After Russian armored units effectively crushed the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956, it didn’t take very long for the Iron Curtain to once again come crashing down around the country. If anything, security measures were enhanced to deter anyone from even remotely contemplating escape. As for those who remained behind, life resumed as it was prior to the Revolution. Though not admitting their fear, the ruling Communist government wanted to avoid another similar uprising, leading to some mild loosening of rules regarding private ownership of property and businesses. More significantly for my mother and grandmother, no overt retaliation occurred against those whose families managed to leave the country. This apparent tolerance, I suspect, came from the sheer numbers (over 150,000) of those who sought refuge in the West, as well as the country’s chronic need for foreign currency. The government rightly calculated that refugees would soon get themselves reestablished in their new lands, and begin sending back much needed financial support for relatives left behind.
My mother, who by 1956 had risen to be the personal secretary of the Minister of Education and Information, was allowed to continue in her job. Fortunately for her, the Minister was a reasonably decent man who joined the Communist Party before the war for idealistic motives. As he became more aware of the true nature of Communism as it was practiced, his idealism rapidly dissipated. Having established his bona fide with the Party, and possessing a keen mind supported by excellent education, he continued to pay lip service to the Party line, realizing that it provided the best route of survival for himself and his family. Having my mother as his secretary allowed him to have someone who was not a Party member deal with personal as well as official business, and by then he trusted his own ability to judge others to know that my mother was not the kind of person who would ever betray his trust to the authorities. His position also offered my mother some degree of protection from the inside sniping and jockeying for power that was the baseline in any Party run organization.
With the passage of time, it became clear that people would not be issued visas to travel outside of Hungary, except for those whose loyalty was assured within the Party, and reinforced by holding small children hostage to ensure their return. It also became obvious that with the increased flow of foreign currency being sent to remaining relatives, those same relatives would never be allowed to leave. The only avenue of escape for those desperate to get out was subterfuge. A small underground operation was developed producing forged passports for those whose families were able to deposit sufficient payment to a numbered Swiss bank account. Arrangements were made to provide my mother and grandmother with two of these forged passports. Even today, it remains a mystery to me where the money came from. I know my father didn’t have any significant savings, and if the money had come from his uncle, I’m certain we would all have heard about it. My parents never discussed the source of the funds. It may have come from my grandfather, who possessed connections in Switzerland prior to the war, as well as some funds of his own still there or possibly even from my mother’s boss, the Minister. The only thing I know for a fact is that shortly before the planned departure, and while still in the process of packing their belongings, she received a message from the Minister to leave immediately because the people providing the forged passports had been arrested, and it wouldn’t be long before the identities of those who purchased them became known to the authorities.
Within five minutes of the message arriving, my mother and grandmother were out of the apartment with one suitcase each, leaving everything else behind. My grandmother, who no one would ever describe as a brave person, was trembling with fear, and almost refused to go. Only because the fear for her daughter outweighed all her other fears could she be persuaded by my mom to board the first train out of the country to Austria. When they reached the border, and the guards came through the train checking passports, they didn’t know if theirs had already been flagged for arrest. Somehow, my grandmother was able to hold her anxieties in check long enough to be passed through passport control, and they arrived safely to Vienna.
I remember sitting at dinner with my uncle and his family when the doorbell rang, and my father came rushing in. He excitedly told us that he just received a telegram from Vienna, and we would all be soon reunited! I was shocked and in disbelief, as I knew nothing about the events leading up to their escape. For the first time since our own adventures getting to the States, I had the feeling that somehow my life going forward was going to be OK. I had almost given up hope of seeing my mother and grandmother again, and soon they would be here with me!
It took a little over a month for them to get the necessary paperwork through the American Embassy. One sunny summer Saturday morning I was with my father and uncle at O’Hare Airport, watching the passengers disembark when I spotted my mother and grandmother getting off the plane. My mom was wearing a blue dress with white polka dots, and a red straw hat, looking even more beautiful than I had remembered. My grandmother next to her kept looking nervously around until she spotted us, then her face lit up with a smile, followed by a rush of tears from all our suppressed emotions. We were all laughing, crying, hugging, and overwhelmed with all that transpired. None of us knew for sure if this moment would ever happen. After a year apart (though feeling much longer to all of us,) we were now reunited! They kept telling me how much I had grown since they last saw me, and kept reaching over to touch me, reassuring each of us that this was real, not just part of a good dream.
I was able to ask for the first time about the friends I left behind. My mother told me that she gave most of my toys to the son of the building janitor, who at first refused to accept them. He kept asking if I wouldn’t be mad to find out he had them when I came back? He always called me by my last name, which was a custom amongst us boys at the time. My mother sadly reassured him that it was OK for him to take them, as I would not be returning. She also told me that one of my best friends also escaped Hungary with his parents near the same time my father and I left. Amazingly, I would run into him twenty years later in Rome. I heard someone call my name in Hungarian, and it was him. “How did you even recognize me?” I asked in amazement. “Easy”, he replied. “You walk as you always did.” Reunions are incredibly sweet.
More to follow…