Topics - Politics
Hungary: One family’s escape
By Helen M.
October 8, 2006
A burst of
gunfire shook the windows. It was midnight in Hungary, December,
1956. “Good God, curfew time lasts till seven in the morning.
What am I going to do?”
I shook my husband, John. Startled from his dream, he reached
for the phone. We were lucky. It still worked. The doctor’s
advice was to try to wait. In case of emergency he would give us
directions over the phone. The ambulance refused to come since
it was a perfect target for the Soviets stationed right across
from us, on the hillside - no cover whatsoever.
We held each
other very close. The warmth of my husband comforted me as, with
the passing of time, the cramps started coming.
children slept quietly in their cribs, not even occasional
machine-gun bursts startled them. They were used to it by now.
It was ten days after the revolution was crushed; the fighting
still was going on.
vividly remember now the morning when I was awakened by cannon
fire after our four wonderful days of freedom.
can’t be. Hungary has a constitutional government, which
declared the country neutral. We are out of the Warsaw Pact, and
the Soviets must leave the country according to the U.N.
decision,” my husband tried to comfort me. But he, too, knew it
was cannon fire. He turned on the radio and we heard the message
of the government: “The Soviet troops are coming back into
the country. Our prime minister asked for help from the U.N. and
we are fighting.” The Writers’ Association asked for the
help of all people in the world. The message came in German,
French, English, Russian and Hungarian. This went on for 90
minutes - and after that - everything was lost.
days later, I was going to have my baby. I clung to my husband
as the pains drew closer. Finally the first rays of the sun
colored the sky pink and the light gave me new hope as I tried
to fight back the arrival of the baby.
At 7 a.m. we
started running toward the hospital. Five long blocks of pain,
cramps, blood and water, a few staring faces, distant
machine-gun fire and more cramps melting into one incessant
feeling of rupture.
arrived at the hospital, the only midwife there, who had worked
alone for 48 hours, had no relief in sight. My doctor was not
there yet. Several workmen were repairing the windows of the
delivery room, which were shot out during the night. Two women
were giving birth.
and cramps again, unstopping, merciless cramps till the
beautiful, happy cry of my son brought the long awaited relief
from the suffering and fear. I saw my doctor lift him and put
him on my stomach. He felt so soft, so sweet. And even the
windows were repaired.
Remembering It All
days passed, and by that time we were determined to leave our
homeland. Even though my husband was one of the promising young
scientists who had every allowable privilege under the Soviet
system, it seemed to us that if we wanted to bring up our
children according to our beliefs, we had to leave.
belongings we hoped to take with us were packed into a small
suitcase. Forty of us scrambled into a pickup truck in the
freezing rain, and under a canvas held up by a broom.
As we left
Budapest, we remembered the many beautiful concerts, operas,
balls of former years, the 50-day siege during World War II, the
hopes for freedom while trying to rebuild the country, then, the
1948 take-over by the Communists with but 17 percent of the
popular vote. The desperation, trials and tribulations every
individual, every family had to go through. Our glorious
revolution with its four days of freedom - and the 20,000 fresh
graves in the city.
was already on the highway making good time, when all of a
sudden we stopped with a jerk. An officer waved his arms in the
middle of the road.
handed him his documents. He was supposed to go to the border
with some help to pick up a truck left there by refugees.
help? Do you call 40 people ‘some help’?” he yelled at our
driver. “See that you get back home!”
around and I understood why he had no time to read papers, to
check on people. There were so many would-be refugees that he
simply sent them home.
route we ran at night, our truck came to a halt in front of a
colonel approached; we were caught. He radioed for the Hungarian
police, who arrived in a short time.
station was crowded with refugees.
with children, here, into this room! The only one we can heat.”
shoved into a dark place, lit by a sole lightbulb in one corner
of the room. While we settled down, the muffled storytelling
went on and on:
across an icy river three times before I got caught, thinking
every time that Austria was just on the other side...”
sinking in the swamp, holding our children above our heads with
our last strength...”
“My child is
over there ... he ran across to Austria when we were captured.
We were already so near ... so near...”
sentence for illegal border crossing was two to three years of
But in the
morning they put us all on a bus and sent us to Budapest.
When the bus
broke down, our police escort said, “You know your duties. I
will be back in an hour and a half ... of course, nobody can
hold me responsible for whatever you do while I am away.”
We did not
feel strong enough to walk to the border 20 miles away, with
three small children, Louis being only ten days old. We started
home. The train reached Gyor by curfew and did not go farther.
Everybody had to find a place in a hurry.
We saw a Red
Cross building across the depot and ran. We found ourselves in
the company of 600 people. There were beds, food and even
medicine. We felt grateful and happy as we talked to the Red
Cross lady, who, in an unguarded moment whispered in my ear:
occupied by the police. We may give you whatever you need, but
you cannot move out of this building. You are under arrest.”
The bus on
which we were transported to Budapest the next day was supposed
to go to another Red Cross building there, but they took us
instead to police headquarters.
go inside the building, women and children can go home!” came
the order. We dared not move. We heard of men being captured and
taken to Siberia for no reason at all. All the women stayed and
that I had to go to the bathroom. The stern guard still would
not let me go inside, so I ran to an apartment building. I
begged to make a phone call, and contacted the chairman of the
Revolutionary Committee at the university who understood
instantly what happened and what could be done.
“I am right
now negotiating with the Justice Department about kidnappings
which are taking place in the streets. Why, this is just such a
case. From a Red Cross building ... to police headquarters....”
later, his imposing figure pushed the machine gun-bearing guards
aside and he stepped into police headquarters. Through the glass
door we could hear voices: “Yes, it was the Red Cross building
... “ “They have taken us...” “Kidnapped is the word.”
Once more we
felt the beauty of even limited freedom. We were allowed to walk
home with our baggage, to come out from behind the bars ... We
were happy, yet depressed, as we felt that there was absolutely
no way out of Hungary.
these papers into Russian for me please!” my husband waved some
documents at me while I was deep in thought about how in the
world we could reach the border town of Sopron.
had escaped to Vienna. She sent us word that we, too, could
reach freedom, if we could get to friends in Sopron.
I was not
much interested in my husband’s papers until I saw what they
were. in less than an hour we had our counterfeit documents that
would, hopefully, get us out of Hungary. My husband, as deputy
chairman of the department at the university assigned himself to
go to Sopron to resume teaching because their professor had
As the early
darkness of the winter afternoon crept into our train
compartment the next day, we noticed that the lights did not go
on in our coach. We considered moving to another part of the
train but decided to stay because the children were snoozing
At the next
station we felt “Providence” at work. The train stopped and
Russian soldiers made everybody get off who did not have the No.
2 border-zone permit stamped into his passport. But when our
door opened, it was a Hungarian soldier who appeared behind the
flashlight. The Russians, it was said, were afraid of being
murdered in the dark compartments.
you going?” he asked us.
He did not
know what he should think of us. If we were high officials, he’d
better not argue with us, but if not ... well, our papers looked
official enough, he always had his excuse, and ... a twinkle in
his eye showed that he was thinking of the other possibility
also. He really did not seem to mind if we wanted to escape...
professor, what a nice baby.” He slammed the door shut.
came two days of silent waiting until our friends arranged for
reliable guides. The children had to hold their cries, even
their breaths, in order not to betray us. The house we stayed in
was a house for retired people, and any noise from a child would
have been suspicious.
old guide led us out into the hills to reach the Austrian border
on foot. When he stopped to wave his cane we also stopped! It
meant danger. When he wiped the sweat off his bald head, it
meant that we could go on. Behind him went our daughter, Helen,
with a young couple. We were next with the two boys, the baby in
the basket, and our two-year-old walking and looking for
mushrooms, as we all pretended to be out only for a walk. After
a while his small legs could not carry him any longer. He
crawled into his father’s knapsack and fell asleep.
shone quietly over us after a two-day rain. There was no moon in
the sky. A perfect night to escape.
We were on
the last leg of our journey. I slipped and started sliding
slowly down the hillside, at least this is what it felt like. I
wanted to stop, but I could not. Then a small tug on my coat
caught me. I stood up and smoothed my coat. There was a small
hole. I looked back, and a barbed-wire fence stopped me from
falling into a ravine-like terrace with stalks on the bottom of
it, put there to hold up the vines.
If it had
not caught me I would be dead. But there was no time to stop and
reflect. In 45 minutes we would have to run two-and-a-half miles
on the muddy lakeshore, after all that rain, to make it across
The baby was
whimpering, despite the sleeping pills we had given him. Janos
slept in his father’s knapsack; he too was drugged.
our 4-year-old, walked on her own little feet, looking straight
ahead, then at us, with her huge, terrified, blue eyes.
something was happening but could not comprehend it. She was
trying to be good.
“Do you see
those pear trees?” our guide pointed to some trees not too far
way. “Three hundred feet beyond those is the Austrian border!”
How I wished
he had not said it! Again, like the first time, when we were
stopped by the Soviet tank, we had seen the lights of Austria.
What if they would capture us again! I could no longer think. My
mind, my legs, my whole being grew numb from fear, from
desperation. But I heard a firm voice within:
you are going to make it!”
I ran as
fast as I could and pulled myself up from the ground for the
fifth time, when all of a sudden I felt the softness of the
“no-man’s-land” under my feet.
Then a small
flag touched my hand.
As I looked,
my husband’s radiant face and outstretched arms were greeting
me. I fell into his embrace and started crying. We were in
[Author’s note: We now have 16 grandchildren ranging from 2
through 27 years of age and, thank God, all our children are
successful and happily married.]
Helen's family many years later
article first appeared in the Lady's Circle Magazine in 1979
2007 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise