Egon Kunz

Cultural background: Hungarian

Place of origin: Budapest, Hungary

Date of arrival: 1949

Egon Kunz was born into a prominent Budapest merchant family. Two devastating events marred his childhood: his parent’s divorce and the collapse of the family business Jozsef Kunz & Company.

Egon completed his secondary studies in 1940. He was conscripted into the Hungarian army in 1943, serving in the relative tranquillity of a radar station. After the war he commenced tertiary studies.

His university years were marked by political turmoil and he was active in anti-communist student organisations. By the time he graduated in 1948 from the University of Budapest with a doctorate in literature and history, the Communist Party had seized control of the government. Three weeks after graduating, like many other Hungarians of middle class background, he fled his homeland.

As a refugee he was housed in an IRO (International Refugee Organisation) camp in Linz. He opted for Australia as his resettlement location, to be as far away from Europe and its chaos as possible. He was to become one of 170,000 ‘Displaced Persons’ (DPs) from war-ravaged Europe, who would be transformed into ‘New Australians’.

Dr Egon F Kunz arrived in Australia in July 1949 aboard the US Navy supply ship General Stewart, disembarking in Adelaide. Like nearly all DPs, his qualifications were ignored and he spent his obligatory two-year labour service in various jobs in Adelaide and Sydney. In 1951 he managed to obtain a position as a library assistant in the Mitchell Library, part of the State Library of New South Wales.

He went on to complete the diploma course in librarianship at the University of Sydney in 1954. His vision, organisation and determination impressed his superiors and he progressed to the position of Senior Librarian. He was entrusted with custodianship of some of Australia’s greatest early treasures – precious colonial maps, pictorials, manuscripts and personal items of explorers.

He introduced systematic reform, starting with his much-loved Maps and Manuscripts section and became the first person to lecture on map librarianship.

In 1953 he had married Australian Elsie Thompson, a fellow librarian who, over the decades to come, was his silent partner in authorship – typing and proof-reading his diverse range of works. She gave birth to twins Peter and Christopher in 1956, while Stephen arrived a year later.

Egon displayed his expansive general knowledge and mastery of English by becoming a champion on Bob and Dolly Dyer’s BP Pick A Box, a popular TV Quiz show, where he won for his young family a washing machine, fridge and other items, only to be eventually eliminated when he failed to answer a question about a person he later described as a “total non-entity”.

His literary career was launched in 1953 when he wrote the introductory page to the English version of the Hungarian drama classic The Tragedy of Man.

In 1955 he translated Hungarian poetry in a book of the same name and in 1959 he wrote An Annotated Bibliography of the Languages of the Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands and Nauru.

For some years he had pursued a personal interest in unearthing the story of Hungarian migration to Australia. This research bourgeoned into his thesis for a Master of Arts (honours) from Sydney University. By the time it was published in 1969 as Blood and Gold: Hungarians in Australia, Egon had accepted a position as Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Demography at the Australian National University in Canberra.

It was there he commenced his major research, a detailed survey and scholarly analysis of the background, motivation, education, hopes and varying levels of achievement of thousands from the DP ships that crossed the world to a new home. This landmark work, entitled Displaced Persons: Calwell’s New Australians was not published until 1988, twenty years after his research had begun.

In the years between, he co-authored with Elsie A Continent Takes Shape (1971) – a ‘coffee table’ book that detailed the discovery and exploration of Australia through maps – and demonstrated their love of cartography as a medium for displaying a country’s evolution.

Another by-product of his DP research was Intruders: Refugee Doctors in Australia (1975) that exposed the treatment of European doctors and surgeons, whose qualifications were not recognised in Australia despite shortages of doctors. This work had a significant affect on the attitudes towards the recognition of foreign qualifications.

Egon’s Kinetic Theory of the refugee in flight (1973), a theory on the factors forming refugee movements, brought him broad international recognition. He lectured widely as an acknowledged expert on the refugee and migrant experience generally.

The Hungarians in Australia (1985), expanded on his original 1969 work. He wrote both the Hungarian and Post War Non-British Migration sections for the 1988 Australian bicentennial publication The Australian People.

By that time, he had moved on to head and reorganise the library at the then Institute of Aboriginal Studies, further broadening his understanding of the ‘building blocks’ that made up modern Australia.

As a social researcher, historian, demographer, librarian and author, Egon’s endeavours were recognised worldwide. Egon, (who was commonly known as ‘Frank’ from his middle name ‘Francis’) retired from professional life in 1984 leaving behind a career in diverse but complementary disciplines.

His passion was not confined to intellectual and literary pursuits. He was a life-long football fan, who was instrumental in the founding of Sydney’s Mosman Junior Soccer Club in 1967, and Canberra’s Hughes-Garran in 1969.

A few weeks before his death from cancer on 19 July 1997, Egon received one of Hungary’s highest honours, the Medal of Merit Cross, for distinguished service to Hungarian-Australians, particularly in the fields of scholarly research and the publication of Hungarian immigrant history.

A tribute to Egon, that included an old interview, subsequent interviews with his sons, as well as family home movies, aired on Hungarian television in 2004.

Dr Egon F Kunz made an integral contribution to bridging the gaps in our appreciation of the migrant experience.

Submitted by Attila J. Ürményházi, Hobart, Tasmania.

(Approved by Egon’s sons,  Canberra, 4 August, 2008)