Hungarian through his sweat and blood, and the sacrifice of his life helped to fashion his country of America into a powerful and rich nation.” Makár p.19
While heavy on the poetic prose, this statement by writer János Makár echoes the determination felt by many immigrants in their steadfast resolve to stay in America and make the best of their newly adopted home.
For Hungarians still in Europe, the choice was parallel but opposite. They could continue on and live within the newly drawn lines of nationalities, living as a minority group reflected in culture and language, or venture forth to new lands and opportunities as others have before. Many chose to leave for other lands and sought out enclaves where Hungarians had already been established. Along with New Brunswick and Garfield, Franklin, New Jersey saw a steady ebb and flow in its Hungarian population.
This pattern would continue in the following decades. The normal ebb and flow of population returned until disruption by World War II. The aftermath of the war saw another influx of refugees fleeing the remnants war and strife. Some fled the destruction, some the Nazis and others later the Soviets and the imposition of communism. The fallout from the failed Hungarian Revolution in 1956 against the Soviet backed communist government saw one of the last major influxes of Hungarian immigrants to the United States.
Yet for Franklin, and its Hungarian community, it was the faltering mining industry that lead to the decline of its Hungarian population. By the mid 60s, the New Jersey Zinc Company had been sold off and the need for miners dwindled. The jobs that helped establish the small mining encampment that began in 1757 and saw it grow to a full fledged town in the early 20th century with its own hospital and school, were disappearing, leaving a town with little to no industry outside of mining.
The life of the Hungarian Reformed Church of Franklin itself also reflected the rise and fall of the Hungarians in the community. The church, which had begun with a small following in 1909, had grown by to be a major fixture of the community by the 1930s. The church had been able to prosper and expand its services to its membership, due in large part to sponsorship by the New Jersey Zinc Company. Yet as the New Jersey Zinc Company left, so did the support. The church, which eventually became just a footnote in the history of the town, was closed and the building slowly began to decay.
For many years the only physical evidence of the legacy of Hungarians in Franklin lay in a small display case in the Franklin Heritage Museum on Main Street. This one case, roughly three feet wide by eight feet tall houses a mélange of items including photographs, costumes, and letters donated by the ancestors of the Hungarians who had made Franklin, New Jersey their home. The case, however small, is the only one in the museum dedicated to any specific cultural group despite the fact that people from many other nationalities also found their way to Franklin in the early 20th century. This speaks to the impact, ever so brief in scope, which one culture had on the town.
Today there is a major restoration effort underway to revitalize the building which once served as the community hub of Hungarians in Franklin. In 2005, the building which was left decaying in a back lot was donated to the Franklin Historical Society. An ongoing fund raising effort has enabled the building to be moved to a new location and placed on a fresh foundation. Structural repairs are still ongoing with additional funds needed.
The Franklin Heritage Historical Society is hopeful that, as the Church becomes restored, it can again become a space for community gatherings as well as a venue to display the heritage of the Hungarian community. Until then, the legacy of Hungarians in Franklin resides in the blood of their descendants, a few fading photographs and the occasional half remembered greeting, “Jó napotkívánok!”
Molnar, August J. “Part III – Ethnography of the Franklin Hungarian People.” The Story of An Immigrant Group in Franklin New Jersey. By János Makár. New Brunswick: János Makár, 1969. 106-08. Print.