István Deák, Beloved Columbia History Professor, Dies at 96

He was a deeply respected scholar and an icon for younger generations in both Hungary and the United States.

Professor István Deák at a conference in 2013. Photo: American Hungarian Educators Association

István Deák, the charismatic professor of history at Columbia University and grand old man of the New York Hungarian community, died last week in Paso Robles, California. He was 96.

“He was an institution,” said Krisztián Ungváry, one of Hungary’s best-known historians, when I reached him for comment.

Born in 1926 to an assimilated Hungarian Jewish family, he enjoyed an upper-middle-class childhood in Budapest until Nazi Germany’s invasion of Hungary in March 1944 upended his life. As an eighteen-year-old, he was drafted into a forced labor unit set up for Jewish Hungarian men. He worked building railroad tracks in northern Transylvania, and ironically the labor unit offered him some protection from deportation to concentration camps.

When Romania later switched to the Allies’ side and attacked Hungary, his division quickly retreated to Budapest, where he hid until the Soviets liberated the city in early 1945. Following the brief post-war euphoria, he watched as the Soviet-led Hungarian Communist Party stole the elections of 1947 and gradually turned the country into a one-party police state. István managed to escape to France just before the Eastern Bloc closed its borders.

In Paris, he studied history at Sorbonne, then worked in Munich for Radio Free Europe, the United States funded anti-communist broadcast news network. Reflecting the strange new geopolitical realities of the Cold War, he noticed with alarm that his colleagues included former SS soldiers and Nazi collaborators. Worse, when the Communist intelligence caught wind of his activities, they evicted his parents from their Budapest home, settling them in an impoverished village in eastern Hungary. In 1956, he emigrated to the United States where he earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University and started teaching there in 1964.

István’s research focused on 19th and 20th-century Central and East Central Europe, publishing monographs about the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (The Lawful Revolution) and the political history of the Habsburg officer corps (Beyond Nationalism). He wrote regularly for the The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

“Despite the horrors he went through in WWII, these experiences never clouded his judgment,” said Krisztián Ungváry. “He always remained objective,” wrote Ignác Romsics, the prominent historian. “In his first book, Lawful Revolution, he sidestepped the issue that split local Hungarian historians and instead presented a balanced account with far-reaching implications.”

His last book, Europe on Trial, published in 2013, is an illuminating read about World War II collaborators, resistance fighters, and the often thin margin between the two. He was fascinated by the endless paradoxes and ambiguities in Eastern European history and warned against drawing easy conclusions. “If the resisters chose co-operation, at least in certain questions, with the (German-supported) national administration, they risked being branded as traitors by other, more radical, often Communist-inspired resistance movements.”

He was elegant, charming, and witty, and people naturally gravitated to him. Tall with wavy silver hair and high cheekbones, he cut a dashing figure well into his 90s. Despite having left Hungary as a young man, he spoke the language beautifully and felt deeply connected to the culture. A folk song could bring him to tears and even in old age he regularly visited the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue because, he claimed, their Rigó Jancsi chocolate cake was the best in the world.

István Deák in Paso Robles, California, during an interview for the Memory Project in 2019. Photo: Barna Szász / [Memory Project](
István Deák in Paso Robles, California, during an interview for the Memory Project in 2019. Photo: Barna Szász / Memory Project

Of course, he was far from a nationalist. He knew very well that every Hungarian authority and civil servant cooperated in the deportation of the half-a-million Hungarian Jews during WWII. Even midwives, he would say, who were asked to go to the railroad stations and search women’s private parts for hidden jewels. With the murdering of Jews and the post-war expulsion of German minorities, he believed, Central and Eastern Europe took an enormous step backward – economically, socially, and culturally.

In 1977, he advised the Carter White House in connection with the return of the Holy Crown to Hungary. The relic had been confiscated by American troops in World War II and stored in Fort Knox, Arizona. “In my opinion, and in that of the Hungarians I know, (whether in America or at home), the Crown has no place in the United States… It belongs to the Hungarian nation, whatever its form of government,” he wrote to National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Next year, he was part of the American delegation in Budapest, alongside Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, that handed over the crown.

As a professor and director of the Institute on East Central Europe, he paved the way for countless Hungarian researchers, intellectuals, and democratic politicians behind the Iron Curtain to spend a semester on scholarship at Columbia. In about 1990, he initiated a monthly get-together for Hungarian intellectuals living in New York. “I always looked forward to the lively conversation at these meetings, gently presided over by István,” remembered András Koerner, the prominent scholar of Jewish cuisine.

He was 85 and an intellectual giant when I met him, but was generous with his attention and unfailingly supportive. “I learned a great deal and even had a couple of good chuckles,” he responded after one of my first published articles. “You’re a real journalist!” Years later, when my reporting on Brooklyn’s Hungarian Hasidic Community received outsize attention, he dropped me a note: “Your piece is a great success.”

With his own and his wife Gloria’s declining health, he spent the last few years in Paso Robles, California under the generous care of his daughter, Eva. He was immensely grateful to her and kept up his spirits, but he dearly missed his beloved New York. “It’s like moving from Budapest to Kiskunlacháza,” he wrote to me with his characteristic humor.

Like others, I nagged him for years to write his memoirs but he pushed back, saying he didn’t have anything interesting to say. He finally got to it a few years ago and by the time of his death he had a near-complete draft, which is expected to be published in Hungarian later this year. It’s a sweeping first-person narrative viewed through the broader context of history – a mandatory reading to anyone interested in understanding Hungary’s past and present. (Update: István's memoir, "Maratoni életem," was published in the summer of 2023 and it's available in bookstores across Hungary.)