There is a very clear difference between a refugee and an immigrant. A refugee is one who leaves his country not willingly, as an immigrant does in seeking a different life, but out of absolute necessity in order save his life, to escape intolerable conditions. And here we were – refugees from our own country, with literally only the clothes on our backs, having irrevocably left everything, including family, behind.
The hurriedly assembled camp resembled refugee camps around the world. Army tents and cots, staffed with a mix of Austrian soldiers, International Red Cross workers, and local volunteers, the camp was the first stop for those fleeing oppression and reprisals of Communist rule. The majority of those present were young to early middle age people, some with their entire family intact, but many, like us, fragmented by the exigencies of circumstances. My father and I were both exhausted by the physical and emotional ordeal of our escape, and collapsed on the cots offered to us. In the morning, after receiving food from the aid workers, began the long process of identity verification, medical exams, interviews with civil servants as well as military intelligence officers, and waiting for decisions regarding our fates. Being too young to receive more than cursory attention in the screening process, I was left mostly by myself. There were some children close to my age, but no one we knew. Some had even worse experiences than the ones we endured, having lost family members to mines and Russian military patrols. All of us were anxious about our fates, and how long we needed to remain in the camp. A number had relatives in the West, and were attempting to establish contact to see if they had a place to go once they were granted asylum. Many lacked such contacts, but were willing to go anywhere that was willing to accept them. America was the first choice for many. Others, as many of their age spoke German, were hoping to remain in either Austria, or go to another German speaking country in Western Europe.
With each passing hour, I was missing my mom and my grandmother more and more. The realization that I might never see them again was beginning to sink in, and I was feeling morose. My father tried to cheer me up, but I could tell that he too was beginning to feel the burden of our situation. The food in the camp was not what I was used to eating. My grandmother spoiled me, cooking for me things that I liked (a narrow range of items at the time) instead of forcing me to eat what everyone else was having. The one item in abundance which I enjoyed, strange as it may seem to some, was canned sardines. Each day, I would end up having canned sardines on bread for lunch and dinner. After several weeks of this diet, I grew averse to the sight and smell of sardines, and aversion I maintain to this day.
As an engineer who spoke German, my father was eventually granted a work visa in Austria, and offered an entry level position with a company in Vienna. At the time, people in the West were sympathetic to the plight of Hungarian refugees, and a Viennese family with a young daughter my age offered to take me in to their home, while my father rented a room elsewhere close to his new job. No one in my new family spoke Hungarian, but fortunately I had started studying German at home when I was seven, never dreaming that I would actually need to speak the language. I knew enough to ask for food and water, along with basic phrases, but now wished I paid more attention to my lessons. The family I was staying with was very kind to me, realizing how much I was missing my mother and grandmother, and tried their best to make me feel at home. Their daughter, Monika, shy at first, became my protector and guide as I was sent to school with her to attend her classes. My German improved each day, and by the end of two months, was fairly fluent. I would see my dad on weekends, walk through parks and museums with him, and listen to his plans for our future. He desired us to move to Switzerland, as in a rare, almost unheard of gesture, the Swiss government was willing to accept a number of Hungarian refugees with technical backgrounds for full citizenship. There was a lengthy application process, during which we would stay in Vienna. Meantime, Monika and her family had taken quite a liking to me, and told my father (unbeknownst to me at the time) that they were willing to adopt me. I still missed my family in Hungary, and wrote letters home, uncertain if they would reach there. I liked Monika’s friendship, and was starting to know one of the boys in school better. On Sunday mornings, we would all go to mass at Stefankirche (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), the medieval Gothic landmark near the center of Vienna, located only a few blocks from where we lived. I had never seen such a large, ornate, beautiful church before, and marveled at how many people were at mass. Living in Monika’s parent’s apartment was also my first exposure to a refrigerator filled with foods I previously experienced only on special holidays, central heating with rooms that stayed warm at night, along with having a washing machine and dryer. You didn’t have to hang clothes outside to dry, and then run to get them before a rain started. To me, these were signs of wealth I never knew existed for otherwise ordinary people. No wonder people wanted to live in the West!
Children are very adaptable, and I was beginning to get accustomed to my new situation. There were moments I missed my mother and grandmother terribly, and at other times when I worried about their well-being. I heard talk amongst the adults at camp of fear of recriminations by the government against the families of those they had left behind, and I could only hope that it wouldn’t happen to my family. Still, at most times, I was smiling, and beginning to enjoy my new life. Just when I was beginning to reorient to my new reality, my father came to tell me, as well as Monika’s family, that he and I would be moving to America soon. Neither I nor Monika were happy with this news, and even less so was Monika’s family, who by now began to look on me as belonging to them. As to what happened with Switzerland – I alluded to that in my prior story of my aunt Susie.
Coming to America – story to follow…