Details of windows at St. Ladislaus Church, in New Brunswick (above), and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Woodbridge (below).

Detail of window at St. Ladislaus Church, in New Brunswick, designed by Asztrik Kákonyi.

Ego sum, wrote Michael Kováts, libertate et natione Hungarica praeditus. But the facts seemed at variance with that proud introduction. As his letter went on to reveal, the 52-year-old Kováts had a record of long service to foreign powers, principally the king of Prussia, where despite a noble lineage he had been compelled to enroll in the army as a raw recruit. Through harsh discipline he had risen to be a captain in the Free Hussars, a light cavalry unit that took its uniform, tactics and name from his native Hungary. Nevertheless, Kováts faced strict limits on his vaunted liberty and, when he finally resigned his post and returned to his homeland, he was beset with personal and financial problems. Now, at the start of 1777, he was in France seeking a new employer, and not a European one.

The Hussar captain’s letter was destined for Benjamin Franklin, newly arrived in Paris to represent American interests in Europe. Preparing to embark from Bordeaux for the United States, Kováts touted his skill in training and equipment of recruits, and avowed his fearlessness, tirelessness and impatience to live and die for the cause of American liberty. With a flourish and a perilous pledge, he signed himself Fidelissimus ad mortem, Michaël Kováts de Fabricÿ.[1] 

We cannot be sure whether this letter secured the passport and introduction to Congress that he wanted, but we know that Kováts sailed in February, and in May was duly presented at the headquarters of General Washington in Morristown, New Jersey.

George Washington already had reservations about foreign volunteers as officers, and his first impression of the man was not positive. Kováts, who addressed the general through an interpreter (probably in German), had great trouble making himself understood.  But the language barrier was not what troubled Washington most about the use of foreign adventurers with “no attachment or ties to the country, further than interest binds them.”  In his experience, American-born officers and privates resented such men being placed over them, seeing little reason to respect their authority.[2]  Kováts’s origin was not his sole handicap: the American army then made scant use of mounted troops, and a trainer of cavalry, however capable, had little hope of finding a position. A week after his meeting with Washington, Congress notified Kováts that it had no need of his services.[3] 

Determined to prove his loyalty “unto death,” Kováts joined and helped to train a company of mostly ethnic Germans fighting beside the regular army. George Washington’s estimation of Kováts’s usefulness rose sufficiently to consent to his appointment as “exercise master” of a new unit commanded by another self-exiled nobleman, the dashing young Polish Count Kazimierz Pułaski.[4]  Through the summer of 1778 Kováts recruited and readied Pułaski’s Legion for combat. The following spring, the regiment made a long march to South Carolina where on May 11, 1779, in fulfillment of his vow and his express desire, Kováts was killed in the British advance on Charleston.

As the first Hungarian known to have made a stand for American liberty, Michael Kováts foreshadowed large migrations of his countrymen seeking economic and political freedom in the United States. By using Latin to tender his services, he recalled a part of his national identity several centuries old. Hungarians, encircled by languages unrelated to their own, had long relied on Latin as a bridge to the West and a bulwark against the domination of other tongues. Latin remained the kingdom’s sole language of official use until the 1840s, continuing thereafter in monumental settings, and Hungarian Americans, more perhaps than any other immigrant group, inclined to its use for the evocation of characters and events from their history.

In the 1900s, New Jersey received significant influxes of Hungarians. Tens of thousands arrived at the turn of the century, establishing enclaves across the state but most notably in and around the manufacturing hubs of Middlesex County: Perth Amboy, South River, and especially the city of New Brunswick. Wherever they settled, they fostered the growth of important social, educational and religious institutions. After a Soviet-led invasion crushed the revolution of 1956, thousands more arrived as refugees to be processed at a Middlesex County army post, Camp Kilmer.


Detail of window at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, in Woodbridge, the work of the Hiemer glass studio in Clifton.

Cold War politics seem only to have heightened interest among Hungarian Americans in their history and homeland. The church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Woodbridge, built in 1960, portrayed Hungary’s royal saints with Latin names and titles on both its exterior sculptures and the splendid New Jersey-crafted glass inside. On Somerset Street in New Brunswick, the heart of that city’s once thriving Hungarian quarter, the Church of Saint Ladislaus was transformed into a national shrine, each window a page in Hungary’s rich and often tragic history. Cardinal József Mindszenty, the exiled arch-enemy of the Communist government in Budapest, officiated at its 1973 rededication. A tablet of somber bronze, easily overlooked amid the soft pastels of stained glass, remembers the event in a long and elegant Latin text that explicitly connects the upheavals of the past to the church’s foundation and subsequent renovation.[5] 

Another plaque, inscribed mostly in English and Hungarian, appears on a stone brought from Camp Kilmer to the corner of Somerset and Plum Streets, to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the failed 1956 revolution. Memories of the uprising were then less vivid but their expression, beginning with the words GLORIA VICTIS, is still poignant. So, too, is the memorial erected to those who died in American wars of the twentieth century by members of Perth Amboy’s Hungarian Reformed Church. The granite monument (in Calvary Cemetery, Woodbridge Township) invokes the name of Michael Kováts, and his vow to remain FIDELISSIMUS AD MORTEM.

New accents have replaced the distinctive sounds of the Hungarian language formerly heard in many of these places, but the assimilation of once thriving Hungarian communities has not erased the record of their tragedies and triumphs preserved in stone, bronze and glass.

Copyright © 2012 by Gregory J. Guderian

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Bulletin of the New Jersey Classical Association, Fall 2012, page 4 (.pdf).

^ 1]  Kováts’s four-page letter, with the verse epigraph Aurea Libertas fulvo non venditur auro, is preserved among the collected papers of Franklin (LXX, 88) at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. A postscript asks forgiveness for his choice of Latin: cum enim expedite Gallice vel Anglice necdum sciam, necessitor Latine vel Germanice scribere.  ^ 2]  Washington to Richard Henry Lee, Morristown, May 17, 1777. ^ 3]  Continental Congress, Transcript journals, May 23, 1777. ^ 4]  Washington to Pułaski, January 14, 1778.        ^ 5]  The rededication plaque describes the church in these words: AEDIFICIUM HOC … PIIS PARVULISQUE ELEEMOSYNIS | HUNGARORUM LITORIBUS AMERICAE | SEPTENTRIONALIS VERTENTE SAECULO MIGRANTIUM … ERECTUM … MUNIFCENTISSIMIS DONIS | AB EORUNDEM HUNGARORUM FILIIS FILIABUSQUE | NEC<N>ON AB ALIIS HUNGARIS | E PATRIA TAM BELLA ET AMATA | VIOLENTER EXPULSIS VEL MAESTE FUGITIVIS | LIBERE GRATOQUE ANIMO OBLATIS | RESTAURATUM ORNATUMQUE.

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