From Hungary to Eastern Kentucky: War hero honored with Congressional Gold Medal

·3 min read

Martin Himler lived the American Dream after immigrating from Hungary, setting up a coal company and community in Martin County and joining the military during World War II.

Himler was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously Friday. The medal symbolizes Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions. Himler was honored for his service as a colonel in the Office of Strategical Services, now the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Congressional Gold Medal honors Himler’s legacy, said Adam Rice, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers.

“Himler became the epitome of the American Dream” from immigration, operating a coal mine, running a newspaper and serving in the U.S. military, Rice said.

Born in 1888, Himler immigrated to the U.S. in 1907 with no money. He worked his way across the country doing odd jobs. He eventually found success as a peddler supplying goods for coal miners, and specialized in selling to Hungarian coal miners.

Himler got the idea to start his own newspaper in 1916 for Hungarian Coal miners called Magyar Bányászlap, or Hungarian Miners’ Journal. The paper would remain in circulation until the 1960s.

In 1919, he started his own coal mine in Martin County called Himler Coal Company, employing hundreds of Hungarian immigrants. Surrounding the mine, miners set up residence and called the community Himlerville, which has been renamed to Beauty. Himlerville had a school and post office. Himler encouraged his fellow Hungarian immigrants to receive their U.S. citizenship.

Himlerville, now Beauty in Martin County
Himlerville, now Beauty in Martin County

Himler Coal Company, and its subsidiary, Kermit-Warfield Bridge Company, constructed the first railroad track and bridge from West Virginia to Martin County in 1921.

In the mid-1920s, as coal began to decline, Himler Coal Company’s profits began to drop as well. The town and company disappeared after a flood in 1928, when Himler Coal Company went bankrupt.

Himler moved to Columbus, Ohio, continuing his newspaper career.

At the age of 55, Himler joinws the U.S. military in 1943 as an interrogator of Nazi war criminals in Hungary and Austria with the Office of Strategic Services. Himler wanted to repay the United States, because he thought it was the greatest country in the world, according to Doug Cantrell, professor of history at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.

“His history is remarkable,” said John Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor and AppalRed Legal Aid founder. “His hatred of Naziism and discrimination continued throughout his lifetime. He fought for Holocaust survivors and he would work his entire life to overcome that history.”

Growing up Jewish, many of Himler’s relatives were sent to the concentration camps. During his time with the OSS, Himler interrogated 40 war criminals, which he called “the cringing beasts before me,” according to his autobiography.

“Thanks to his brave efforts, justice was secured for some of the world’s most notorious, barbaric Nazi war criminals of his time,” Rogers said in a statement.

Himler was discharged from the OSS in 1947 and lived in Los Angeles until his death in 1961.

Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society, spoke Friday about the critical role Himler and other first- and second-generation Americans had in America’s victory in World War II.

“Events such as today’s are important to remind all of us, that Col. Martin Himler and his OSS colleagues deserve our eternal gratitude for helping save the world from tyranny,” Pinck said.

Rice presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Sanford Hertz, a great, great nephew of Himler.

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