Vignettes of My Life
By Katalin Dalmath
Gabe's mother, Katalin (Kate), recalls her life in her own words, from childhood through the present.
Early Childhood Memories (1925-1928)
I was born in Budapest, Hungary, on the 16th of March, 1922.
The capital of Hungary, Budapest, is the largest city in the country, with about a million people in population. It was built on both banks of the Danube. The right bank, Buda is the hilly, more elegant, more expensive and less congested area. The homes have large gardens, most apartment houses are small, 12-24 apartment each. The Castle Hill (residence of all the kings from the thirteenth century on), the beautiful Gellert Hill with one of the many thermal spas in the area, the well-maintained parks, the view rising above the Danube makes Buda fascinating. The left bank, Pest is flat, busy, commercial, with huge apartment houses, bustling with people. Some part of it is industrial zoning, some house big department stores, the boulevards were always lined with stores, banks, offices. Pest is also the cultural center, with many theatres, movie houses, the Opera House, concert halls, outstanding museums, etc.
For centuries, Buda and Pest were two separate cities on the banks of the Danube. All river transport had to be suspended in the winters for months, until the first permanent bridge, the Chain Bridge was constructed over the Danube in the 1840s. It was only around this time, that to unite the two cities was first seriously suggested. The official unification of Pest and Buda took place in 1872. A small territory of Obuda (Old Buda), situated north of Buda, was also attached to the city. These three units formed the capital of Hungary, Budapest. The new capital enjoyed equal rights with Vienna, for in 1867 Hungary acquired the rank of co-dominion with Austria within the Habsburg Empire. World War I ended the Habsburg Empire and Hungary was dismembered, but Budapest remains the heart of the country and one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
My memories go back as far as I was 3 years old, or little younger. I was a very happy child as I remember. I never had any demands or desires and my mother had a hard time finding out, what kind of candy or toy I would like. There was a toy store near to our home and she took me window-shopping almost every day, as I remember. Dolls where not my favorites, crayons, drawing pads, balls made me happy. I loved those paper dolls you could dress up, also the beautiful printed flowers – I collected them all and arranged them in albums. (This habit stayed with me all my life.)
We were walking a lot, my mother (Aranka) and I. We lived in Pest; near the beautiful City Park (Varosliget). In the middle of the park we stopped at the little candy store where I could choose a big penny-candy. To decide on the color made me feel important. We also passed the little old man with the huge pole of pretzels – I could never understand, why I couldn't pick the top one...
The park had a big lake, full of life, fish, frogs, turtles, ducks, and swans. Feeding them or trying to catch them was a must every time we walked by. Those tiny green frogs were my friends even then.
There was a big castle in the park (Vajda Hunyad Var) – housing the Natural History Museum. I was a little scared of that area. There was a monument – a man hiding behind his big hood, sitting on his marble bench (the 15th Century poet and historian named "Anonymous"). It was a must to go to the other side of the road for safe passing...
I loved to pick flowers, my favorite was the dandelion. I was so proud to present my mother with that big bunch – and she loved it so much...
Summer was a lot of fun in the park, like catching those ladybugs and watching them crawling all over my fingers and then flying away, or collecting snails in a match box just to release them at the edge of the park before we headed home.
My memories from the winter are less vivid. The lake in the City Park froze in the winter and we watched the ice skaters and ice hockey players from the "big bridge" crossing the lake.
I remember a red sled sitting in our hallway most of the time. Once in a while my parents put all those warm clothes on me, wrapping me in a blanket and we headed to the City Park – my father pulling the sled. I could hardly wait to get home, I was so cold...
I loved sitting in the window, watching the snow fall and make the street white.
I also remember catching those snowflakes and watching them melting away in my hand.
The best days were those when we went to my grandmother's house! My grandmother (Rose), my grandfather (Zsigmond), and my aunt (Elizabeth) lived on the other side of Pest.
Just to get there was great fun. My mother and I, we walked to the tramway, which took us close to my grandparents' house. It was an about 45 minute ride. I was looking out the window all the time, watching the people walking, cars, bicycles, horse-drown carriages and wagons passing by. Another short walk and we were at their house, going up in that huge elevator to the fourth floor of the big apartment house. My mother left me with them for the whole day!
A wide balcony was wrapped around the apartment, we ate there in the summertime. I remember those heart-shaped holes in the balcony, where I could look down the little park below. Everything was so small down there. I tried to find my grandfather, whom – with other older men – chatted the days away, smoking his pipe.
On a nice summer day we sometimes went to the farmers' market. It was a long walk, but I was looking forward to all those interesting things we will see there. My grandmother carried a big basket and I had my own little pink basket, which I was ready to fill with all the goodies. All those fruits and vegetables, flowers, baked goods, preserves, honey and dried fruits, meats, eggs and live chickens were very exciting.
The best days were, when my grandmother had to buy live chickens! It was always my duty to pick one white and one gray or brown. I had to touch them carefully because they were very hot sitting on the sun in those big cages. The farmer tied them together by their legs and we headed home. We always took the tramway going home, since our baskets were quite heavy. They were a lot of people with live chickens on the tramway... I'll never forget those market-days.
We had a nice size cage at the end of the balcony waiting for the chickens to arrive. They were happy in their new home, I filled the water dish, gave them food and watched my first pets to peck, peck, peck... I said good-bye to them when my mother came to pick me up. I never made the connection between them and the wonderful chicken-paprika or chicken soup my grandmother served for dinner or lunch. If I was looking for them at my next visit, she simply said: They are gone, we will buy new ones soon.
I loved to watch my grandmother cook. She was so fast with the knife. She made those home made noodles, slicing 4-5 narrow sheets piled up. We ate it as a dessert, topped with apricot preserve, walnut-sugar mix or ground poppy seed mixed with sugar.
Many times she made strudels. She covered the big kitchen table with a white sheet, sprinkled flour on it and kept pulling the strudel-dough, until it became very thin. We usually had strudel for lunch, filled with cabbage or cottage cheese mixed with sugar and raisin. When my mother came to pick me up, she gave us the leftovers to take home. It was a wonderful treat!
I did not have many toys at my grandparents' place. My best times were when I played with the "buttons". My grandma had a big red tin can full of all sorts of buttons, many-many different sizes, colors and materials. I spent hours and hours sorting them, creating different patterns on the floor: circles, stars, houses, trains, etc. When I was a little older, I started to make necklaces, bracelets, belts and other interesting things for everybody. Those buttons were an important part of my early years.
Another fascinating happening was when the washwomen came to their house.
The laundry room was on the fifth floor. The elevator did not go up there, so we had to walk up on those big-big steps. The laundry room took up a good part of the fifth floor.
I vividly remember the three wooden wash tubs, a big iron kettle on the top of an oven, the "mangle" machine for sheets and other flat clothes, different types of ironing boards and a lot of lines for hanging and drying the clean stuff.
The whole setup was very mysterious and a little scary. The cheerful, kind, big women called me "Little Young Lady" (Kisasszony – in Hungarian).
Sometimes I slept over. My grandfather read me bedtime stories. He always started with my favorites: Little Red Riding-Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella. He made sure, he has something new and interesting for me to listen until I fell asleep.
I think of my grandparents with great love. They lived a long, quiet life. My grandfather was 82 and my grandmother was 92 when they passed away.
(My grandfather on my father's side died young, he was dead by the time I was born. My grandmother on my father's side died when I was 5 years old, but we were never close. Once in a while my father took me to her for a short visit. My mother never came with us – they did not like each other. I only remember sitting there on the floor, cutting out pictures from magazines.)
We lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a quite elegant apartment house.
I remember the wide marble staircase, the dark green tiles on the wall, the big cast iron door and the small elevator. Our apartment had a wide, long hallway, it was perfect for riding my tricycle or pushing my dolls carriage, playing with balls or marbles.
The big kitchen, the maid’s room and the huge dining room were at one end of the hallway.
On the other end a double door opened to the "salon" (a combination of living room and family room). Two doors opened to the two bedrooms. I always had my own bedroom, ever since I remember. Everything was white in my bedroom – I think – but I really liked our hallway the best.
By the time I woke up in the morning, my father was long gone, his workday started early.
(My father, Dezso, started a small cobbler store and developed it to a shoe-manufacturing factory. He had around 200 workers, huge machines in a large factory building. I can still remember the wonderful smell of the leather, I loved to visit him there, it was fascinating! The shoes were sold exclusively in the 5 retail stores managed by his four younger brothers. It was a very successful family business.)
After a nice breakfast it was playtime with my mother until about noon. Our main meal was around 12:30-1:00 PM and by that time my father came home. The three of us always had a great time together around the dinner table. Good food, nice conversations, interesting stories – it was the highlight of the day. I had to go to my room to take a nap. My father also had a short little rest most of the time, before he went back to work. The house was very quiet this time of the day.
The afternoons went by very quickly. We always had to go somewhere with my mother, visiting, shopping, strolling in the City Park... By the time I had my supper and was ready to go to bed, my father came home. I was waiting for the bedtime stories only he could tell so well. Before he read one of my chosen books for the evening, I asked for my favorite, a story he made up about a little girl named Judy, who wandered too deep in the forest while picking flowers. The kind animals that lived in the forest, helped her find the way home. I knew the story word by word and if he left out some or changed it from the original, I corrected it the way I expected to hear it. I'm sure, I was asleep by the end of the book reading that followed.
Some evenings my parents left me with our maid. They had an active social life, wide circle of friends, theatre, movies, opera, concerts, etc. These maids were young girls, about 15-16 years old.
They finished their compulsory schooling, 4 years elementary and 4 years middle school near to their small family farm in the country. Their parents sent them to Budapest, to further their education, learn how to cook, clean houses, become a little more sophisticated – maybe stay in the big City for good... These girls became part of our little family for awhile, not staying with us longer than a year, maybe two. All of them were my good friends who told me many interesting stories about their life on the farms.
We lived not only walking distance to the City Park and the Zoo, the Heroes' Square and several museums, but also very near to a beautiful thermal bath, spa and pool, named "Szecheny Strand". Summer was wonderful. We went to the spa on weekends, when my father was not working. It was always crowded, lots of people and children everywhere. They couldn't get me out of the wading pool all day long, except for lunch – in one of the spa's several restaurants. Those days were always too short, it was so much fun. I was too tired to walk home, I remember my father carrying me all the way home over his shoulders.
There was another pool nearby, a big Olympic size pool, no sand, no restaurants, no wading pool, just benches all around. This was the place, where children learned how to swim. On my 5th birthday my parents said, that I am old enough now to take swimming lessons in the summer. I could hardly wait to go for my first lesson. The instructor put a belt around me, attached it to a heavy rope and a pole. I was hanging above the water for quite a while, moving my arms and legs in a breaststroke fashion. He counted: one (arms), two (legs) and carefully let me down into the water. He then started to pull me slowly ahead.
I was supposed to learn in 10 lessons, but I was swimming on my own after a few sessions and never stopped since... I was in my element for sure! I never forget that great summer.
An other important happening was in that summer: Preparation to start school!
I felt so proud; I was a big girl, going to school in the fall! My mother took me shopping for clothes, backpack, lunch box, I started to grow up...my early childhood ended on a happy note!
Growing Up (1929-1941) Part One
It was the fall of 1928. I was six years old and I started school!
My parents chose a nearby private school for me, the Protestant Orphanage, about 15 minutes walking distance from our house. The orphan girls and boys were together with the private students – also boys and girls – in the classroom. We had small classes, not more than 15 children in the class. I loved to go to school, it was interesting, never boring, fun...
The orphans wore uniforms, nice sailor’s suits. I wished I had to wear the same. Not that I didn't like the way my mother dressed me – always cute, simple, comfortable – but those uniforms were the envy of the private students.
We had individual school benches, the girls on one side, the boys on the other side of the classroom. The inkwells were not filled until the third grade – pencils were our tools still. It was fun and easy to learn the secrets of writing and reading, we had no homework to take home, just interesting stories about the school days. How can I forget the huge abacus – almost as big as the blackboard, we had to use a special cane to move the balls. We also had a small abacus on every bench – learning the basics was truly a lot of fun. I was a good student all my life, nothing but straight A's for me...
I had to get up at seven o'clock in the morning, we left the house by 7:30 AM and we started to walk with my mother – rain or shine, snow or freezing weather – every school day. Half way to the school we stopped at the big delicatessen store. It was my duty and pride to pick my snack for the 10 o'clock break. It was always a big, fresh roll, cut in half, buttered and loaded with my choice of the day: cheese, ham, bologna or salami. I also picked a piece of fruit: orange, apple or banana. This was the ritual during my elementary school years.
We got to school before eight o'clock, always on time, regardless of the weather!
On the 10 o'clock break all the children and teachers went to the big gym and set around the long tables with benches, eating their snacks. The school provided a small bottle of milk for everybody. On the first day of school – if it was not exciting enough – I got sick from the milk and from then on I got cocoa instead.
Fridays were movie days. After the break, we paired up and walked in a long line to the movie house, about 100-120 of us with our teachers. We filled the little theatre completely and enjoyed the cartoons and the silent films for children. Only the orphans had to go back to the school, our parents were waiting for us at the movie house.
About twice a week we stopped on our way home at a bakery. My mother and I had to have our favorite pastries: Me a Napoleon, she a Rigo Jancsi (a rich chocolate cake filled with whipped cream). I'll never forget the taste and smell of that warm, fresh treat... We sat at that little ice cream parlor table, enjoying the pastry, laughing, talking, having a good time.
I had my 10th birthday, when I was in the fourth grade. My mother said, that I can invite all my good friends to a party. I had a few really good friends outside the school but I also invited the whole class. About 25 of us, boys and girls, had a great time, but the highlight was the huge ice cream parfait in the shape of a giant fruit basket, filled with all sorts of fruits – all made of ice cream – it was the talk of the class for days.
I had a hard time saying good-bye to my first school and went back for years, visiting the kind old Principal, some of the orphans, and teachers. It was almost as if I knew, that my carefree, happy and easy school days were ending right there...
Growing Up (1929-1941) Part Two
The summer was very busy. I went swimming, my new German "Tante" came to the house twice a week for the whole afternoon, and I started learning to play tennis.
The swimming was a total relaxation from all the other activities. I loved the mornings in the pool, my mother took me there to take part in the swim team lessons. It was great fun!
Five to six of us walked home together with one of the mothers in charge. The girls and boys in the swim team became my good friends for many years.
My "Tante" was a young Austrian women, very kind and lot of laughs. I could only speak German with her – no Hungarian words, please! By the end of the summer I spoke a pretty good German. During the school season she came only once a week, in a few years my German was quite good.
The most interesting happening was my introduction to tennis. The tennis court was on the school ground, where I was going to go in the fall. Not a private school, but a very good middle school, about a five-minute walk from my home. I was walking to the tennis lessons by myself.
(My mother was on the other side of the road, way behind me, watching me, for weeks before she let go...) I enjoyed tennis and became a good player in a short time.
We went for a two to three-week vacation every summer as far back as I can remember. The favorite was when we stayed at Lake Balaton. Getting there was exciting too. A taxicab picked us up with all the luggage (very few people owned a car) and took us to the railroad station. The steam engine was ready to go, pulling the long line of railroad cars. How can I forget those hours looking out the window, watching the countryside going by. The cows, the sheep, horses, big cornfields were all so interesting for me, the city girl. The small farmhouses, forests, little lakes along the way are memories I'll never forget.
Lake Balaton was crowded in the summer, every house rented, every hotel fully booked. The sandy beaches, the long walks in the shallow water, the swimming in the deep water far from the beach, the boat rides, the amusement parks – every child's dream.
We also vacationed in the mountains, the Matra, the Bukk and other famous mountains, only four to five hour railroad rides from Budapest. Here we had those long walks in the forests, my father loved these vacations, he loved the mountains and nature. He knew all the flowers and trees and told me their names. He pointed out the littlest living beings – we were watching the busy ants, the butterflies, the colorful beetles, listening to the birds songs – the mountains were beautiful... The summer vacations were important parts of my childhood, good times, fun and games, learning and remembering...
The summer went by quickly and I was ready to start middle school. It was a big change for me! First of all, I was going to school by myself, meeting a few other kids on the way. It was only a short walk and we didn't have to cross the street. The school was huge – compared to my little private elementary school, big gym with a lot of equipments, tennis court – which became ice-skating rink in the winter – and big class sizes. We were about 40 kids in a class, still one side for the girls, the other for the boys. We also had to wear uniforms. Now I had my own sailor's uniform, navy blue skirt, white linen blouse with sailor's collar and cuffs. It was fine with me, for four years this was the rule...I also had to wear those high, tall shoes laced way above the ankles, white leather in the winter, white linen in the summer. (I had a few black patent leader shoes for dress-up occasions.)
I remember these middle school years as my busiest, least fun years of my life. Learning so many new things, studying, getting there on time for my different activities was not much fun at all. I started piano lessons, my lovely young teacher came twice a week to our house – somebody finally played on the big Schweighoffer piano!
I loved the teacher, but playing the piano was not a "natural" for me. I had lessons for eight years, and the most I got out of it was, that I learned to love classical music, easily recognize the composers and understand music in general.
My German "Tante" came for another two years, until I was 12 years old. Then I started to go to a language teacher to learn French and later English. Twice a week I went to Mrs. Phillips, an elderly Austrian language teacher, for two years to learn French and then picking up English later. She was a sweet little lady, with thick glasses, sometimes she used the magnifying glass to see, she gave very little homework, for that I was grateful. I was never too good in languages, by now I started to forget how to speak German – one language at a time for me...
I also started to go to a private gymnastic school, twice a week. I loved all about this school. Gymnastics, a little ballet, lot of games, running, jumping, rope climbing, tumbling, music, dress-up in leotards, or ballet shoes, pretty pink tutus – it was fun!
The four years of middle school went by quickly. We had to make a choice, what kind of school I should go for the next four years. It was a choice of a so-called Gymnasium or the Commercial Academy. Since there were many Gymnasiums and only one Commercial Academy, you had to be an A or B student to get in. It was no problem for me, being a straight A student all my school years, so we choose the Commercial Academy. It was a wonderful school!
The class sizes became smaller again, 20-25 student in a class, girls and boys mixed. Everybody had a desk, like a big office. No more uniform, we were big girls and boys. We had many teachers, 4-5 different ones daily. Heavy on math, geometry, economics, trade and commerce, we also had all the other subjects, history, literature, etc. The students graduated with an all-around knowledge and could automatically enroll in the College of Economics for two years – as I did – and earned an Accounting degree.
But let's go back to starting this high school. We were moving! My parents built a house on the other side of the City Park and we moved in during the summer of 1936. For me it was hard to say good-bye to the old apartment where I grew up, but they were happy to go to a house with much more room, and a big garden. Everything was so spacious! Huge living room, big dining room and a modern great kitchen. I loved the new house, I had a much bigger room, with my very own walk-in closet and my own little balcony facing the garden. My father was the gardener, he created a nice garden with many fruit-trees, (apples. pears and apricots grew fast), plenty of flower beds and walk ways.
It was another interesting development, I had to ride the train every day to the school – only one stop away from the terminal, but still a train ride. Then I had about a 15-minute walk to the school. In bad weather, a few of us had a good excuse to be late, since we were the "Train-riders"
I had some new friends in the new school, they were not neighborhood friends, like I had before, but they came from all over the city. One of my best friend, Agnes and I decided one Sunday afternoon, that we go to this five o'clock dance in a lovely little coffee house. It was November 13, 1938. We both had our 16th birthday, we were big girls.
We started to dance with these two boys and they joined us at our table. The rest is history...
Andy and I started dating right away, he asked me out for ice-skating for next Sunday. I did not tell him, that I hated ice-skating. During my Middle school years, I went to the ice-skating rink (which was the tennis court in the summer) and I was always so very cold. My hands, my feet never warmed up, but I became a fairly good ice-skater.
We met every Sunday afternoon, going to the movies, theatre, concerts – no more ice skating – so I had a boyfriend. Whenever he could, he waited for me on the street at the school and we walked together to the train station on weekdays. He was working in a men's clothing store as a salesman, helping his mother as much as he could. I was never told the full story of his family until later.
(Andy had a stormy childhood. His beloved father was ailing a long time, he had a serious heart condition. Andy was 11 years old, when he lost his father, whom he worshiped. He had to work to help his mother until she remarried. They moved to the country, Andy changed schools several times. They had to come back to Budapest because his stepfather lost their vineyard on card games. Andy went back to work, leaving his high school without graduating. He got his diploma two years later, going to evening school. His mother never showed any appreciation or kindness toward him, she was a demanding selfish mother, later an unkind mother-in-law.)
We had wonderful Sundays together for a long time. Meanwhile the dark clouds gathered all over Europe. The newspapers, and the radio news were full of alarming facts about the growing German peril. Nazi Germany wants to conquer the whole world!
Our own story and the bigger story around us became intertwined as we entered the War Years.
The War Years (1941-1945) Part One
Everybody wanted to believe Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, that we will have peace in our lifetime... but we all knew somehow, that it will not happen.
The German war machine was in full swing, slowly devouring one country after the other.
In Hungary, things were relatively calm in 1939, but people were concerned, worried about the future. Nobody felt anxiety about immediate danger, so people tried to go about their every day life, as usual... My fondest memories from this year are two vacations. One with my parents in the summer, the other with my class mates during the winter break at the end of the year.
I was 17 years old and felt very grown up. I figured, that this would be my last vacation with my parents. (I had no idea how right I was...)
We and two other families, good friends of my parents (their children were good friends of mine), rented a nice house (a so called "Villa") with three apartments in a lovely Spa-village in Yugoslavia, called Rogaska Slatina (Rohics in Hungarian). The place was famous for its spas and bitter but good for you mineral water.
We spent the whole month of July there. I was swimming, playing tennis, walking in and out of those tiny stores loaded with merchandise, catering to tourists, listening to the afternoon concerts, dancing at night after dinner, etc. Also writing a lot of postcards to my boyfriend, Andy, and receiving some. My mother was never interested in sightseeing trips, so my father and I took a lot of one-day bus tours, while she was happy to stay in the village with her friends. We went to beautiful places: Bled, with its famous lake and Split, a busy seaside vacation spot. We went for two days to Ragusa (later called Dubrovnik) on the Adriatic Sea.
Our most adventurous trip was to the Dinaric Alps, where we hiked with a small group (I was the only girl going with my father, the rest of the group included the other fathers without their children) to the top of the highest peak. It was a spectacular sight on the top, but getting there was also amazing. The little wild cyclamens growing in the snow, the eagles above us, the white snow bunnies hopping everywhere – how can I ever forget it?! This vacation created memories for a lifetime.
The senior class students were offered a nice two-week vacation during the winter break after Christmas. It was January, 1940. My parents decided that I should go, the first time in my life alone, without them – but with plenty of supervision from our teachers. About 40 girls and boys signed up to go on this ski-vacation, to Czechoslovakia, to the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. We went by train as far as we could and continued by bus to go to a village in Rusinsko. It was a tiny little village with no hotels, so we stayed at local families, two girls or two boys per house. The guest rooms were clean, the straw mattresses, white sheets, pillows and huge down-feather comforters were inviting. The houses had dirt floors and thatched roofs. One big oven heated the whole house, part of it was used as a stove for cooking. It was a new experience for us big city kids. The people were kind, happy, satisfied with their life. Their language was Rusin, a dialect of the Ukrainian language, but they all spoke Hungarian too. (This area belonged to Hungary for centuries and everybody had to learn the Hungarian language. After the end of World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Trianon butchered Hungary by creating new countries like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania. Rusinsko became part of Czechoslovakia.)
Mornings, our hosts served us wonderful breakfasts and for lunch and dinner we went to the only tavern in the village. After a short walk out of the village we were at the ski-slopes. We were all self-taught skiers, all mostly beginners, willing to try everything. The small "Idioten-Wiese" (German for the stupid beginners) suited us perfectly. We worked hard to get up to the top of the hill, (T-bars or chair-lifts were unknown to our hosts).Sliding down was the easy part! We watched in amazement, how the local men schussed down from the very top of the mountain – not on skis or sleds, but on their shoes at an unbelievable speed. These special shoes had long, pointed toes, turning up at the points like skis, beautifully embroidered like their shirts or other garments.
The evenings were also special, dancing, singing, listening to the howling of the wolves, watching the men making juniper berry brandy (it was a big seller for the village, poured in long, narrow bottles with the berries floating in them) or try to learn some stitches from the women to make our own souvenirs. It was a wonderful trip with unforgettable memories.
1940 started out to be a good year for me, graduating with honors at the Academy and enrolled to the College of Economics. I found out that starting in the Fall I only had to go three times weekly to lectures, the rest was homework. Meanwhile, Andy got his high school diploma too. With his stormy childhood he had a lot of catching up to do.
The summer changed everything. My father had a heart attack!! I was having lunch with my parents in a restaurant. We enjoyed being together as usual, when without any warning sign, my father fainted and fell on the floor. By a lucky coincidence, there was a doctor at another table, who gave him a caffeine injection while we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive. This saved his life, but he became an invalid for the next 20 years. He was just 50 years old, never sick, just a strong, very active, healthy man. He had Angina Pectoris, which created several blood clots and thrombosis during the coming 20 years. Nowadays a simple bypass operation could have solved all his problems, but in 1940 it was only bed rest, some medication and hope.
His working years were over, and every day was a challenge to stay alive. Luckily my parents had enough savings, so they didn't have to worry about finances. My mother became his devoted nurse for the rest of his life. I had an excellent example when my turn came...
The War Years (1941-1945) Part Two
The coming years brought turmoil to Europe. While Hungary was left alone in a relative peace, one country after another was occupied by the Germans. First came Austria, then Czechoslovakia and later Poland. I don't remember the exact dates and timing, the history books can provide those. I know, France came last and also remember Pearl Harbor – will the U.S. get involved? This was the big question in Europe.
Hungary – as usual – joined the wrong side becoming an ally of Germany and the Axis countries: Italy, Japan, etc. We lived in fear, what's coming – nobody knew.
I was studying, Andy had to join the army, my father was very weak but alive, the years just went by, sad, uncertain years.
Andy was stationed in Budapest in the biggest army depot in the country. He was away only for 3 months at the beginning of his army years. We wrote each other every single day.
When he settled in Budapest, he was working in the army carpentry shop for the whole duration. He loved to work with wood and became an experienced carpenter over the years. He was practically free to come and go, so we saw each other almost every day.
We became engaged in 1942 on my birthday. My parents bought a condo for me as a wedding present. It was in Buda, a very nice neighborhood and in a well-built elegant house. It was on the first floor, facing the garden.
We looked for furniture and all the household items needed. I had a completely furnished home, ready to move in. I was 21 years old, Andy just past his 24th birthday.
We were married on the 19th of August, 1943. The times were not right for lavish weddings. I was dressed in my homemade wedding gown, created by our trusted seamstress. Andy wore a rented cut-away tuxedo. We had an afternoon dinner in my parent’s house for about 12 people and off we went. The taxicab took us to our new home in Buda – it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
Early in 1944, the German army started to make a move to secure the shaky Russian front.
We heard all sorts of rumors – unbelievable rumors by eye witnesses and escaped Jews – about concentration camps, killing the Jewish population by the thousands (nobody imagined millions), the news from the fronts were also mixed. Everybody listened to the BBC station's Free Europe broadcasts from 11 PM. to Midnight. This news was different than the official news in the radio and newspapers. Who do you believe? What to do? We were helpless, nobody knew what tomorrow would bring.
On a Sunday, early March, 1944 the German army tanks and trucks full of soldiers drove thru Budapest and the countryside: Germany officially occupied Hungary. Budapest became totally silent. You couldn't hear a sound in this busy, lively, big city. Nobody was on the streets, nothing moved, everybody was stunned. It was sort of acceptable to be an ally of Germany, but to be occupied – it was outrageous!
The Hungarian fascists became the ruling force very quickly in matter of hours. Everything changed and we started to feel the war coming to our doorsteps. The Nyilas (Arrow Cross) Party ordered the Jewish people to wear the yellow star. First they started to pick up Jewish families of Polish descendent. One of my dear friends and her family were among them. They all perished. Shortly a ghetto was built in Budapest in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The "Arian people" had to move out and settle in the abandoned Jewish homes. The Nazi plan was to empty the ghetto and send everybody to the death-camps. (Since it was the end of the summer, 1944 when all these activities started, the Germans ran out of time to carry out the plan. In spite of terrible circumstances and constant hunger, most Hungarian Jews came out alive from the ghetto, after the Russians opened the gates.)
Meanwhile people started to disappear without a trace. The Hungarian Army was under German command, ordered to the more and more hopeless Russian front. During the "Battle of the Don river-bend" half of the Hungarian Army was killed or became prisoner of war and never came home. The Allied Forces found a new target to bomb in order to destroy the German war-machine: Occupied Hungary and our beautiful Budapest had to learn to live with the constant air-raids and falling bombs…
Everybody felt that we were at the beginning of a big battle, and tomorrow only bring something worst than what we had today. The airplanes kept coming day and night, the air raid sirens sounded always a few minutes after the bombs fell, people running to the designated shelters – unless it was too late to get there – we were helpless and terrified...
I had an experience myself one day. The air raid sirens sounded, I was to go around the corner, a big apartment house was our designated shelter, where the whole basement was reinforced and equipped with bunk beds, food, etc. When I stepped out from our house to the street, I heard the whistling sound of the bombs coming down. I knew I had no time to go to the shelter, so I went down in our own basement. A few minutes later, the whole house started to shake, a major hit nearby made an unbelievable noise, then eerie silence.
The shelter I was supposed to have gone to, got a direct hit. The whole house collapsed and buried close to 300 people in that so-called reinforced shelter. Very few came out alive. I was spared that day... This house – or the ground upon which it once stood – will have a little role in my story later.
During this period, from March to early September, 1944, Andy was in the Army Depot, in the carpentry shop, but also drove a big army truck and came home almost every day. My parents were on the other side of the town, in Pest, in their house, mostly in the makeshift air raid shelter in their basement. Andy's mother and stepfather lived a few blocks away from us in a large apartment house with a fairly good shelter.
The War Years (1941-1945) Part Three
The immediate result of the German occupation was that the Germans had the power to confiscate everything and anything they wanted or needed.
The farmers were their first targets. The silos became empty, the farm products went to the German army first, then to the Hungarian army, and after most of the goods were taken, the people got a little leftover morsel.
The big cities' stores and warehouses were emptied in a very short time. We learned to buy what we could if we were lucky enough to get to a store at the exact moment they had something to sell. Food stamps and other similar rations were not working, we had nothing much to ration...
Every household had a little stock of all sorts of things, canned goods were the most valuable. It was amazing to experience, how quickly people realize how to prepare for an upcoming siege. But meanwhile we had to live on our precious goods. After a few months, we had very little storage, and there were long lines for all kinds of merchandise. We were at war.
The news from the Russian front was distorted, claiming German victories, misleading the whole population. The huge casualties suffered by the Hungarian army never reached the newspapers, or radio. There was never one word about the concentration camps. The death of millions came as a shock to everybody after the war. The true happenings were hermetically sealed and only by listening nightly to the Radio Free Europe broadcast, did we get a glimpse into the reality.
By the end of the summer in 1944, Budapest suffered lost lives, collapsed buildings, factories were bombed and rendered useless. Railroads and roads were constant targets, but our beautiful bridges were intact, still standing, the Allied Forces sparing them from distraction.
By early September our city was totally surrounded by Russian forces. The German army was running, blowing up everything behind them. There was not one bridge standing to help the Russians cross rivers. The countryside was in flames, with people hiding in wine cellars, basements, and make-shift shelters trying to stay alive.
At first, when the bombs hit our houses, we did not know what they were. We did not hear airplanes, and the familiar whistling sounds of falling bombs before they hit their targets. We learned quickly, however, to be aware of the huge cannons surrounding the city, and waited helplessly for the next hit.
The siege had begun in full blast! The Germans had no way out, they started to fight for their lives. The door-to-door battle started in Pest in October and lasted until the beginning of the New Year. Every street, every corner, every house was involved. It was a difficult and slow advance by the Russian army, sometimes taking back areas by the Germans, causing never ending suffering for the people there.
It was a very cold, snowy severe winter, starting with a big snowstorm in November. This came as a blessing for us, since we had no water in the whole city. The Water Works were destroyed very early by the precise aiming of those cannons. The clean, fresh snow was our water supply.
We were staying with my parents during the whole siege. When the news came in September that we were surrounded by the Russians, we packed our little leftover food supply, and most of our heavy winter clothes, blankets, etc. Andy brought the army truck he had been driving for years, we said good-buy to our home, closed the shutters, closed the doors and drove to my parents' house. Andy took the truck back to the army depot and never looked back. Like everyone else, he deserted the Hungarian Army. In the total chaos every person tried to stay alive somehow…
It was a good decision to go to my parents’ house. They felt protected by us being there and combining our food supply – as little as it was – made a difference. They had a well-built cellar giving us some protection from the air raids and everything else to come. We had beds and a small wood burning stove down there. We slept in the cellar for months and were also able to cook some hot food on the little stove.
By October we had no water, gas or electricity. Andy was the only person, who ventured out bravely to look for some food. One day he came back with two heavy sacks he found in the supply room of one of the burned out factories. It was 25 kilo of split pea and 25 kilo of Farina. It saved all of us from starvation. It was a feast when he came back one day with a big piece of horse meat. He found that dead army horse and with a few other men they carved up that poor casualty of war, a valuable finding under the circumstances. I can still taste the miserable, sweet taste of that horse meat! I also promised to myself that I will never ever eat split peas in my life.
The fierce fighting continued all through December, people living in their basements, shelters, hoping that it will somehow end. Constant shelling by the cannons, firing the guns, machine guns, throwing those "Molotov Cocktails" – we knew all the different sounds and hoped that we will be saved somehow from a hit.
We had a tiny window in the cellar so we could look outside. One morning, early January, it was unusually quiet, no guns, no tanks, an eerie silence outside. We noticed a soldier slowly walking by – an unfamiliar uniform – then we saw the red star on his fur-cap. The Russians took over our streets! People did not rush outside at all, we were just as cautious with the Russians as with the Germans.
But a few men – Andy among them of course – started to go outside and watched a whole squadron settling down not too far from our house in a big factory building. They set up a kitchen and Andy came back with a big pot of hot cabbage soup, loaded with fatty big pieces of meat!
This first helping hand to our starving population set the tone at the beginning of our Russian experience. The food just kept coming, Andy became friendly with the cook, helped them out with small chores and we got used to the Russian army food.
But there were disturbing rumors also. The soldiers were looking for women, any age, any kind. Andy hastily created a false wall from lumber he found outside (there was no shortage of debris and junk on the streets). My mother and I spent a lot of morning hours behind this wall. It was very effective, looked real and saved both of us several times from become victims.
The fighting continued to chase the German army out of Pest. They created a strong-hold in Buda, around the Castle Hill. And then came the biggest tragedy to our city. The Germans retreated, giving up Pest to the Russians. On their way to the new battleground in Buda, the Germans blew up all our famous, beautiful bridges. The Chain Bridge, the first of its kind in the world, lay on the bottom of the Danube. The gracious Elizabeth Bridge and all the other eight bridges were destroyed. The Royal Palace was burned to the ground and the sight became the new headquarters for the Germans. They were surrounded, hopeless, but fighting to the last man. The most damage to Budapest happened during these last weeks. Pest and Buda were burning. The fighting lasted until the end of February 1945, when the whole city was eventually occupied by the Russians.
Suddenly Budapest came alive. People were on the streets, getting used to the new landscape – the ruins, torn up streets, missing buildings, missing neighbors... It was a sad sight, but we were alive!!! Pest and Buda were separated by the Danube since we lost all the bridges. We were still living in my parents' house, waiting for some kind of bridge to connect Pest and Buda, so we could go home. We hoped, that our home would be waiting for us in livable condition.
We had to get used to seeing Russian soldiers wherever we turned. They roamed the streets, looking for anything to grab or bargain for. Wristwatches were at a premium. They were collecting them, having 10-12 wristwatches on their arms, and looking for more. Everyone ran out of these watches, giving them away for sugar, flour, some meat, canned goods, etc.
We started to understand, that the living standard we used to have in Hungary was so much higher than it was in the Soviet Union. Some soldiers were amazed by indoor plumbing and easily confused the bathtub with the toilette. Most of these men had been at war for many, many years. They came mostly from little villages, isolated from the rest of the world. They had no idea what the western culture could provide but they learned fast and gathered as much goods as they could. As later we learned, everything was taken away from them, before they headed home. The communist regime, as we would soon experience, was as cruel to its own as it was to the rest of the world.
The black market – which at first we had no idea what that meant – started to gain control. The burned out storefronts were used, sellers needing only a table to display whatever they had, nylon stockings, food items from the U.S. Army rations, stolen goods from burned out homes, artwork, furniture, everything. But it started to bring back some lively mood, it was a beginning.
By the end of February 1945, we hoped that the promised pontoon bridge would be up soon, so we could start heading home. It finally happened and one early morning we said a temporary good-bye to my parents and started to walk home.
The whole population was walking. There were no buses, tramways, taxis, just plain walking. The few trucks were Russian army trucks, and we had to keep away from them. The Russian soldiers had the "bad habit" of grabbing men from the street for "a little work." Most of these unfortunate men disappeared for one or two years, working somewhere in Siberia. Many never came home, and died there under miserable conditions. A dear friend of ours, Andy's childhood friend, fell victim to this type of deportation and died in one of the many labor camps.
By noon we arrived at the pontoon bridge. There was a huge crowd, slowly moving ahead. The temporary bridge was set upon big boats, so we were only a few feet above the water.
The Danube carried big chunks of ice yet and countless dead human bodies, some in clothing, but most of them naked. They piled up at the bridge, not be able to flow downstream. It was a horrifying sight, shocking and sad, representing the misery of the war. We were speechless, people crossed the river in total silence, some crying, some fainting, everybody in shock.
When we set foot on the bank on the Buda side, we were only a few hours away from our home. We gathered all our strength and kept going. We got home before dark. We saw our house standing, full of bullet holes on the walls. It withstood the siege very well. We opened the door and to our amazement we found everything in place, not even a window broken. We came home, happy and sad, but home.
The war was yet not over in Europe. Heavy fighting and a lot of casualties occurred on the Western front until April – but our War Years were over...
Post War Era, Under the Communist Regime – Part One
World War II was almost over. The Nazis were running, facing total defeat on all the fronts. The Pacific front was still very active but it was truly of secondary importance for the Europeans.
As far as the Hungarian people were concerned, the war was over. Budapest came alive in no time.
It is hard to describe the feeling everybody experienced. Should we be happy? Sad? Eager to start from scratch again and again?
The city was in ruins, but still livable. Some people were luckier than others finding their homes intact – like we did – but most of the population had to work hard to make their homes, stores, businesses habitable. Every family suffered losses, every person was looking for family members, friends, who did not return from the front, from the Nazi work camps (we still knew very little about the millions and millions of Jews killed in the concentration camps). We understood the whole unbelievable horror only after the war was over everywhere and the allied troops started to discover the death camps.
A fairly large segment of the Hungarian population started to flee with the German army or shortly after the fall of Budapest. The Nyilas (Arrow Cross) Party leaders, the high ranking military people and their families, the Hungarian fascists, who enjoyed all the privileges of power, the German sympathizers – they all ran to the West, to Austria and Germany, in hopes of finding refuge there. They lived in refugee camps for years and most amazingly found their way to the Americas, mostly Argentina, Brazil and some to the U.S. or Canada.
But let's go back to the post-war Budapest.
A huge sigh of relief was felt all over the city. Nightclubs popped up in no time. We were ready to dance, sing, and forget. We had three such nightclubs in our immediate neighborhood. We were there every other day dancing the nights away. The movie theaters opened soon, showing never seen French, American, British pictures. The whole world started to open up. We had no idea how the rest of the civilized world lived.
We felt that our future was bright. We only have to work hard to make it happen. The time will soon come, when we can start working, but not just yet. People still lived on their savings – selling some gold pieces, artwork, etc. Money was practically worthless, the post-war inflation was getting out of hand. Factories were in ruins, the only available employment was in the service industry. We were – like everybody else – waiting impatiently to start our new life!
How could we know, that our faith was decided long before at the famous Yalta Conference – Hungary was sold out to the Soviets, the "line" was drawn following the Austria-Hungary border – we would become a communist satellite country, a buffer zone for the USSR for many decades.
In early summer the trains started to run. It was a big step to connect Budapest with the rest of the country.
But special hospital trains also started to bring survivors of the Nazi death camps. I volunteered at the nearby Kelenfold station to work in the soup kitchen. It was so useless to try to feed these human skeletons – they were unable to eat, only their eyes moving or looking aimlessly, telling all the horrors they lived through. The long line of stretchers left the station, going to local hospitals. And these were the lucky ones! This lasted about two months, and was one of the worst memories of the war for me. The sight of these tortured human beings and the naked bodies floating in the Danube under the pontoon bridge often come back as nightmares, they will continue to haunt me the rest of my life.
Summer of 1945 finally brought peace to the world – or so we thought. Budapest was in full swing! Some stores survived the siege and they quickly opened, selling their old, remaining goods. Food came to the city, the streetcars (tramways) and buses were running, some taxicabs were available, people learned how to smile again. We had to sell some gold coins and jewelry to live on and to start our new little business. Andy bought a big army truck (the same type he drove for years) – and also bought a little pine forest not too far from our home. With a friend of ours he started to harvest the forest, bringing the lumber for our new little packing case factory. It was located walking distance from our home in the basement of a huge apartment house, with entrance to the street. Used and abandoned equipments were cheap and easy to come by. We started with three workers, all experienced woodworkers. I helped a little where I could – the bookkeeping was my main job, but to be there with the guys when Andy was away in the forest, was also important. We had a great time working together.
Post War Era, Under the Communist Regime – Part Two
The war was over!!! We were alive, had a nice home, our families were all right, we had a new project, building up our little packing case business – we felt very good about our future...
We had been married two years by August 1945. We were ready to have a baby! By the end of the summer every other young woman in the country was pregnant. I was no exception, and our baby was due in May, 1946.
Andy drove his big truck to the forest, but we needed smaller transportation, so we bought a motorbike. It was a Hungarian made "Csepel 100," fast, cute and reliable. I had no fear of riding on the back seat all through my pregnancy. We had a lot of fun going on weekend trips, being able to go to the theatres, movies, concerts (the night before Gabe was born we went to the theatre - we were young, carefree, reckless).
The summer went by, I was so very happy expecting, preparing, shopping for the baby!
Our little factory was growing, we had six men working by the end of the year. The pine forest was almost fully harvested but by then we had better connections. Buying lumber was no problem, the demand for our packing cases grew constantly, and we slowly outgrew the place. We were ready to move to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Andy was looking for a new place there but we did not make the move until our baby was born.
My doctor had a small private clinic within walking distance from our home. The baby was not due for another week or two, but I felt something different, so we walked over to see him. The elevator was not working that day, so we had to climb up to the fourth floor (I never forget, how I was counting all those 160 stairs). When he examined me, he said, that we better stay right there, the baby will be here by the morning!
What a glorious day! Our baby boy arrived quickly, with no complications by early morning! A beautiful baby with long black hair, long fingernails, a big boy – weighing almost 12 pounds – was ready to face the world...
The clinic had six private rooms for patients to stay for a few days. When they took me to my room, it was full of flowers. Andy bought all the available lilacs, tulips, and lilies of the valley and covered every little space with flowers. We were very, very happy... we started a new chapter in our life, where our son was at the center, the focal point in every decision we made from then on.
I spent a few weeks at my parents' house before I went home. We talked about them moving closer to us; they were ready for a change. For a few months we were looking at available condos in the neighborhood, when a nice, spacious one happened to be on sale in our own house. It was the ideal solution, better than we had ever hoped for. It was easy to sell their house and in the fall of 1946 they moved to the new place. It was still too big for them so my grandmother and my aunt Elizabeth (Bozsi) sold their house and moved in with my parents. It was wonderful to live in the same house, just one flight of stairs separating us from them.
My father missed his beloved garden but created a nice geranium display on the balcony and played with it for the rest of his life.
Gabe (Gabika) was a wonderful baby! Healthy, smiling, alert, quiet and had a great appetite. I breast-fed him as long as I could, more than six months, but then I had to look for good fresh milk, since I could not trust the dairy shop. Just like the rest of the food, you had to be careful for many years after the war. We ate what we could buy at the farmers' market hoping that it will be fresh...
I was not alone with my problem, many mothers of the baby boom looked for reliable milk. With three other neighborhood friends with babies, we bought a goat. Remember the big apartment house around the corner getting a direct hit and collapsing, killing almost 300 people? It was an empty lot now, with tall grass growing from the neglect.
We made a deal with the owner to bring the goat there, who would mow the grass by eating it – a fair exchange for both parties. Andy built a little shelter for the goat, put some hay there, and she was seemingly happy in her new home. We named her "The Bearded Lady". One of the women, who had grown up on a farm, knew how to milk her. That little animal fed four babies for almost two years. When they started to rebuild the apartment house, we gave her to a farmer as a present.
We needed a bigger place for our packing-case factory and found a good building within the freight train terminal, right next to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market. Our lease was up by the end of the year. We did not renew it and instead moved the machines to the new factory. The building needed some work – painting, electrical, larger entrance , etc. – but by spring it was ready for the new season. We invested in a few new machines, big circular saws and such, and hired more men, keeping the original six as foremen. Within a year we were in full swing with 20 workers, loaded with orders from the wholesale market.
We had the lumber delivered and the customers picked up the packing cases, so we had no need for a truck. There was plenty of storage place, two or three acres of land around the building to store the lumber and the finished products.
Meanwhile Andy decided that he wanted to get an engineering degree. He started evening classes at the University of Engineering. Both of us had so much energy, we wanted to make up for all those miserable lost years. It took him five years to get his degree in Electronic Engineering but he never gave up and was determined to finish, graduate and have an engineering diploma in his hand. It became a very important asset during his working years.
We had a truly good year in 1947. We were full of hope and big plans. Our baby was our pride and joy, a wonderful little person, smart, good, happy and beautiful. The new factory was doing a good business, Andy started the engineering classes – and we had a new motorcycle. We gave up the little "Csepel 100" for a "BMW 250," a much bigger, more powerful bike. Andy also bought a huge English motorcycle, a "Matchless 500," which needed a complete overhaul. He worked on it for at least a year in a little dust free room at the factory.
By the fall we started to notice some strange happenings in politics. The Communist Party took over as the leading party. Nobody had any idea that we will become part of the Soviet Block. It took place slowly and gradually. The newspapers started to change the tone, the radio became a tool for the communist propaganda and we had a feeling that our lives will change soon – the calm before the storm lasted only a short time...We are facing trouble again!
Post War Era, Under the Communist Regime – Part Three
We learned the meaning of the new idea quickly: Nationalize!
First the huge utility companies came under government control. By the first months of 1948 the large factories, chain stores, and the transportation were all nationalized. Everybody hoped that it will stop here!
The small factories, stores and other private enterprises were safe – so we thought. We had no clue how the real communist government operates. We were still convinced that our small factory would remain in our hands. We were proven wrong!
One Monday morning in the summer – I was at home yet – four men came through the door and shut down the operation. They ordered Andy to stop all the machines, send the workers home for the day and hand over all the keys, papers, orders, etc. to them. We were locked out of our own company. Neither of us could come back and set foot there anymore. It was overwhelming, that's how we felt!
In one minute we lost everything we worked so hard for! We have to start all over again?! How many times we will be able to do it.
They restarted the operation within a week with a new manager – a Communist Party member of course. This was the procedure for all the privately-owned small factories, workshops, stores, beauty parlors and even the small shoe repair and dressmaking shops.
We became a communist country with total government control by the end of the year. By the middle of 1949 even the doctors had to give up their private practices (the hospitals were already nationalized) and had to join groups of doctors under Party supervision.
The last group to be nationalized was the civil engineers. The government created institutions for designing and building the ruined bridges, roads, highways, railways. The heads of these institutions were all Communist Party members, ignorant uneducated Party elites who had no idea what the 3,000-4,000 engineers were doing in the building or how the country will be rebuilt from ruins.
After we recovered from the shock of losing our nice creation and our livelihood, Andy started to look for a job. Soon he started to work in a huge telephone system factory, a British company called Standard Electric. He was going to evening school in the University and this job was the best thing for him, it helped in his studies and helped him gain practical knowledge in electronics, while at the same time enabling him to earn a fair salary.
I was home with my precious baby, who was running around, talking since he was nine month old, smart, funny, beautiful... I was happy to be home for a few more months. It was the new rule, that all mothers had to join the workforce after their babies' third birthdays. My time was almost up and I learned to cherish every moment before I become a weekend mother.
Since my parents lived with us in the same house, they took care of Gabe (Gabika) when I had to start working. I didn't have to worry about finding a day-care center, where hundreds of other children were taken care of in an almost military fashion.
In the middle of summer 1949 I started to work in one of those engineering institutions. I was hired as an accountant but soon learned that accounting under communist rules is different from everything I learned. We were at the beginning of the "5 Year Plan," a communist invention for managing the whole country. It was mostly useless statistics, playing with numbers, creating an ever-growing bureaucracy. It took me a short time to realize that I was more interested in working with the civil engineers – those creative, intelligent victims of nationalization. They had to learn to work within the institution and still be productive. The new cost-estimation department was a perfect fit for me, and in a short time I became the head of the department and worked there until we left the country.
Post War Era, Under the Communist Regime – Part Four
My work was fascinating. I learned how to estimate and calculate the cost of building a bridge, a highway, a railroad track. My department had about 70 people – mostly men – plus 150-200 students from the University of Engineering during the summer brake. These engineering students worked on the fields, collecting geodesic data for the coming year. The best design engineers in the country worked with me during my six years on the job. It was the most interesting, fulfilling and challenging job I ever had!
Every workday started with the "Meeting," at which, everybody had to be present. In the factories, offices, institutions, stores, and hospitals – without exception – the whole country's work force had to listen for 30 minutes to the official party-line interpretation of the daily news. It was conducted by one of the many Communist Party officials planted in all the work places. Their jobs had nothing to do with any kind of production. Their only duty was to keep every person – from janitors to managers – "well informed" and keep them all strictly within the Party Line. We just listened and could hardly wait for these meetings to end every single morning. Regardless, what your opinion or belief was, you had to keep your mouth shut and go along to keep your job. Speaking Russian was not required at all, we received the exact translations of the Soviet Party Line daily.
Everybody was unhappy! We lost our freedom of speech and freedom of expressing our views. The economy – as we knew it – collapsed. The standard of living slowly and gradually reached the bottom. The working conditions were bad, the communist controlled so-called "trade unions" were powerless. The farmers were upset with the land policies, giving up their well-managed family farms and going to the so called "Kolhoz" – government managed huge combined farms. Whatever crops they harvested, went first to the Russian army, then the Russian people, the leftover came to our markets.
There was no clergy. All the churches, (including our little Reform Church next to our home, the large Lutheran Church a few corners away), synagogues, and religious institutions were closed, the buildings used for offices, or converted to apartments, party headquarters, schools or Day-care Centers, or just not used at all. The more important religious leaders were imprisoned, the most famous was Cardinal Mindszenty, narrowly escaping execution. Any religious gathering, praying, or preaching was strictly forbidden and punishable by deportation (to Siberia) or prison.
There was nowhere to turn, we were living in a communist country where the Soviet Union and their installed Hungarian puppet government – headed by Rakosi, the hated leader of the Hungarian Communist Party – dictated everything.
Meanwhile we made the most of the situation. Andy graduated from the University and got his diploma in 1952. He liked his job at Standard Electric, which was a British company, but by then communist party had "nationalized" all the foreign owned factories, institutions, and assets without compensation. The company's new name was "Beloianis", named after a Greek communist hero! They renamed almost everything to erase any capitalistic origin and then rendered them dysfunctional.
I was content with my position, working with those intelligent, kind – and unhappy but still very productive – engineers, taking part in the rebuilding of our beloved city.
The evenings were precious. To see our son growing to be a smart, good-natured, sweet child – and oh, so beautiful – was the best part of our life.
This was the year when Gabe started to go to elementary school. He was way ahead already, reading the capital letters in his little children’s' books. He had such a large vocabulary, he could carry a beautiful conversation. He was counting nicely and most importantly he was very sociable. We knew that he would do very well in school.
The elementary school, old but well kept, was a big building in the neighborhood. There was no other choice, private schools were all closed, but the teachers were good, the school was clean and Gabe got a good education there. He liked to go to school, had friends, was a good student and we hoped that he was happy there.
My parents played a big part in his life. After school he stayed with them until we came home from work. He also had a Great-Grandma – she and my aunt Elizabeth lived with my parents, so there were plenty of people to spoil him... Oh, they loved him so very-very much! We all worked very hard on giving him a happy childhood under the existing circumstances.
We had a fair social life, lots of good friends, most of them with children about Gabe's age. We went to each other's homes on weekends for an afternoon coffee and cake, then played cards. (Canasta was the craze after the war.) The theatres were in full swing, mostly playing never seen Russian comedies and dramas. The movie theatres banned all the foreign films, but Russian, Hungarian and some Polish and other satellite country films. The museums featured the creations of the "Working Class People." Books and magazines were censored. The Iron Curtain was tight, no light came thru from the "Western World”.
We had our big motorcycle, the Matchless 500, and we added a nice sidecar to it, so we could go for vacations with Gabe. On weekends we drove up to the mountains surrounding the "Buda" side of our City. In the height of the summer we drove to one of the many beautiful resorts with large pools, sand, and restaurants. We both had two weeks vacation every summer, which was the time to drive to Lake Balaton and settle into one of the villages, enjoying the beauty of the Lake, having a lot of fun swimming, boating, eating the good food, and building sand castles...
Everything appeared fine, and from the outside it looked like we had a good life. The sad truth was that people were unhappy, and full of complaints. But we had to be very careful not to vent our grievances outside our home. The children were warned not to tell anybody, especially in the schools, what their parents were talking about at home. The Hungarian Security Police (AVO) was in full control. It occupied the same building, where the Arrow Cross Party atrocities took place. It was fully equipped with torture chambers, etc. ready to persecute the "enemies of the people." (The whole building is a museum now, open to the public.) The AVO, equivalent to the KGB, ruled and enforced the communist agenda in every aspect of life.
The University was the hotbed of resistance. The "Petofi Circle" started as a small underground group of the intelligentsia. The members were students, writers, newspaper and radio reporters, doctors, etc. Its membership grew rapidly. They had meetings where the true stories of the free world were told. Every member's duty was to spread the truth among the population. Andy, with his connections to the University, was asked to join. He was eager to join, and was very active in his work place (Beloianis) informing as many workers, engineers, office staff, etc. as he could.
In a few years, the existence of the Petofi Circle (named after the famous poet of the 1848 uprising against the Habsburgs: Sandor Petofi) became an open secret. The members were considered brave freedom fighters waiting for the right opportunity to change the Soviet dictatorship.
Andy's mother passed away in the spring of 1953. She was rushed to the hospital for a gallstone operation and died on the operating table. She was only 53 years old. Andy was left without parents. His stepfather remarried within a few months. He married an old friend from his past. They moved away from our neighborhood to her house in the suburbs on the Pest side of the City.
My beloved Grandmother, Rose – Gabe's Great-Grandmother also passed away. She died in her sleep without being really sick, at the age of 92. She lived with my parents and my aunt Elizabeth in the same house where we lived. It was a great loss for all of us.
It was sadness in the air, personal losses and the loss of the lifestyles we were used to. The whole country was waiting for something great to happen soon....
Post War Era, Under the Communist Regime – Part Five
The Cold War was in full swing. The people of Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe were ruled by a rod of iron by the Soviet Union. Anybody who challenged the rule of Stalin and the Communist Russia paid a very high price.
There was a glimmer of hope, when in 1953, Stalin died. But we soon learned, that it did not at all weaken the grip of Moscow on the people of the satellite countries. Everything remained the same. Rakosi and the Hungarian Communist Party made sure that they followed the official Party line.
In February 1956 the new Russian leader, Khrushchev, attacked the dead Stalin's policies and with it opened a small crack in the Iron Curtain. It needed only a small encouragement for the brewing discontent to boil over! To calm the situation, Rakosi was forced to resign in July.
It was a gesture to the Hungarian people, but everybody expected more. It was a year of bad harvests, fuel shortages, a cold, rainy autumn with a lot of frustrations. The university students were upset with academic conditions and the University's entrance criteria of pushing the so called "Working Class" to enroll first and leaving the leftover spots to the more deserving good students.
The political instability inside the Communist Party fueled the fire and the people of Hungary were ready for a showdown.
October 23, 1956 started with a student demonstration. Soon people from factories, offices. stores joined the ever-growing crowd and creating a huge uprising on the streets of Budapest. I was at work. It was early afternoon. First we watched from the windows the movements and soon everybody started to go home.
We could only walk. There were no tramways, or cars. Everything stopped. It took me three hours to get home. Andy was still at his job, organizing the uprising there. He led the crowd to the Communist Party office in the factory, where they chased everybody out and took over.
More than 100,000 people protested, carrying the Hungarian flag with the communist symbol cut out in the center! They issued their Sixteen Points, demands for personal freedom, and the removal of the AVO, (the secret police), to become free from Soviet control.
The intellectuals wanted freedom of speech and freedom of thought. The workers wanted self-management of workplaces, free unions, and better living conditions. Farmers desperately wanted their farms back and demanded the right to own their land. Everybody wanted the removal of Soviet troops, recognition of national symbols, freedom of religion and abolishment of the AVO. The crowd demanded to set free political prisoners, including religious leaders such as Cardinal Mindszenty.
In order to do away with censorship, thousands laid siege to the broadcasting building. They pulled down the Stalin monument, the "Symbol of Dictatorship," and dragged the head all over the City.
Finally the "Red Army" stepped in and the rebellion became bloody. Thousands died during the night until the cease-fire. The very popular Imre Nagy became the Prime Minister and Janos Kadar became Secretary of the Party in hopes of calming down the minds. But the spirit of rebellion went on, and the demands grew louder and louder.
To calm the situation, the Red Army pulled out from the "Iron Curtain," (the borderline between Hungary and Austria) and from Budapest, and retreated to the Carpathian Mountains – still in Hungarian territory. During the second day of the cease-fire it looked as if it was a successful uprising. Prisoners – including Cardinal Mindszenty – were released, the press and the radio changed the tone of the news, workers' councils were formed, and the Red Army was gone (or so we thought).
The people took back the workplaces. On the day after the uprising Andy took it upon himself to go to the Communist Party Office in his factory and chase the Party official out of the premises – his handgun, a German Lueger revolver and souvenir from the war, aimed at him all the way – through the factory, the yard, and to the street. A huge crowd was following him, cheering, celebrating the big victory.
We started to hear rumors that people could freely come and go crossing the border to Austria. The first "refugees" leaving the country were the leading communist officials. Strangely enough, they did not follow the Red Army to the East, they went to Austria instead...
The joy and happiness lasted 14 days. We took back our country, we demonstrated to the whole world what the Hungarian people are capable of doing! The popular sentiment forced the government of Imre Nagy to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. This action could not be tolerated, so the Soviet Union had to intervene again. Janos Kadar left Imre Nagy's government and established a rival government, supporting the Russians all the way.
On November 4th, 1956, hundreds of Soviet tanks entered the streets of Budapest. Their heavy firepower was no match for the handguns of the youth of Hungary. To restore "order," the Red Army was merciless, killing more than 30,000 people. They suffered losses too, about 5,000 Russian soldiers were killed. The streets of Budapest were again red from the blood of the resistants, littered with dead bodies, buildings burned, and collapsing. Imre Nagy was executed. Janos Kadar was put in charge and ruled the country for many years to come.
News of the fighting, the losses, and the desperate resistance travelled fast. People in Budapest experienced it, took part in it, and were killed on their own streets. The rest of the country knew about it the next day.
During the 10 days of heavy fighting we waited for Europe and America to come and help us fight the communist slavery. We heard a lot of encouragement, telling us to keep fighting, that help is on the way, but nothing happened. They were empty promises. The risk was too big for the Super Powers to intervene. It happened during the height of the Cold War and the USA and the Soviet Union were both nuclear powers. Hungary's geographic location made it impossible to help without risking a war.
Meanwhile the Suez Canal Crisis was also underway and was considered far more important, than helping the suffering Hungarians. So the U.S., Britain and France put all their efforts into solving that crisis.
It took a few weeks after the battle to fully understand how badly we were beaten. Soviet rule was re-established and nothing changed. More than 1200 people were executed, and the AVO started to round up anybody who took part in the uprising.
The Western border was still without too much control. To flee the expected communist reprisal, people started to flee to Austria, leaving all their possessions in Hungary. By the end of the year more than 200,000 left the country and became refugees.
Andy was ready to go as soon as possible. He had an easy choice, he had no living parents, and no brothers or sisters to leave behind. I was also an only child, but I had a very sick father and an overburdened mother to say good-bye to. I tried to delay the decision, hoping for some miracle to happen. We had to decide for Gabe too, he loved his Grandparents, they were a big part of his life, and he spent many hours daily with them.
How would he be able to take the change? How would my parents survive not being with their precious grandson and with me, their only child, whom they loved more than anything in the world.
I can hardly describe my state of mind in those days. I was devastated, full of fear, helpless, I knew what I would have to do, leave just like so many others did, but every inch of my body was telling me: NO!!! These were the most frustrating days and weeks of my life. I was not in control of what would happen to me and my whole family!
The AVO (the Hungarian KGB) started to round up members of the "Petofi Circle." Somehow they found the membership list, and we knew that Andy's name would come up shortly! The Communist Party Officials were also looking for people, who were active in the rebellion. Andy's theatrical action chasing the Party Official from his office on the day of the uprising was well known, and now it was just a question of time when they would come and pick him up.
We had very little time to hesitate. The circumstances decided for us what to do! We had no other solution but prepare for our "Great Escape"...