How the crisis saved our family
BYSTEVE SZEMETI as told to David MacDonald My son was trapped in Hungary. I was in Toronto — a pastry cook with only $600. The odds against getting him out were a million to one. But the chance would never come again . . .
My home used to be in Budapest, in Hungary, but for almost two years now I have lived and worked as a pastry cook in Toronto. Last fall, during the Hungarian uprising, I left my new home and my job and my wife and went back to that troubled land.
The reason was simple: my fifteen-year-old son Istvan, or Steve, was still there and I wanted him to be free.
For more than ten years I had not seen the boy. In 1946, after my first wife died, I left him with her parents and set out to find a new home for us both. My search took me to Germany and then to England where, in 1951, 1 married another Hungarian DP, my second wife, Catherine. We came to Canada—to Toronto—in 1955. Here I work as a pastry cook, my wife as a waitress. In the five years since we married. Catherine and I had tried every way we knew to get Steve Jr. out of Hungary. Always the Communists refused to let him go.
But for a week or so last October, during the rebellion, the Reds lost control of our homeland. It was then that I took all of our savings—-$600 —and flew' back there to get my son. I left Toronto on Nov. 4 — “Black Sunday” — the day Soviet tanks returned to Budapest to crush the revolt. I was not certain where young Steve would be. if he was still alive, or how to get by the Russians and the secret police. Some Hungarian friends in Toronto called my idea önyyilkossáí>—suicide.
The story began with another November, in 1945. As a private in the Hungarian army. I had been wounded in both legs by a Russian machine gun. After a year in a German hospital, with no
letters from home. I returned to the little village of Agyagos. where my wife Elizabeth had taken our son from Budapest to wait out the war at her parents' farmhouse.
I was met at the door by my mother-in-law. When she saw me she began to weep. Then her husband appeared in the doorway. “Steve,” he said, "Elizabeth is dead."
I felt as though my life had ended too. It took a few minutes to grasp the truth. Earlier that year, with the war nearly over, my wife had gone back alone to Budapest to prepare a home for me. There she died in a typhus epidemic. She was twenty-two. All I had of her now was our son, Istvan, with the dark eyes and wavy hair of his mother. He was four years old. He did not yet know why Elizabeth did not come back and I had to tell him.
After three days I left the boy with his grandparents and went to Budapest to see about the rest of my family. My mother was still alive, but two of my brothers had died by Russian guns. The third came home on crutches, with no feet.
What can the living do in such times? Two things. They can pine away over the broken bits of their lives, or they can summon all the strength left to them and begin again. In my own case, with a child to care for, I had to put the pieces together again.
But how? Well, first, a job. Before the war I had been a pastry cook—and a good one. I think. Alas, starving Hungary had little need of pastries. So for three months, like a hundred thousand others, I roamed the streets of Budapest seeking work. Only one job came my way. I was told there were places on the continued on page 42 police force for men with the right connections. The “right connection" was a card in the Communist Party. No, thank you.
“ ‘The boy doesn’t wish to leave,’ the Reds wrote. I knew they lied”
By March 1946 I knew that my future, if any, was not in Hungary. Elizabeth's
parents agreed to keep little Steve until I could make a home for him, so I went over to Ingolstadt, in West Germany, and became a cook for the American occupation forces. Two years later, shortly after the Communists seized power in Hungary,
I joined seventy-five other DPs who were going to work in an English coal mine. There were doctors, lawyers and acrobats among us, but few miners. My job, again, was cook. My wage was threepounds-ten a week—and I spent almost
all of it sending food parcels back home.
Then, after another two years, a small miracle happened. An immigration inspector came by one day to see how we were all making out. It was about 4 p.m. and, knowing the old English custom, I gave him a cup of tea and a piece of apple pie. After the second slice he said. “I say, this pie is rather good. Where did you learn to bake so well?” I told him. “Well, well," he said, leaving, “we’ll see what can be done about you.”
A week later came a letter from the inspector— permission to leave the mine camp and go to London. Enclosed was a free train ticket. In two days I found a job—at ten pounds a week—in. a large bakery run by a Hungarian, Madame Floris. Moreover, only a short time after I arrived in London, 1 went to a Hungarian club and met Catherine Rimler, another immigrant from Hungary. On May 3, 1951, we were married.
Now, at last, I could give my son a home and a mother. But it was not that simple. The boy no longer belonged to me, but to the Hungarian Communist state. Many letters I sent to the authorities in Budapest. “You are not English,” they wrote back. “Come home if you wish to be with your son.” When Catherine and I became British citizens the Reds had another answer: “The boy does not wish to leave his homeland.” From Steve's letters I knew this for a lie. Always he asked, “When will you come for me?" Once, in 1952, I flew to Vienna in the hope of sneaking into Hungary and smuggling him out. But the border was a minefield and I had to come back without him.
In the spring of 1955 Catherine met a lady from Toronto who was visiting in London. “Come to Canada,” she advised. “It will be a heaven for you." I was hoping to start my own business and the opportunity in Britain, as you say, was not so hot. Why not Canada? So we packed our bags once more and set out for Toronto.
Here we invested all our savings— $4,000—to start a small pastry shop. We had a partner, another Hungarian immigrant, who kept promising to get his share of the expenses from a finance company. Just a week before the grand opening he confessed that he was broke. And so. within a year, were we. 1 went to work for another bakery and Catherine became hostess in a Hungarian restaurant.
All this time we were getting letters from Steve. Over the years, his funny scrawl became a strong firm hand and the thin little boy in the snapshots grew to a young man, tall, straight and darkly handsome. At first he wrote that grandfather’s cow had a new baby, or that he skinned his knee in the village schoolyard. Now his letters came from the city of Gyor. where he was attending a state technical school. He kept saying that he wanted to be with us, but Catherine and I had little hope now that such a happy day would ever arrive. Then, last fall, came the revolt in Hungary.
To different people it meant different things. To those in Hungary it was a fight for life itself. To the Western nations, who all sent the very best of wishes, it seemed a good sign that the Soviet empire was coming apart. And to many others, Hungarian expatriates like ourselves, it brought both hope and fear for loved ones left behind.
1 remember well how my “impossible” idea came to me. It was a Monday night. Oct. 29, and we were sitting at home listening to the radio tell of the latest rebel victories, of the Russian retreat from Budapest and of refugees streaming by thousands into Austria. Having been to that very border in 1952, I could picture it clearly. Why not go there again? I could contact Steve and have him meet me. If not. perhaps 1 could slip in and find him myself.
Three nights later, at a rally of Hungarian immigrants in Massey Hall, I mentioned the thought to some friends. “No," one man told me, “it would be suicide.” An old woman said. “Foolish! If the boy wants to escape he will run out.” As for Catherine, she too felt that 1 could not succeed. But. knowing my feelings as a father, she didn't say too much.
On the next day 1 took all our money out of the bank and the following morning 1 bought a one-way ticket to Vienna: $365. We couldn’t afford return fare, so 1 would worry about that when the time came. Then 1 went over to Max Hartstone, my boss at the bakery, to ask for time off. He gave it to me, along with $"5 for my last week's wages and his own cheque for $200 to help out.
I was to go the next day, Nov. 4. When we went to bed Saturday night the news from Hungary was that the rebels seemed to be winning their freedom. But when we woke up Sunday morning our radio said the Russians had come back to Budapest with hundreds of tanks. The rebellion was surely lost. “Now.” Catherine said, “—now you cannot go."
"No," I replied. “Now 1 must go.”
And so. one day and almost five thousand miles later. I landed at Vienna with no real idea of what to do. I asked about Gyor. the city where Steve was at school, and learned to my great fright that it was now the scene of a raging battle between fourteen thousand rebels and two hundred Russian tanks.
What now? Maybe Steve was already safe in Austria. So I went first to Traiskirchen, the biggest refugee camp. Then, having failed to find him, I went on to Nickelsdorf, a border town only thirty miles from Gyor. There, just beyond the border, there were about sixty-five Hungarian rebels digging in behind hedgerows. They were really a ragged army— farmers, factory hands, students and a few regular soldiers, with hardly enough guns to go around. I talked with them in Magyar. They asked where 1 was from. “My home is in Canada." You can guess their surprise at finding me there. But what struck me most was the look of envy in their eyes.
From them 1 heard about the couriers, Hungarian boys with bicycles who were clever at running such errands as mine past hostile border patrols. 1 found a courier that day—Tuesday. Nov. 6—and paid him to take a message to my aunt’s home in Gyor, where Steve was lodging. Then began a helpless week ot waiting. When ten hours passed without any reply, I hired another boy. Then another and another, in my impatience, until five had slipped away into the night. As I waited at the border, a pathetic parade of refugees came by. I rushed from one to the next, asking word of my Istvan. No. they did not know the boy. But could 1 tell them of their Laszlo, Bela or katalin?
On the third day of waiting, at dusk, three Soviet tanks came across the frozen fields, and behind them a mass of soldiers. The rebels opened fire, and the fight began. A quarter of a mile away, in Austria, 1 lay in a ditch and watched. Crouched down beside me was a border guard. He had a pistol in one hand and a rosary in the other. Together we saw the rebels driven from their trenches and killed. Some made it across the border. I remember one running toward us. He had only about two hundred yards to go when he turned and shook his fist at the Russians. Then he fell.
In the end of course the rebels were crushed and the Reds again held the border point. I must confess that 1 had come to look upon such tragic events from a selfish point of view. The revolution it-
self was my hope of freedom for my son. Now this small battle was a bad turn, for it ended almost any chance that Steve— or even one of the couriers—might reach me.
Still there was not much I could do but wait and pray. And that's what I did for three days more. The flood of refugees had stopped. Now only a few people crawled through the border swamps by night. By Sunday, Nov. 11, 1 had given up all hope. The only course left was to get some rest and then try to get to Gyor by myself. An Austrian border guard let
me curl up in his shack and I fell asleep. At 2 a.m. he woke me. "You! Szemeti!" he said. "Someone is here to see you.”
It was not my son. or even one of the couriers, but a middle-aged refugee. He said: "Coming from Gyor I met the boy who was your messenger. He told me I would find you here and to say that your son has gone to his grandparents’.”
Such a stroke of luck! Had Steve been still at Gyor his chance of getting across the border now would have been so slight, so dangerous. But if he had reached the farm at Agyagos. fifty miles to the south.
he was now only ten miles from the Austrian town of Pomogy. And the Hungarian border station there was one of the few still held by the rebels.
1 thanked the refugee for the message, thanked God that 1 had not left before it arrived and then hired a taxi to take me to Pomogy. On the way 1 tried to imagine what had sent Steve back to the very place where 1 had left him ten years before. Today 1 know.
Steve was at school in Gyor when the revolution flared up on Oct. 23 in Budapest. From the capital it spread out like a grassfire to the provinces and to such smaller cities as Gyor. My son was at a school football game when one of his classmates ran out yelling, “Come on! The w'orkers are demonstrating! There will be fighting!”
Eighty boys, Steve among them, joined the angry crowds surging through the streets. They began by pulling down the iron statues and stars that marked Hungary as a Soviet satellite. Shooting broke out. Hungarian soldiers turned their Russian guns on the Russian garrisons. Factory workers attacked Soviet tanks with the gasoline bombs that are called Molotov cocktails. Within a day the whole city was a battlefield.
In Gyor, as in Budapest, the worst of the people’s hatred was turned on the AVOs, the Hungarian secret police who had hounded them so long. Steve was in the mob of students who stormed the local AVO headquarters. Eight of them died by machine-gun bullets. When the others—these hoys who had been playing games only a few hours earlier—seized the secret police they shot them against a wall. In the building they found the "interrogation" room that all Gyor knew of. One wall was covered with the most horrible photographs, of men having their toenails pulled out with pliers, of naked women whose breasts were initialed with cigarette burns. There, too, Steve found a rille—he had taken part in the attack without any gun—but a Hungarian officer took it from him. “No, hoy," he said. "You are too young for this."
Once Gyor was free, the students decided to join the fight in Budapest. Fifty boys crowded aboard a lorry. Twenty others tried to climb on, but there was no more room. Steve was one who was left behind. Only a few miles outside Gyor the truck was stopped by a patrol of soldiers in Hungarian army uniform.
"Where are you going?” they demanded.
"To Budapest.” the boys shouted, “—to fight."
"But you need guns.” The soldiers told them to drive a few kilometres on, to a brick farmhouse. There they would be given weapons. They did so. The farmhouse turned out to be another AVO office, alive with machine guns. Most of the boys died right in the truck. Only two got back to Gyor. It was from them that my son learned of the ambush.
He had been staying with my old Aunt Anna in Gyor but now she was afraid that he would bring trouble into her home. "You had better leave,” she told him. “Go back to the farm. It will be safer for ail.” So, with six other schoolboys, he set off for Agyagos, about fifty miles to the southwest. They w'ent by field and sideroad, because the highways w'ere lined now with more Russian tanks. They were fed at farmhouses and slept in haylofts and they finally got to Agyagos about midnight on Oct. 29.
By coincidence, that was the same day that I, in far-off Toronto, had begun to think of a trip to Hungary. Now. exactly two weeks later, both our long journeys were nearing the end. Ten miles from the border my road to Pomogy became a river of mud, so I went the rest of the way on foot. I ran and I walked and I ran again. All along, the road was lined with tall poplars. To my left the cabbage and potato fields were white with snow. Off to the right, dawn was beginning to touch the Alpine foothills.
At 6 a.m. I came finally to the Pomogy border station. At that point the boundary runs along a river, about fifty teet wide. I spoke to an Austrian soldier and he let me by. On the other side of a wooden bridge, in Hungary, I found another band of rebels.
Once more 1 made my strange intro-
Shaped to the natural angle of your nose.
duction: “I have come from Canada to find my son who is at Agyagos.” If 1 had said “from Mars,” the effect might have been the same. When they got over their amazement, they explained that there were still a few Russians in Agyagos.
"Now, do not worry,” said one of the rebel soldiers—he was a fat little man with two grenades hanging from his belt. "There is a way to reach him.” He walked away and presently he came back with a young farmhand who didn't live too far from Agyagos. “This one has a bicycle," the soldier said. “He will go.” Quickly I gave him a note and a recent snapshot of my son. "Bring him to me,” I said, “and I will pay you a thousand forint”—about forty dollars.
Away he w'ent. He arrived at Agyagos at 9.30 and went straight to the farm of my father-in-law. Steve w'asn’t there. He’d gone to visit his friend Geza Horvath on the next farm. So his Aunt Aggie ran to fetch him. “Come! Come!” she said. “Your father is waiting at the border!"
"Don’t make jokes," Steve told her. “My father is in Canada.” Then Aggie showed him my note: “My son,” it said, “do not hesitate. Do not take anything. Just come as you are right away. Father."
After my messenger had left for Agyagos, I followed him for a mile until I came to a hilltop. There I waited.
Then I saw them. They came from the cast out of a wood thicket, three dark figures on bicycles. I started trotting down the hill toward them. We were still a hundred yards apart when one of the three jumped from his cycle and ran ahead. Even before I heard him calling “Apit!”—“Daddy!”— I knew my son from his photographs.
I leave you to picture the scene, for the details arc blurred in my own mind. We ran into each other's arms and toppled over into the snow, laughing and crying at the same time. No words can tell of my happiness.
The third cyclist was my brother-inlaw. We talked together for five minutes and then said good-by. He turned back toward Agyagos with the courier while Steve and I set out, arm in arm, to walk that last mile back to freedom. At the border the rebels cheered us and we thanked them for their help.
That night, back in Vienna, I wired my wife, "We are both safe and well.” We had agreed before I left home that success alone would justify the cost of a telegram. If I failed there was to be only a letter, or perhaps nothing. As it was, I had only enough money left for one airplane ticket to London. So, leaving Steve with a friend of Catherine’s in Vienna, I went there alone to borrow more from some friends. Next day the Red Cross Hew Steve over to join me.
Now we are all together again in Canada. We have a small fiat in the west etui of Toronto, where most of our neighbors are European immigrants, like ourselves. Steve has a job and he goes to night school. Already he is learning to speak English and he is so pleased with each new phrase that he takes every chance to use it. Not long ago he walked up to a policeman, tipped his cap and said, “Good evening, sir." No matter that it was 1 I a.m.—the boy is trying.
I, too, am having troubles with the tongue. The day after we arrived back from Hungary I took Steve down to the bakery to show him off to my boss, Max Hartstone. After all, Max had two hundred dollars invested in him.
Max was smiling all over when we walked in. "Well, well," he said, “and who is this young fellow?”
Do you know?—I could hardly answer him. Fifteen years I have been father to a boy, but still I am not yet used to being able to tell people, “This is my son." ★