Unspoken suffering of Hungarian Jewish immigrants in the shadow of COVID-19

May 15, 2020 Center for Cooperative Media

By Laszlo Bartus, Amerikai Nepszava

Editor’s note: This is the English translation of the original story, which was first published in Hungarian by Amerikai Nepszava. This version has been updated and edited, with permission from the author(s) and publisher(s), for length and clarity.

Note: The current COVID19 outbreak has provoked social stigma in the Hungarian community, as evidenced by the interviews in this story. For safety purposes, all names have been kept confidential.

NEW JERSEY — The man, a Hungarian undocumented immigrant, is a carpenter. He used to work for a Hungarian family in Teaneck, NJ, one of the most affected places in the state. But in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, he had lost his job.

His wife is asthmatic. Because she is more likely vulnerable to the virus, she has been in quarantine with their two young daughters. He says his wife and their daughters only go out in the evening to walk around on their roof deck. 

He has not seen his wife and their children for eight weeks now. 

But despite the health risks, he needs to earn a living. He has been supporting himself and his family off his savings, which he knows won’t last for a long time. He feels lucky when he gets smaller jobs from other Hungarian Jewish families. 

He can’t help not to worry about his health. Two of his Hungarian friends have died from COVID-19, and he knows several people who are still in the hospital. 

Unfortunately, he is not eligible for the federal stimulus fund. But his daughters are all U.S.-born citizens. He thinks his daughters should get at least $500 each, which would be a huge help for the family. 

The problem: he doesn’t know how to claim these funds for their young kids without disclosing his immigration status. 

A community not taking the virus seriously

In Lakewood, NJ, Hungarians—many of whom are Orthodox Jewish families—work and help each other. 

But they do not take social restrictions seriously. For a while, many were still operating school buses, until the local police forced it to stop.

Then, some Jewish families have started to illegally operate a school in private houses. They have attended services at a synagogue, gathering in large numbers and violating social distancing rules. 

Many don’t even wear masks. 

Orthodox Jews believe they will be protected by God, if they continue to flock to the synagogue and obey the laws. 

Dying of coronavirus

The Hungarian immigrant is a caregiver. Last month, she took care of an elderly Jewish woman, who also immigrated from Hungary. 

The Jewish woman lived by herself; for years, her daughter had not visited her. 

In late March, the woman contracted the coronavirus. Few days later, she passed away.

Now, the Hungarian caregiver has been scared. She has quarantined herself at home for two weeks. Although she has not been tested yet for the coronavirus, she experienced a high fever and body aches last month. She felt weak that she could not even eat. 

Luckily, a few weeks later, she felt a lot better.

She believes that many Hungarians have most likely caught the coronavirus. but almost no one has been tested.

“Some Jewish won’t disclose if a member of their family has contracted the virus. And this is why even Hungarian cleaning ladies or caregivers have fled from the families whom they had worked for,” she said.

Hungarian flight

Because of the severity of the situation in New York and New Jersey, the Hungarian government launched charter flights to repatriate Hungarian tourists who were stranded in the United States.

Interestingly, many Hungarian Americans and U.S. permanent residents took advantage of these flights. Many of them have also fled New York and New Jersey due to the virus. 

No one really knows, according to a community leader, when these Hungarians who had left would fly back to the United States.

“Actually, only Jewish elderly men die, according to reports,” said a Jewsh woman who, before the pandemic, was running guided tours for Hungarian visitors in New Jersey. “In the end, I believe everything will be fine.”

This story was produced as part of a four-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

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