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Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus
Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York
Author of
THE MYTH OF MENTAL ILLNESS and some 25 books

George Washington Award
American Hungarian Foundation
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
New York City
November 11, 2003

President Mr. Molnar, members of the Board of Directors of the American Hungarian Foundation, Ambassador Simonyi, ladies and gentlemen:

I deeply appreciate the honor of receiving the American Hungarian Foundation's George Washington Award and wish to express my heartfelt thanks to President Molnar and the Board of Directors of the Foundation for the recognition it betokens.

Of all the honors I have received, this one strikes emotional cords untouched by others. I spent the first eighteen and a half years of my life in Hungary, and the next sixty-five years in the United States. I arrived in America at the end of October, 1938, in Hoboken, New Jersey, not far from where I now stand. I am Hungarian. I am American. I am both. I am neither. Who we are depends on how we and others define our identity.

As a youth in Hungary, I wrote poetry and wanted to be a writer. Later, a fellow ex-patriate, the psychoanalyst Sandor Feldman, told me that one of the definitions of a Hungarian -- as you know, there are many -- goes like this: A Hungarian is a citizen of a country of 8 million people and 9 million poets. (Those were pre-war figures.)

As an adult, I came to realize that only as bodies do we live in physical space. As persons, we live in linguistic space. This is why a country, a political entity, is a matter of geography, but a nation, a social entity, is a matter of language.

The immigrant who wants to live in a new language, not just speak it, must let a part of himself die. The self generated by and through the new language is a radically new self. Refusal to learn the majority language is existential self-preservation or self-mutilation, depending on the immigrant's point of view. I did not know this when I was eighteen, but I felt it. I was deeply attached to the Hungarian language, which I loved with the intensity and naivete typical of children educated in the best Gimnaziums in Budapest in the 1930s.

Luckily, necessity is the mother not only of invention but also of adjustment. So, like most immigrants, I learned English and came to love it more than I think I ever loved Hungarian. In short, my coming to America, when and how I came, was a piece of incredible good luck, a fact of which I was well aware intellectually. At the same time, it was also, linguistically, an exceptionally traumatic experience, which I felt deeply.

I feel particularly fortunate, then, not only for having been able to leave Hungary when I did, escaping the dark decades my homeland was facing, but also for having had the opportunity to be reborn, as it were, into the American-English language. "The United States themselves," wrote Walt Whitman, "are essentially the greatest poem." What other country's national poet would characterize his homeland in such terms?

Thank you.

Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility:
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