The Szabó family
My story is about the journey of a family, the Szabó family; my father Dr. András Szabó, my sister Judy, and my mother Emilia, who during her life went by many names, the most recognized one being Kathy Kapossy, Cleveland's Hungarian radio producer for more than 40 years.
I was 8 years old when the revolution broke out; my sister was 9. I remember the evening like it was yesterday - or do I? When I talk to my sister, we have such different memories that it almost seems we couldn't possibly have gone through it together. Sadly, as both my parents are gone, we have no one to ask, no one to correct our differences or to fill in the many missing pieces. It's also fleeting and confusing between what is my actual memory and what I may have vividly imagined from the stories I've heard from others. That is probably natural, for the mind of a child to absorb such an unfathomable upheaval to what was a normal life must surely be difficult.
I truly do, however, remember having a very happy childhood, safe and secure in the love of my family, relatives and friends. My father was a lawyer in private practice; my mother, a medical technologist who worked at the Sport Physiological Research Institute, where they did research on the performance of athletes. She was a wonderful tennis player, and also took and developed photographs as a hobby, which not many people could do at that time. My sister and I took ballet lessons from a friend of my father's who happened to be the ballet master for the Hungarian Opera at the time. As the two Szabó sisters, we performed at some pretty prestigious events. I loved that, more than anything, and had life not changed, I was determined to be a ballerina.
There were times when my father would be gone for a time, but that seemed not to need explanation, as he was a lawyer and, sort of like a Perry Mason, did a lot of the detective work himself. Unbeknown to my sister and me, he often defended Hungarian citizens against the innumerable trumped-up political charges which landed thousands of people in jail all over Hungary during the communist regime. I do remember hearing him talk about some of the cases, of someone accused of having a gun and his attempts to disprove it, but I didn't really understand. In any case, some of his absences, we later found out, were spent in jail, as he himself was arrested many times in connection with the cases he took on.
My father built a radio and we regularly listened at home to Radio Free Europe. We knew not to say anything about that to anyone outside our immediate family, especially not to anyone in school. We also knew there were differences in how my parents thought about things and we knew full well, especially as we grew older, that Hungary was not free, that there were communists everywhere, that we had to be careful what we said to who. Then there were friends of my father's who came regularly to play cards and we could hear them talking, and at times it was frightening, though we didn't really understand fully what was being said. Life for my parents in communist Hungary was not fun.
My mother and father were on Sándor Bródi Street in front of the Magyar Radio on the night of October 23, 1956. My sister and I were home, tucked into bed and listening to some kind of drama on the radio. My aunt who lived downstairs was there with us when suddenly my parents burst in, extremely agitated - something was terribly wrong. They had gone to the Opera, or at least that's what we thought, but now they were talking about huge crowds, gunfire, someone being shot who was standing right next to my mother. My father went to get my uncle and he said they were going back.
What had begun as a student demonstration in front of the Polish General Bem statue had turned into a demonstration with some 100,000 Hungarian citizens protesting the communist government, attempting to be heard over Budapest Radio, demanding reforms. When the AVO, the Hungarian security police, opened fire on the crowds, it turned into a bloody revolution. Martial law was declared, a call for Russian troops was issued, and during the night, the Soviet troops and tanks came. Street fighting broke out and it soon spread to other parts of the country as the 'freedom fighters' took over factories, weapons depots, and many Soviet tanks.
During some of these days we huddled together in my uncle's basement home. I also remember being with strangers, huddled against the wall of the hospital, the sound of the gunfire outside, the rushing of people to help the wounded. What happened during these days, exactly where we were in hiding and how we got there and who we were with are the details my sister and I aren't so clear about. The buildings in ruins and tanks bombed out and abandoned; the sounds of the guns and tanks we both recall equally vividly, as we do being afraid, especially for our parents who we didn't see sometimes for long periods. My father with my uncle had gone back to fight - I really don't know where they were or exactly what they did - my father never said, and we never asked. My mother tended to the wounded at the hospital which is where my sister Judy and I spent some time with people looking out for us, as this was a safe place, for surely they wouldn't attack the hospital. Later, this proved not to be the case.
As terrifying as all this was, I remember it seemed we were all just waiting, desperately holding out, believing that help will arrive. I remember listening to the radio, the appeals for help that went out over Szabad Europa/Radio Free Europe. We all believed help would come, America would come to our aid. And I remember when we were all together around the radio and we heard that America was not going to help, no one was coming to the aid of the Hungarian freedom fighters, the rest of the world didn't want to get involved. That was so unbelievably devastating and the look on my parents' faces was unforgettable.
I remember November 4th, all of us together, in the basement of our house, squatting on the basement floor, listening to the staccato of machine guns now and then, as above us the ground rumbled as the Soviet tanks fired their heavy guns and machine gunned house fronts and made their way up Alkotás utca in a show of complete domination and suppression of the revolution. In the months that followed, we lived under the terror of the new regime's relentless pursuit to arrest, interrogate, imprison or execute the freedom fighters and those who assisted them.
In December 1956 on a tip from a trusted friend, my father learned that he would soon be arrested. He had already been detained, questioned and released and knew he was being watched. Both facing possible execution for their part in the revolution, my parents painfully made plans to escape to Austria. Leaving everything behind and taking only one small suitcase, we took the train to the border town of Gyõr. We were sitting in a restaurant, waiting for our contact regarding the arrangements for our escape when Russian soldiers suddenly seemed to have moved in in such numbers that my parents decided it was too dangerous to go through with their plans. Then we learned that the train we had gotten off of had broken through the guard station at the border, taking all its passengers into Austria, whether they wanted to escape or not. Though we understood that this was a matter of life or death, for my sister and me, it was most heart-breaking to leave our dog, Buksi, and we cried for him the whole time. We were glad when we could go back home to him.
Back again in Budapest, my father's friend who was an AVO, a member of the secret police, warned him that an order for his arrest was coming within days. They quickly made new plans, this time to Yugoslavia. Like the first time, again we left without saying goodbye to anyone, not family or friends as it was too dangerous for them as well as for us; it was better that no one knew. On January 29, 1957, we arrived at the border town of Baja, and according to the plans, set out on foot around 10 p.m., in snow knee-deep for my sister and I, carrying only our small suitcase, and we set out walking toward the border. We wandered for hours in the night, our way lit by the brightness of the deep snow in the fields, unable to find the designated crossing of a small river, when we came upon a small hut. When my father peeked in the windows, he saw with horror, Russian soldiers who miraculously were inattentive and unaware of our little family outside.
It was cold and very hard and tiring to walk in the deep snow, especially for my sister and me, but we walked on and eventually came upon a farmhouse. My father took a chance and roused the family inside. He desperately begged, trying to convince the man of the house to lead us to the crossing. The man said he was being watched and had been suspected and already warned that his family would be killed if he is found to aid anyone else across the border. The two fathers talked as both families looked on, until the man's wife told him he must help my father, for the sake of the children. He agreed to lead us part of the way to where we could find the crossing on our own.
When the man left us after describing the way to the crossing, we walked on as instructed and crossed the small river. But then we crossed the meandering river again. And again. Something was wrong. We could not tell now which side we were on, Hungary or Yugoslavia. (I learned recently that what I remembered as a river was probably the undulating water-laden trenches dug to mark the border.) We were all very cold and tired when my father saw lookout towers in the distance. After he determined they were unoccupied, he led us up the ladder of one tower for shelter and much needed rest. Then we heard a church bell in the distance and my father noted the direction of the sound. My mother had gone to school in Zombor in Yugoslavia and remembered that the church bells were rung at 5 in the morning instead of 6 as in Hungary. So we waited for an hour, listening for the church bells again. When the bells rang again, my parents knew which direction we needed to take.
By now dawn was nearing as we set out with renewed energy and hope and soon saw houses in the distance. Dawn was breaking and bathed the little town ahead of us in pastel shades of pinks and yellows that reflected off the snow - it was an enchanting, surreal sight, like something from a story book, magical; that is how I remember it and still picture that morning in my mind's eye - a beautiful vision of our reaching freedom safely together. As the four of us walked into the town, a man on a hay wagon called out to us in Hungarian 'Jó reggelt!' - seeing the terror on my parents' faces, he quickly reassured them we were, in fact, in Yugoslavia.
Over the next eight months, we lived in a number of camps in the then-communist Yugoslavia, facing the threat twice of being sent back, until eventually arrangements were successfully completed in August 1957 to emigrate to the United States.
As a child I was not burdened with the uncertainty and dangers of our situation in a neighboring communist country, or the negotiating and dealings with the local authorities that my parents were involved in for food, shelter and transportation on a daily basis. My mother spoke Serbian and my parents became spokesmen for the refugees in every camp we were in. These were difficult times for them both, and for everyone around us.
I vividly remember the sadness and homesickness of everyone around us, especially in Belgrade, in a huge building with many cots in row after row, and the melancholy singing of songs, one in particular that was most popular about missing one's homeland, honvágy, which I realized years later was to the tune of the American song 'Memories are made of this.' And you have to remember that so many of the refugees, the freedom fighters, were very young, teenagers and in their early twenties. Along with the feeling of sadness and loss for all that had happened and all that we left behind, seeing the sadness in my parents for the loss of their homeland hit my sister and me the hardest, for as young as we were, we understood.
In this strange and uncertain time, the best thing for me was that we were together, we felt safe, my sister and I, and I actually have some fond memories of our time in Yugoslavia. Some nights we had cream of wheat, my favorite, for dinner. We were allowed once to leave and visit a classmate of my mother's for a weekend in a beautiful house and had wonderful food. Some of our best times were in the old concentration camp in the mountains in a town called Gerovo. With a number of the young men who became friends to our family, we went on mushroom hunting expeditions and we were rewarded on those evenings with gomba pörkölt, or mushroom stew, cooked outside over a fire. On one occasion we found a fairly large and fast stream and rode the current of it, my sister and I, and someone was always waiting downstream to catch us, then we would run back along the shore to do it again. Two of these young men who ended up somewhere else in the States, years later came to visit us in Cleveland. They were the typical freedom fighters, vagány srácok, my father called them.
And we got CARE packages. That was very special. I particularly remember the pink toothpaste that tasted like strawberries and I secretly ate bits of it every chance I got. But we also got delicious candy bars sometimes, and sardines, a lot of sardines. For years after this, my father lost his taste for sardines. We also went into town and saw movies sometimes. The most memorable was Ulica, or La Strada, which we cried through the parts we saw when we didn't have our hands over our eyes, and it's interesting that it affected my sister and me that way because we couldn't understand a word, it was either in English or Italian and the subtitles were in Cyrillic, the Serbian alphabet. We got special treatment for a little while when my sister became ill and spent time in the hospital. And we could walk out of the camp in Belgrade sometimes to get ice cream, which was delicious. And the people in Yugoslavia, especially around the town of Gerovo, were generous and good to us, and gave us things when they themselves were so poor and really had nothing.
New lives in the United States
With all this behind us, we arrived in the United States and were met by my uncle in New York. He had two sons about the same age as my sister and I and he welcomed his brother, my father, and his family with open arms. He took us home to Cleveland where for the first few months we lived with him and his family. And so began our new lives in the United State.
As we arrived in late August, school soon began. My first day was uncertain, at best. When the teacher read all the names and everyone in the class but me was standing, she figured out I must be the new little refugee child my uncle had told them about. If it wasn't for a little girl in my class who came forward, who could speak broken Hungarian, I would have been lost. She became my first friend and introduced me to a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise on white bread. The soft bread stuck strangely to the roof of my mouth, and to this day that is the only way I can eat white bread.
My mother quickly found a job working for a Hungarian man at a local laboratory. Her work was easier to pick up here as science is Latin-based and she could understand quickly and work as a medical technologist. My father as a Hungarian lawyer had an awful time. He could not practice law here, and having two small children, he needed to be employed right away. He went to work first in my uncle's gas station. When my mother went to work in the lab at Suburban Hospital, my father got a job there as assistant to the pathologist, and without a degree or prior training, learned on the job and became proficient at dissecting and making slides of tissue samples. Eventually he got a job in the Cuyahoga County Auditor's office where he worked until he retired, and where he first worked with a young George Voinovich, later governor of and US senator from Ohio, who became his life-long friend.
Sadness, then heritage radio
But, as I mentioned the sadness in my parents for having lost their homeland, it was particularly severe in my father. He lost his career, his prestige, perhaps his dignity, his own family, his history, the city he loved, the Hungarian people and his Hungarian way of life. He truly never recovered from it. His heavy accent in English made it difficult to convey to others the intelligent, well-read, highly educated man he really was, rather than just a foreigner with an accent. But he took life as it came and our small family and the home we eventually built became the world he cherished.
But when we first came to Cleveland, it didn't take him long to find an outlet for his pent-up Hungarian heritage. He went on the air on a local Hungarian radio program first doing sports and news and before long he had his own program on WZAK, and under the name András Kapossy, he produced the Saturday Evening Hungarian Family Hour. In 1967 he coaxed my mother to join him, and she became Kathy Kapossy. The program gave my father the opportunity to weekly revisit his beloved Hungary as he wandered in his imagination, taking their listeners along the streets of Budapest, visiting his favorite haunts, cafes and restaurants, scenes and places from his memories, peppered with Hungarian folk and gypsy music. The goal, my father said, was to keep alive the feeling that we still belong to Hungary and felt that his listeners needed the remembering as well as the music. And of course, so did he.
My parents got to know many people in the Hungarian community through the radio program and we attended many of the functions that the various organizations held, primarily the Hungarian Balls. And there were many of them still in the late 1950's and early 1960's. As a matter of fact, I met my husband, Andrew Lázár, at the Anna Bál in June of 1964; he was a DP (displaced person) who came here with his family in 1949. And he and all his Hungarian friends became mine, and we all hung out at Lake Plata all summer. And we went to the Cserkész Picnics on Labor Day, and to all the other Balls. These were beautiful, memorable times, these wonderful Hungarian events and places.
When my father passed away, my mother took on the radio by herself and also took a more active role in the various Hungarian organizations, eventually belonging to just about all of them, and ending up as the president of the United Hungarian Societies for 19 years. She received every award bestowed by the various Hungarian organizations upon individuals in recognition for her work on behalf of her Hungarian heritage and furthering Hungarian culture in her many undertakings. She was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 - the only foreign-born woman to that time. She lived a rich and rewarding life, immersed in her Hungarian heritage to the last days of her life.
My mother was responsible for involving my husband with the Cleveland Hungarian Heritage Museum, and he has been doing their exhibits since the first one in 1986. This has been a large part of our lives and an avenue for us to immerse ourselves in our Hungarian culture and at the same time share it and ensure its preservation for future generations. And it continues within our own family as for our daughter, Krisztina. Growing up in this environment, her Hungarian heritage and involvement in the Hungarian community are naturally a large part of her life. As for my sister, life took her in another direction. Although she moved away and has a rich and full life with her husband in Lexington, Kentucky, away from any major Hungarian community, the journey of our family lives on as deeply in her as it does in me.
The events of 1956 altered our lives irreversibly. My father spoke often and with unbounded admiration and reverence of the 'srácok,' the heroic kids who fought in the streets of Budapest, but not about the details of their fighting or what part he himself had in it. That we never knew. Yet for both my sister and me, without knowing the details, just the emotions we felt from our father, it is all just as much a part of us. Our homeland, our parent's Hungary, 1956, the escape, being a refugee, starting over - that is who we are, it defines us to this day. Interestingly, all of us, we seem to never be 'at home,' for when we are here in this country, we refer to Hungary as 'home' and when we are visiting in Hungary, 'home' is here in America. And that is the legacy my parents left me, as my father put it, the feeling that we still belong to Hungary.
Andrea Lázár is a CPA in private practice. Along with her husband, Andrew, she has been involved in a number of Hungarian organizations in Cleveland, most notably with the Cleveland Hungarian Heritage Society for which Andrew has served as the Director of Exhibits for 20 years. Together with her husband and occasionally her daughter, she continues the Kapossy Family Hungarian Hour on WCPN 90.3 FM, and like her parents, is on the air every week, continuing to bring the music and stories and events of her culture and the greater Cleveland Hungarian community.