Hungarians on US stamps

by Derick Pasternak

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My father was an amateur stamp collector in Hungary.  He turned his hobby into a profession in the United States, eventually becoming Vice President of Scott Auction Galleries in charge of all stamp auctions.  He encouraged me to invest in postage stamps, which I did with variable success.  However, it also stimulated my interest in the hobby, which includes among other things stamps of Hungary and stamps with Hungarian relevance (Hungarica).  A few years ago I contributed several articles on the latter subject to the quarterly journal Stamps of Hungary, published by the Society for Hungarian Philately.  Perhaps readers of the Hírek are interested to know that the U.S. has issued as many as 13 stamps with Hungarian relevance, generally about Hungarians who made their home (or in one case, visited) the U.S.

It all started in 1947, with a stamp honoring Joseph Pulitzer, the journalist and publisher, born in Makó, who arrived in the US at the age of 17.  In addition to his journalistic exploits, which included endowing Columbia University with the Pulitzer Prize, he was also a U.S. Congressman from New York.

The next honorand only visited once, in 1851-52.  It was Lajos Kossuth, the second foreign-born person ever to address the U.S. Congress, which he did in English (he learned the language by reading Shakespeare while in an Austrian prison and became a formidable orator in English).  The issuance of two Kossuth stamps in 1958 as part of the “Champions of Liberty” series created a diplomatic incident, in that the Kádár regime considered the issuance as a provocation and refused to allow any letters franked with either of these stamps into Hungary. 

It took another 34 years before one of the “Martians” (Hungarian nuclear and aerospace physicists), Theodore von Kármán, appeared on a U.S. stamp in 1992.  Born in Budapest, Kármán emigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1930, because he foresaw the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis. He was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech and the first Chair of the Scientific Advisory Group to the U.S. military.

In 1997 it was the turn of two musicians.  George Széll, of the Cleveland Symphony, and Eugene Ormándy, of the Philadelphia Orchestra, were two of eight conductors or composers honored on a set of eight stamps hanging together on a “mini-sheet,” which became popular among post offices of the world, among them the US, that started milking collectors with their ever increasing “topical” issues.

Then came the mini-sheet of five horror movie stars (four each in a sheet of 20), among them, of course, Béla Lugosi. He was born Béla Draskó in the village of Lugos, now Lugoj, Romania.  After his success in the movies as Count Dracula, he became typecast and was often paired with Boris Karloff in horror films of various caliber.  He never lost his strong accent, which limited his opportunities in other types of films, despite his ambition.

Two Hungarian-Americans were honored in 2002.  André (Andor) Kertész was already a renowned photographer in Paris when he and his new wife relocated in the US in 1933.  Among a mini-sheet honoring photographers, we find one photo by Kertész as well.  Harry Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest. He came to America in 1878 and when his family fell into poverty, he discovered his talent for magic acts.  While he is best remembered for his daring escape tricks, he had other abilities: one of his most spectacular acts was to manage the disappearance of an elephant.  He was also President of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death in 1926.

Back to the mini-sheets in 2005, we find John von Neumann in one on them. Born in Budapest, von Neumann was another of the “Martians.”  A world-class mathematician, he worked on the Manhattan Project and was Professor at Princeton University.  As a minor aside, he and several other to-be-famous Hungarians graduated from the Fasor Lutheran Gimnazium; the author of this article attended one year of elementary school there, before the Communist regime shut it down.

While this list completes honorands born in Hungary, there is one more person of interest to be mentioned.  Edna Ferber, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was born in the US, but her father Jacob had immigrated from Hungary.  She published 13 novels, several short stories and plays and had many of them turned into films.  Two different Ferber portraits are part of a Distinguished Americans pictorial set of 14 so-called “regular issue” stamps issued between 2000 and 2009.

I conclude this article by referring to a man who was not Hungarian.  He graduated from an American University, but that was not the reasons for the stamp, not for his honorary American citizenship. His efforts as a Swedish diplomat that saved thousands of Jewish Hungarians during World War II earned him world renown, but somehow the enmity of the Soviet Union.  Among many countries, including Hungary more than once, the United States honored Raoul Wallenberg with a postage stamp in 1997, the 50th anniversary year of his death in Soviet prison.           

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