Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Hungarians in U.S. react sharply to Thomas Peterffy's TV ad

If you have watched television at all in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen the ad with black-and-white images of people standing in a soup line, a tattered American flag, and the voice of Thomas Peterffy, cautioning against the “slippery slope” to Socialism.

“I grew up in a Socialist country, and I have seen what that does to people. There is no hope, no freedom, no pride in achievement,” Mr. Peterffy, a native of Hungary, says in the commercial. “The nation became poorer and poorer, and that’s what I see happening here.”

Mr. Peterffy’s ad, which is running in several states, including Ohio, and which encourages voters to choose Republican candidates, has garnered considerable attention. He is reportedly spending between $5 million and $10 million on the ad buy.

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Among local Hungarian-Americans, however, Mr. Peterffy’s views are far from universal.

Peter Ujvagi, a prominent Toledo Democrat and a native of Hungary, said he takes issue with several of the claims in the ad.

“I don’t take away from Mr. Peterffy his success and how he spends his money. But I disagree with his characterization of people in Hungary and his characterization of the current political process in the United States,” he said.

Mr. Ujvagi, a fixture in local politics for several decades, is interim Lucas County administrator and previously served as a Toledo city councilman and in the Ohio House of Representatives.

From 1989 to 1993, Mr. Ujvagi was chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party.

“Taking consideration and providing care for the least of us is not a Socialist concept, it is an American concept,” Mr. Ujvagi said.

Furthermore, he disagrees with Mr. Peterffy’s portrayal of Hungarians under Soviet rule, Mr. Ujvagi said.

“I cannot tell you how hard people worked under the worst circumstances of Socialism. To say they didn’t work hard, or try hard, or have hope, is just not accurate. And what’s being done in the U.S. is far from Socialism.”

Mr. Ujvagi lived in Budapest as a child, arriving in the United States in June, 1957, at the age of 8. His family fled Hungary after the 1956 revolt that was crushed by the Soviets. It took three attempts for his family to escape successfully.

The first time they were caught at the border and sent back to Budapest in locked train cars. When they finally escaped into Austria on Christmas Eve, 1956, they spent six months in a refugee camp before coming to America.

More than 200,000 refugees fled Hungary in the months after the 1956 uprising. More than 300 of them settled in the Toledo area. Many, like Mr. Ujvagi’s family, settled in the east-side neighborhood of Birmingham, which already had a strong Hungarian presence.

Mr. Peterffy told The Blade Friday his thinking behind creating the ad was this: “We are in a circumstance currently where a great many people rely on the government,” he said, saying he was referring to programs such as food stamps and unemployment compensation.

His is the classic immigrant success story. He arrived in America, speaking no English, and became a billionaire. He is the founder and head of Interactive Brokers, an online brokerage firm in Greenwich, Conn.

He also stated that he has paid about $1.9 billion in income taxes in his lifetime.

“The idea that rich people aren’t paying their fair share ... is just simply hogwash,” he said Friday from Connecticut.

“America’s wealth comes from the efforts of people striving for success. Take away their incentive with bad-mouthing success and you take away the wealth that helps us take care of the needy,” he says in the ad.

Hungarian-born Americans say that they are a politically diverse group.

“If you look at wealthy Hungarians who have been involved politically, you have on one side George Soros, who has supported Democratic politics for a number of years, and now you have Thomas Peterffy. That pretty much shows where Hungarian people are now,” said the Rev. Imre Bertalan, executive director of the Bethlen Home in Ligonier, Pa., a retirement community with ties to the Hungarian Reformed Church tradition.

Mr. Bertalan is the former pastor of Calvin United Church of Christ in East Toledo.

During the Eisenhower years Hungarian-Americans tended to vote Republican, but there’s less cohesion now, Mr. Bertalan said.

“I’m an independent. I’ve tended to vote more Democratic, but I also vote for Republicans,” he said. “You can’t put us on one side or the other.”

Alexander Josza Bodnar, owner of the Josza Corner Hungarian restaurant in Hazelwood, Pa., hasn’t seen the TV ad but identifies with Mr. Peterffy.

At age 14, he fled Hungary on foot through minefields as the Soviets crushed the 1956 uprising. A political conservative, he distrusts all government and is just as concerned about coddling of industrial polluters as he is about what he regards as a long moral decline into personal irresponsibility.

“We live in a very complex world. Thomas Peterffy has seen and I have seen what happens when you live under five different -isms. It gives you a very different awareness that a lot of people who haven’t seen those things wouldn’t understand,” he said.

Jonathan Naser, a sophomore studying Hungarian at the University of Pittsburgh, has seen Mr. Peterffy’s ad. “I was disappointed that he compared the horrors of Communist Hungary to the current Democratic administration,” he said.

This summer Mr. Naser, who is from Canonsburg, Pa., went on a Reconnect Hungary trip to explore his heritage. An Obama supporter, he doesn’t believe that western-style Socialism is comparable to Communist totalitarianism.

He suspects that most Hungarian-Americans “might be a bit left of center due to our shared history of oppression in Hungary and even the discrimination faced in the early 20th-century America,” he said.

Toledoan Hilde Daugherty, 60, was born in the United States to Hungarian parents who immigrated in 1951.

“When I heard that ad — I heard that voice with the broken Hungarian accent — it sounded just like my father. I dropped what I was doing.” Ms. Daugherty said the ad struck her as very sincere and heartfelt.

“It didn’t appear to be a political thing; it seemed to be genuine concern for our country,” said Ms. Daugherty, who is active in the Toledo-Szeged Committee, a sister-cities partnership between Toledo and Szeged, Hungary, that encourages cultural exchanges between the two communities.

“I agree with Mr. Peterffy,” she said. “What he’s saying, I think it has some value.”

Elizabeth Balint of Toledo, who arrived in the United States from Hungary in 1989, said she disagrees with the ad and finds it misleading.

“Everyone who wants to do something in America, [can do it]. If anyone wants to start a business, he can do it. The land of opportunity [in America] still exists,” she said. “Regardless of Obama or whoever. If you look for opportunities, they exist.”

Added Mr. Ujvagi, “I’m very, very proud of what my family has accomplished here. But I don’t have $5 million or $10 million to put my views on TV.”

Ann Rodgers of the Block News Alliance contributed to this report. The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ms. Rodgers is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6091 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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