Kossuth Connection

KOSSUTH — A handful of local residents learned the story behind the name of their town from visitors making a documentary about a Hungarian freedom fighter and his impact on the United States.

A crowd gathered at Kossuth Zion United Methodist Church and were regaled with tales about Louis Kossuth — the man whom the town of Kossuth is named. Kossuth was a Hungarian freedom fighter who launched a bid for independence against the Austrians in 1848.

“This war of independence was defeated by the Austrians and the Russians,” film maker Tamas Szeles told The Evening Leader, noting Kossuth led the effort. “He immigrated to London and lived there and the president invited him to the United States in 1851, and he spent a half a year here.”

After accepting President Millard Fillmore’s invitation, Kossuth traveled the country giving speeches as a way to garner support for another bid for independence in Hungary. During his trek, Kossuth earned a reputation as an excellent speaker, Szeles said.

“It was a kind of fundraising because he was hoping he had another possibility to renew the war against the Austrians at home, but he needed some money,” Szeles said. “He earned some money, but not as much as he expected and at the end of half a year, he went home.”

To chronicle Kossuth’s impact on the United States, Szeles and three members of his crew are touring the country and visiting sites named in Kossuth’s honor. The crew’s trek brought them to the Auglaize County town Tuesday afternoon. After touring Kossuth, the delegation spoke at the church about their project.

“This is the 160th anniversary of when he came here,” Szeles said, noting he is a television journalist for a public access station in Debrecen. “In the first part, we will show the larger cities or towns he visited. Then the other part, we will show to the Hungarian public what remained — street names and city names ... There are at least six or seven other smaller towns like this named for him.”

There are statues of Kossuth in Los Angeles and Cleveland and he has a big presence in Columbus. Szeles said Kossuth also has a bust in the Capitol building —  one of only two foreigners to have the honor.

During their visits, Szeles said he asks Americans what they know about Kossuth and Hungary. He noted there are some pockets of Hungarian-Americans in the country who have researched Kossuth — which helped steer their journey. Szeles said Kossuth’s legacy in Hungarian history is as important as some of the Founding Fathers in America.

“That was a very important revolution in the history of Hungary,” Szeles said. “That was the awakening of the Hungarians ... I would say he was probably the most important figure in this war.”

Like the Founding Fathers in America, Szeles said Kossuth’s name also resonates an important theme to Hungarians.

“If we are talking about freedom and we look to somebody in connection with freedom, we would say this is Louis Kossuth,” Szeles said. “Kossuth had some very good speeches here in America and that’s why he was loved here.”

Kossuth’s impact on the Auglaize County town is visible to any visitor of the church. His portrait, donated by a previous Hungarian delegation, hangs in the church’s vestibule with a plaque under his likeness.

The film is expected to be aired at the end of the summer. Szeles said he plans to produce a bilingual DVD for distribution.

Lyle Sandkuhl said the attention lavished upon the town of less than 100 by the delegation is unique.

“It’s kind of nice to realize some of the history why this town was named after someone like Louis Kossuth,” Sandkuhl told The Evening Leader. “There must be quite some interest over in Hungary to find out about what he did when he was here.”

While in town, Sandkuhl hosted the delegation on a tour of Sandkuhl Clay Works, the grave of a Native American woman doctor and the township hall. He also showed the delegation photographs of what Kossuth looked like in the 19th century.

Also helping host the delegation was Arthur Allan Bartfay of Columbus. Bartfay has researched Kossuth’s life extensively and made several trips to the Auglaize County town as part of his presentations.

“I’ve kind of built up over the years an interest in it,” Bartfay said. “He was a visionary who at the time when there was a United States of America — the only Democracy in the world and yet he wanted to create a United States of Hungary, which would allow different language regions in Hungary to become like states.”

Bartfay said he believes the fact Kossuth spoke English and German helped him gain the admiration of Americans. Bartfay also touted his skills as a speaker who espoused the importance of freedom.

“The fact that at a time when Europe was ruled by kings and kaisers and czars and emperors, where was someone who wanted to have a United States of Hungary,” Bartfay said. “His mission failed — he did raise $2,000 in Columbus to support having a revolution and continue having a revolution. Columbus had 18,000 people at the time. Now we are close to 800,000. In the city hall, we have a plaque that says some of the things he said when he spoke to the legislature in 1852.”

More than 100 years after his death, Kossuth’s impact in Hungary remains strong.

“His face is on Hungarian money,” Bartfay said. “He’s one of the leaders. Certainly he’s remember because he lived a long life — 91 years.”

After its trip to Kossuth, the delegation headed to Cleveland. Szeles said in all, the group will spend six weeks in the United States compiling footage for the film before heading home.