Hungarian Rhapsody: my family’s escape from Communism
Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a historic occasion the West marks as the collapse of communism. Months before the wall came down, Hungary had opened its own “Iron Curtain” of guard towers, mines, and electric fences that lined the border between Austria and Hungary. A family friend Lajos used to have the job of patrolling this border, and told me the story of how one day he threw off his body armor and gun, and told his fellow patrol guard and good friend that he couldn’t do it anymore. He ran for the border, and told his friend he could shoot him if he wanted. Needless to say, Lajos wasn’t shot, but he never saw his friend again.
Communism was never a natural fit for Hungary. The country’s aristocratic past, as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, never dimmed from memory. After the 1956 uprising, Goulash Communism was instated to appease the populace. It was because of this little bit of capitalism that my mother was able to open a flower shop in Budapest. Still, the relationship with Hungary’s Communist leaders remained strained.
When the border between Austria and Hungary was opened in May 1989 (some say the Sopron Picnic in August was the official opening), many Eastern Germans used this route through Hungary to get to Austria and back to West Germany.
I thought I would throw other Eastern-European nations into the media mix today by sharing the story of my Hungarian -American exodus.
The year is 1987. My mother believes our family has no future in Hungary. She is enchanted by the freedom in the United States, and by the American dream. She is being pressured by KISZ, the local communist youth group to go to a political college and she angers the party by refusing repeatedly. My mother wanted to go to an art and design college, but the “harness” the Commie group was trying to force on her makes her snap. My mother proceeds to sell her flower shop and with the money my parents buy fake passports, a visa to Italy, and plane tickets for our “vacation” to Venice.
We leave Hungary on June 3rd 1987 with a suitcase and sports bag. We don’t take much money, but my mother was told to wear as much gold jewelry as possible without appearing suspicious. We arrive in Venice, and make a beeline to the nearest police station. The police keep us overnight in a jail cell to check if we were “clean” before they give us a political refugee permit and train tickets to the refugee camp in Latina, outside of Rome. From there, we take the day-long train ride to Latina. We are exhausted and hungry, having not eaten for 24 hours. We drink water we find on the street.
When we arrive at the refugee camp, we are put in 24 hour quarantine to again make sure we are legitimate refugees and not Soviet spies. The refugee camp is a barracks, and with the sheets we are given, we divide the room we share with another couple. We are fed three times a day, but my mother gives me as little of the camp food as possible as people in the camp are constantly sick. The meat the camp serves is rotten and doused in garlic and spices to hide its condition. My mother sells some of her gold jewelry to buy juice, vegatables, bread, milk, vitamins and diapers.
Once you had lived in the camp long enough, you were allowed to go out for the day if you had a permit. Every morning Italians would show up outside the gate, looking for cheap labor. The men would work construction jobs, or unload cargo from trains and trucks. Most of the women cleaned wealthy Italians apartments, and if they were lucky, got a job babysitting or nannying. Most of the younger Polish women went to work as prostitutes. Their fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes were apparently very popular among the Italian men.
Crime in the refugee camp was a problem. Items like shoes were constantly going missing and dead bodies were found haphazardly covered in leaves and garbage. My family was lucky, we only stayed in the Latina camp for 10 days. UNICEF was looking for young families with small children to relocate to a hotel in downtown Rome, and I happened to be a rather adorable toddler.
Our hotel room was a step up, but food was still a problem. Every day we ate pasta. The eggs, meat, and cheese that were given to us were kept in the hotel’s garage, and considering the summers in Italy the food at the hotel was worse than the food at the Latina camp. Fellow hotel inhabitants were sick all the time, and many complained to UNICEF, believing the hotel owner was stealing the charity’s money by skimping out on food. My mother sells more jewelry to buy fresh food.
While we were living in the hotel, we had numerous interviews at the American Embassy. My mother remembers verbatim her answer as to why she wanted to leave Hungary, ”I want freedom for my family, for my daughter.” She recalls explaining her parents support for her trip and how it was the Hungarian way for brave family members to leave the country to immigrate to the West.
It took a year to get all the paperwork in order, and UNICEF arranged everything including the airfare and finding a cosponsor in America. Every morning a list would be tacked up in the hotel lobby of the families leaving the next day. There were many men that couldn’t take the waiting and the conditions and thought about returning, even if that meant jail time. Some families had to wait 3 years. Everyone was anxious and nervous breakdowns were common. During that waiting period my mother’s long white/blonde hair fell out, from malnutrition, stress, or both.
We flew from Rome to New York City on the now defunct Pan Am, and then from NYC to Hartford. Along the way, Pan Am lost all our luggage, making our initial impression of the United States “soul-crushing”. All we had were the clothes on our backs, and my mother now had to sell her last piece of jewelry, her wedding ring. It took 6 months for my family to get any compensation from the airline (a mere $250) and my mother remembers the Pan Am reps were skeptical, and rude. She was told, “a refugee family wouldn’t have that many items”. In fact, she had received many gifts from the family she worked for which she could sell in the United States, including fur coats, more jewelry, and clothes for me.
The Catholic church in Hartford that sponsored us set us up in a one bed-room, with 2 months paid rent, and found a job for my father. My mother got a night job cutting plastic in a warehouse, and as her English got better, she took a job at Roy Rogers. When the Berlin Wall fell one year later, my mother was wary of returning to Hungary, not believing in the stability of the elected government. Considering what happened in ‘56, I can’t say I blame her. We waited until we were American citizens before finally returning (for a vacation) in 1994.
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- Hungarian leader admits he feared deaths after lifting Iron Curtain (telegraph.co.uk)
- Why the Berlin Wall Fell (online.wsj.com)