ESCAPE TO AMERICA

A Family Story

PREQUEL: INTRODUCTION TO COMMUNISM

One of my earliest recollections is of when I was around four years old—in the middle of the night, being carried in the pouring rain to a truck waiting in front of our house, on a street ironically named ‘Amerikai út’, which is Hungarian for American Street. I was shoved under a heavy tarpaulin, together with my older brother (fifteen months older), where we shivered and cuddled up to keep warm, then fell asleep again.

I woke up the following morning on a farm, lying on a bed of hay. My father explained to us that we had been deported. I said, ‘Dad, what does that mean?’ He said that from now on we had to live there on the farm. I leaped out of bed to look out through the window, only to see cornfields and farm animals. Later, when I was escorted outside to use the extremely odoriferous toilet, I also experienced their sounds and smells. For me, as a kid, deportation meant new experiences at that time, nothing else. However, I later found out the true meaning of deportation. It was designed by the leaders of the Communist Party (who revered Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Rákosi, the Hungarian General Secretary) to punish two parties for not adhering to the communist doctrine. Our punishment was to lose everything we had ever owned in Budapest, and the farmer’s was to put up with us, to house and feed us as if we were part of his family. Not bad for a day’s work, comrade. And although the relationship between us was cool and strained at first, it eventually developed into a lifelong friendship.

So we stayed on this farm for a year or so, all of us city folk pitching in to help as best as we could. My father quickly learned how to wield a pitchfork, as well as a scythe and sickle for cutting wheat, to build hay stacks, etc., while we kids learned how to clean the horse stalls, to herd sheep and other small animals, pick various tubers and help load them into wagons, and feed the chickens and pigs. All and all, it turned out to be a crash course in farming. Living on the farm, there was no other transportation besides carts pulled by horses or mules, or more commonly oxen. There were no schools, churches, hospitals, shops, or any of the conveniences known to people like us from Budapest, the capital,

An ox cart led by a Hungarian peasant

where there were buses, street cars, and entertainment such as the opera, the zoo, and the circus. It was a radical change.

We lived in an adobe hut previously used for storing grain. It did not have lighting, running water, or heating. The toilet facilities were outside—an old shed over a deep hole with a crescent moon on the door. The hole on the seat was big enough for us kids to fall through (which literally scared it out of me). There were no showers or tubs, and we either bathed outside in a drainage ditch, by the trough next to the water well, or inside in a bucket. For lighting, we used kerosene lamps, and for heating, we heaped up more blankets. We all slept on hay beds covered with blankets, and for a while we had Mom, Dad, and Grandma (who volunteered to come with us to keep Mom strong, and help her cope) and us children. Having been a grain store before, it was filled with field mice which scurried in and out through previously gnawed holes. It was not uncommon for us to wake in the middle of the night and see a mouse sitting on a lamp hanging from the wall, munching away on something. They were so aggressive that we set up thirty or so mouse traps baited with bread (not cheese) every night, which all contained dead mice by the following morning. Some of them had been partially consumed by the living. My Mom hated it!

One fine day the secret police showed up and escorted my father away from us, taking him to a slave labour camp as further punishment. He was allowed to visit us only once, a couple of years or so later, for a few days (for good behaviour), which resulted in my mother getting pregnant. From the time he was removed, it was the two children, Mom, and Grandma. Then things changed. For some reason we were relocated to another farm—this one near the Romanian border, in a town called Berettyóújfalu. It is named after the Berettyó River and ‘újfalu’ which means ‘new village’ in Hungarian. So again, we settled down in a one-room hut where we had a pot-bellied stove (similar to the Benjamin stove here in the US), which we used for both heating and cooking. As one can imagine, it was wonderful in the autumn and winter, but unbearable in the summer, since this town is in the middle of the northern Great Plain of Hungary, which gets as hot as Hades in the summer. Thus we had no hot meals during summer time. It came in handy when we could not beg, steal, or borrow anything other than potatoes, so my grandmother made a game of roasting the potatoes in that pot belly stove, and spreading butter borrowed from our peasant friends on the tip of the potato, slicing it off and eating it. This was repeated until the potato was gone. What a wonderful meal! To this day, I love baked potatoes.

The town had an elementary school, a small shop for food and miscellaneous small items, but still no transportation other than our feet. I am not sure whether we had a doctor. Local healthcare was very basic. For instance, people with high blood pressure were treated by applying leeches to their backs to remove the excess blood from their system, a treatment developed and used as far back as the Dark Ages. The outdoor plumbing system was the same as before, and so was the bathing. Thus life appeared to be the same as before with a few changes.

We were enrolled in the elementary school, but were so far ahead of the local farm kids due to our home schooling that school was a breeze. We had no toys, first because we could not afford them, and second because there were no stores anywhere near us to buy them. So we spent our time reciting the times tables backwards and forwards and mixing up the tables, looking through an old atlas and memorizing the names of the capitals of countries, the tallest mountains, what made them famous and, my favourite of all activities, fishing in an irrigation canal which ran nearby. Our fishing gear was made up of simple things: a relatively straight stick, some twine and hooks we made ourselves by bending sewing pins, and of course, the worms we would dig up on the bank. It was good enough to catch catfish, which added protein to our diet. Our most appreciated Christmas gift one year was a small bag containing real hooks, which was brought by our uncle who came to visit us. We lived like that for the next couple of years, not knowing what the future would bring. As I said, my father was allowed to visit us from the work camp only once that I remember.

Then, one day I heard my Mom and Grandma talking about the possibility of us being allowed to go home to Budapest. When we were deported, our aunt and uncle were allowed to stay, now paying rent of course, in the upstairs one-bedroom unit above our large downstairs house, which had been confiscated, so we would have a place to live, cramped as it may be with five adults and three children, and it appeared that we had been granted this thanks to my father agreeing to work on the subway being built near the Danube River. He would be working in a high-pressure environment used to keep the water from seeping in, which was tough on the human body, especially day after day, just like deep sea diving and getting the bends if one ascended too fast and did not allow the release of the compressed air from his body. Later, he spent many nights in decompression chambers to adjust from coming up from the diggings too quickly.

Thus, we packed up our meagre belongings in Berettyóújfalu and took a train to Budapest to stay with my aunt and uncle in the upstairs unit above our old house—downstairs now being occupied by a communist sympathizer family with a crippled father. We jumped the gun a little, arriving early due to my Mom’s anxiety about being close to a hospital for delivering the baby, and the peasant owner of the farm we stayed with before reported our leaving to the authorities (which he had to do in order to stay out of trouble). The secret police came to question my aunt and uncle several times while looking for us, at which time we hid behind a large armoire dresser in one of the rooms to avoid detection. Eventually the police visits stopped and we were allowed to stay in Budapest.

I started sixth grade about a month before the Revolution broke out on 23 October 1956, at which time school was out due to the shortage of heating fuel. School was normally closed in the winter, and we were required to show up once a week to turn in completed assignments and get new ones, when we sat in unheated rooms shivering in our boots, and were typically out of school by no later than noon. We would prepare our homework at home in time for the next attendance day. So I was at home when the revolt broke out, and anxious to hear the news that trickled down by word of mouth from Heroes’ Square and other places of insurgency. Unbeknownst to me, the next few days would change my life forever, and very much for the better.

ESCAPE FROM COMMUNISM

Here is a brief account of what I know, experienced, and saw in October and November 1956. The Revolution broke out—started by 5,000 or so young college students who had grown tired of living under the communist yoke. At least 2,000 revolutionaries died before they surrendered to the overwhelming presence of Russian tanks, mortars, and troops. Some Hungarians believe that Eisenhower tried to renegotiate the agreement made between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt during the Second World War, which gave the East European countries over to Russian rule, but in reality, he was more interested in his golf games than helping the Hungarians.

We were all tired of the communist regime. Of having to wear a red scarf around our necks, of saluting in a particular way, and for being considered the young

The red pioneer scarf was mandatory

torchbearers of communism. My brother and I were exemplary students, getting straight As and being groomed to be good little communist students, as we were instructed by our parents to pretend and stay under the radar of scrutiny. It was mandatory for the schools to teach us not only Russian history, geography, and industry— we also had to read, write, and speak Russian. And although we were encouraged by our young political counsellors to spy and inform on our parents as to what they were doing and saying, we knew better. We saw what happened to the families of schoolmates who reported their parents—they were arrested and their children became wards of the state. Today I thank the Lord for learning how to speak Russian, as you will see how it came in handy for us and a lot of other people.

Our house was surrounded by larger buildings—a multi-story neurosurgery hospital to the left, a six-storey apartment complex to the right, and two large buildings across the street from us. So during the first phase of the Revolution we watched jeeps come and go, delivering people who had suffered some kind of head injury (bullet wound) while fighting, and we even helped unload and carry their belongings into the hospital. After all, we were old enough to lend a hand.

So we were all overjoyed when the communists announced that a ceasefire had been declared between them and the leaders of the Revolution. The Russian soldiers and tanks—which had been stationed in Hungary since the end of the Second World War—would leave, and our country would thenceforth be free from occupation. It turned out some of the troops who had been stationed in Hungary for a longer period of time stopped fighting and even turned their tanks over to the revolutionaries. Then we heard that the Russian troops were withdrawing from Hungary, supposedly forever, and the Revolution was declared victorious. So people were dancing in the streets, while members of the delegation sent by the revolutionary government to negotiate with the Soviets were arrested.

Thus, on 3 November we went to bed with hope in our minds and hearts that Hungary would be free, only to be jarred awake in the following morning to the sound of deafening explosions, and every one of our windows being blown out

This used to be our house. We lived downstairs before deportation then upstairs when we
returned. Note the tall building on the right—a neurosurgery hospital where soldiers were
brought with head wounds sustained during the Revolution

during a vigorous shelling by what turned out to be fresh new troops arriving from the Soviet Union. They managed to hit every building all around us, but somehow ours was not hit—possibly because it was smaller, lower and surrounded by the taller buildings. We immediately ran down to our basement where we had stored our year’s supply of coal for heating, spread whatever we could find on top of the coal and stayed down there for several days. Finally, on the third day I believe, the Russian tanks returned with all the loud clattering of steel tracks on the cobblestone street we lived on. It lasted almost the whole day, and I still remember that frightening sound to this day, sixty-six years later. So recently, when I looked at the long line of tanks advancing towards Kyiv, I thought of it!

Two days later, we embarked on our long journey to escape and leave our home once again. My father did not know where we were going, but was convinced that almost anywhere would be better than home. So he prepared us with money and jewellery, hidden under our clothes, just in case we needed to bribe anyone on the way out. We packed up what we could carry, put my three-year-old brother in a backpack, and left our house early in the morning. I looked up at the house in the early morning

Corn stalks stacked in the field after the corn was harvested

light and thought that I would never see it again. I was wrong! The house is still there, and I saw it again fifty-six years later, on our first trip to Hungary in 2012.

We took a train in the direction of the Austrian border, but by then the trains were not allowed to reach any of Hungary’s borders. We ended up in a small town, approximately fifteen miles from the border, where we spent a short night, with six people sleeping on one straw bed. I was awakened in the middle of the night, in the dark, and we set out walking with one of the locals guiding us to the border. It was brutally cold, with snow and sleet on the ground in the middle of cornfields, a slippery, slushy, slow journey with our shoes and clothes soaked to the bone.

As we were struggling to keep up with my father (who had my younger brother on his back in the backpack) we encountered several other smaller groups who were also trying to escape, but were lost. They were more than happy to join us, and eventually we ended up as a group of eighty or more people, all freezing and dishevelled as we were. All at once, two Russian soldiers jumped out of the stacked ‘corn stalks’ (bunched up corn stalks bundled together) where they were hiding and trying to stay as warm as possible. Our peasant guide panicked and started running, and one of the soldiers shot and killed him. Hearing the gunshots, we all hit the ground, lay face down in the mud and slush until they made us stand up and gather together.

Of the more than eighty people gathered together, there were only two who spoke and understood Russian! My brother and I! So my father took over negotiating through us, and instructed us to engage the Russians with small talk. We found out that they were waiting for trucks to come and pick us up, to take us to holding camps for interrogation and onward transport to wherever we were all going to be held for the long term. Father instructed me to show them the watches on my arm to see if they would let us go in return for the watches. They informed me that no, they would not let us go, but told me to give them the watches anyway. I did, and as I was rolling down the last watch from my arm, my father told me to ask them if they were cold and if they wanted a drink of Vodka (which my father was lugging along with several other bottles of booze, mostly for our protection against the freezing temperatures). One of the soldiers responded that no, they would not trust us to give them a drink because it was most likely poisoned. I told this to my father. He very calmly took a bottle, uncorked it, and told me to take a swig of the booze. No sooner had the bottle left my lips when there were two sets of hands grabbing for the bottle. So my father took out a second one and told my brother to do likewise and taste the booze, which he did. Thus, here were these two semi-frozen comrades literally guzzling two bottles of vodka as if they were drinking Coca-Cola.

The trucks never came! And the two Russian comrades were soon completely sozzled! What is more, thank the Lord, they showed us the direction of the Austrian border, which we reached an hour after leaving our newfound, drunk friends. We came to a canal where a couple of Hungarian freedom-fighting soldiers ferried us across to Austria, and took us to the nearest town, where I received my very first Hershey’s bar from no other than Walter Cronkite. That is the way it was in November 1956.

Father sold some of the valuables we were carrying to get enough of the local currency (schillings) for us to take a bus to Vienna, or anywhere close by, and set up camp, so to speak. We arrived in Vienna and were directed to go to a town just north of it, by the name of Klosterneuburg, where former Russian barracks had been set up to receive refugees [the Soviet Union had just agreed to withdraw their troops from Austria in May 1955].

We were received with open arms in a facility run by the Austrian, Dutch, and Norwegian Red Cross, who were more than generous with supplies to take care of us. They assigned us to a room with fifty or so other people, and rows of hay-filled beds against both sides of the room, approximately five feet apart. In the centre were rows of tables and benches where everybody could sit and eat, play cards and/ or chess, write letters, etc. At every meal time, some people (a group of four or five) would go down to the kitchen and bring back food and drinks in buckets for all to consume. I have never eaten more cheese and sardines mixed with margarine spread on bread before or after in my entire life. Some of the buckets had coffee and tea and everyone could consume of both the food and the drinks as much as their stomachs desired. This situation got much better after the barracks had been converted into smaller, family-size rooms, hygiene conditions were improved, and a large area was cordoned off for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And, of course, the menu changed drastically during the months to come. But even today, if I pass the shelves of sardines in a store, and cannot bring myself to look them in the eye.

Every now and then, there was an announcement that a new shipment of clothes and shoes had arrived, and was on display in one of the larger meeting rooms. Sure enough, there were piles of donated shoes and clothes we could pick out as we waded through them. I remember finding a winter coat that fit perfectly, and a pair of boots which pinched my toes a bit, but they looked so good that I just had to have them. Laundry facilities and entertainment centres were also built, so we did not have to wash our clothes by hand in the bathrooms. Life improved on an almost daily basis.

The locals, too, welcomed the refugees with open arms. Families came and invited children to attend weekend church service and have lunch with them and their children. Even though there was a language barrier, we found ourselves, especially us children, picking up the German vocabulary and grammar so rapidly that within six months we were able to hop a train into Vienna to go to museums and other entertainment activities without any trouble, with our German language sufficing. But while we were having a good time, we also had to attend processing sessions for entry to our final destination countries which were receiving refugees.

First, we all went through the medical examination: X-rays, inoculations against the Black Plague, and the Lord only knows what other diseases, but such was necessary when your destination was Venezuela. At last we were ready to receive the entry documents, but then my father found out that Australia had decided to take some refugees. So a quick discussion ensued, and father’s decision changed our destination to Australia. One would think that it would be easy to take all the newly acquired medical documents from our Venezuela packets and switch them over to the Australian packets, but no such luck. We had to go through the same procedures for Australia as for Venezuela. Towards the end of the Australian examinations, the USA opened its arms to us Hungarians, and we did not even waste our time discussing and debating, the decision was made to change course again. And, once again, new probing, examinations and inoculations, and finally we were ready to embark on our adventure to the USA.

I remember sitting in the most undesirable middle seat between two people with motion sickness. It was unpleasant to sit between two vomiting individuals for more than twenty-four hours, with them using the sick bag all the way. But I got even with them—I was eating every meal, every snack I could get my hands on throughout the flight. I was a bad boy. The flight stopped to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland, and we were all allowed to stretch our legs, and even eat a kind of caribou steak, but I am not going to comment on the food—it was free.

ARRIVING IN AMERICA: THE EARLY YEARS

Finally, we arrived in New Jersey, and we hardly believed the vistas opening up, with cars everywhere (when we left Hungary we still had horse-drawn wagons delivering goods and products, and only a few cars on the roads). We had to spend a night there before we were picked up to go to Camp Kilmer, which housed most of the 30,000 Hungarians who came to the USA. [Almost 200,000 refugees crossed into Austria from Hungary altogether.] We went for a long walk the night of our arrival and, crossing the overpass above one of the freeways, my father bent down to pick up a twenty-dollar bill just lying on the ground. That was literally ‘Manna from Heaven’, and the only money we had entering this wonderful country.

In Camp Kilmer, we had other marvellous experiences waiting—among them milk in paper cartons (there was nothing like that in Europe), food served almost twenty-four hours a day, butch and flat-top haircuts (I got one, and it looked so horrible I almost cried), and free movies every night. I remember seeing Twelve Angry Men, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The African Queen, and more. Everything was unknown, new, and exciting. We stayed there until we were processed to go to our final destination: Los Angeles, California.

After another long flight we arrived in Los Angeles, to be picked up by a long lost uncle of my father, who vouched for us. We hardly knew him, but were very surprised at how stingy he was when we arrived at a dirty, dingy, one-bedroom flat above a liquor store on the corner of 87th Street in South Los Angeles. We went to sleep that night with our clothes on because Mom did not want anything to touch our skin until a serious scrubbing, only to wake up to a strict regimen of cleaning protocol in the morning (which lasted two days and ate up all of the twenty dollars found on the overpass). But eventually we settled in, father got a low-paying job, and we were able to move into an apartment complex just south of the downtown area, where we lived until we found a two-bedroom single storey house on 8th Street and Western Avenue, near the Wiltern Theater, where the movie The Ten Commandments played for a long time.

I was enrolled in the 7th grade in a junior high school near Wilshire and La Brea, and took the bus every morning and every afternoon. I soon found out how nasty junior high school kids can be. Their vitriol was exacerbated by their ‘position in life’, with the school being in the Wilshire district, where Nat King Cole moved in to create quite a stir being the only black resident. So my brother and I, two dirty immigrants who should have ‘gone back to where we came from’, were in good company with Cookie Cole, Nat’s daughter, who was the only black girl in school. We were undesirables. Our status further declined when several test scores we received were far above those that belonged, especially in mathematics, where I did so well that I was not required to do homework nor take any tests until the final exam.

I managed to survive 7th thr ough 9th grade, having only one broken arm when someone was trying to throw me over his shoulder, and with relatively average grades. I simply did not care for either school or the kids. My brother was different,

Our family when I started 7th grade. I am seated in the middle
with my younger brother Ted and elder brother Nick. © Peter
Toghia

being much more studious than me (and eventually becoming the student body president). I started helping out in my father’s newly acquired furniture and cabinetry store, and saved up enough money to purchase a secondhand bicycle, which I used for my one and only paper route. I enjoyed folding and delivering the papers and throwing them wherever instructed to do so, and earned enough money to pursue my favourite pastime activities, which were mostly listening to the rock and roll hits and recording them on a machine that was bigger than a typewriter.

Subsequently I went to Hollywood High School from 10th grade through 12th grade. I enjoyed track and field, ‘B’ football, and joined a social club for fun. My high school days terminated in the Hollywood Bowl, where my graduation was held.

CLOSURE

Why did I write this brief history of my life? Mostly because of the encouragement I received from friends.

I am very glad and proud to be an American. I was fortunate to grow into adulthood here. I proudly served in the Navy, revived my education after getting married (nine and a half years in night school) to become an engineer, then a general contractor, a real estate broker, and a forensic expert specializing in evaluating structural defects of residential and commercial structures, as well as providing expert testimony in trials. Not bad for a foreign kid, even if I do say so myself. However, my life’s greatest and most cherished achievement is my marriage to the most beautiful and intelligent woman I have ever known. Thank the Lord that our marriage has flourished and lasted fifty-six years, going on fifty-seven. We ran my business together for twenty-eight years, raised two successful boys and have seen them grow into successful young men.

Thank you all for your encouragement.

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