Ervin Willinger (Varnagy)
“Messengers” of the Revolution
[This is an excerpt from the autobiography of my father, Ervin Williger-Varnagy), who died in 2003. It was December 1956, and Bela Barsony, my mother Ily's brother, and his wife Erzsi had just fled Hungary. This is how they went from Hungarian refugees with a dime to getting a job in Canada.]

Now it was our turn. At Ily's office a small group of people finalized their plans to leave the country. They asked us to go along.

Ilys parents had no qualms. They offered to keep our baby until there was an opportunity to follow us without risking her life. How long would that take? Nobody knew. We did not even know whether such an opportunity would ever exist.

It was obvious that we had to leave before the first snowfall. With snow on the ground the danger of detection and capture was almost inevitable.

There were new rumors about people disappearing from their homes in the middle of the night. The terror had started again. As usual, the arrests were random. Nobody was safe. My colleagues from the Chemical Society had almost all gone to the West. Even the secretary who typed our "declaration of solidarity" to the revolutionary government was gone. That declaration was but one potential reason for my arrest.

I asked my mother to come and talk to me. We did not dare to go to Buda, since there were police checkpoints on the bridges. She volunteered to come and meet me in the Pest side of the city. My brother Karcsi was with her.

We talked on a bench on Andrassy ut, the same road we walked on with Ily on our wedding day. To me it seemed that this was the road of destiny, once more. Mom told me that she had talked with my stepfather. They did not tell me to stay, they did not advise to go. It was up to me. I sat there on the bench, thinking. Inside I heard a voice: "you must go..." I asked Karcsi what he would do in my place.

He said that his position was different. Neither he or his wife had a college degree. And Panni would not leave her aging parents. When Karcsi and I hugged each other, Mom had tears in her eyes. They turned around and walked away quickly, without ever looking back. I suspect they did not want to give me a chance to change my mind.

It was nearly forty years later that Karcsi and Panni visited us in our home in Ohio, and met our children. They stayed with us for two months. When it was time to return to Hungary, he asked me in private: "why did you not insist that we come along with you?"

...Water under the bridge... Besides: how could I?

The agony of separation

I went home and told Ily that we are leaving. Now came the hard decision: Should we take the baby with us or leave her with her grandparents? We both felt that we would go mad from this decision. This is a decision I would not want any parent to face. But we had to decide, and decide soon.

We made one more round of phone calls to people who had relatives already in Austria or had news from the situation on the border. Most people told us that it was extremely risky to travel with a child. We had waited too long, it was already the middle of December. The weather had turned wintery, the roads were dangerous.

We were told about groups of would-be escapees who were arrested and returned because the baby's cry gave them away to the border patrol. At this point, no one wanted to travel with a family with small children. There were stories of others who had given their infants sleeping pills, but misjudged the dose. The babies never woke up on the other side of the border. They told us about one mother who had a nervous breakdown after she discovered that she had carried a dead child in her arms for hours.

Later, when I served as an interpreter at a red-cross station in Austria I saw one little blue corpse in the arms of the mother.

Back in Budapest, we did not know any of this for sure. We were not even certain that we could make it safely to Austria. We were torn apart. It was my Grandma who made up our minds for us. She swore to us that she would take care of our baby no matter what, and that she would stop at no sacrifice to bring her out safely to us as soon as the situation permitted. I had seen her fight with the AVO, and I knew she would be true to her word.

We spent the last night doting over our baby. We fed her supper, gave her a bath and Ily held her on her knees for a long time, talking to her, reassuring her that we loved her very much, and we would be together again very soon.

We both kissed her and put her to bed. Ily said, "Goodby my little darling..." We both sobbed and Grandma cried with us.

It was time to gather up our few possessions and leave. We would never see our home, our furniture, our mementos again. Being caught with gold, jewelry or papers was proof to the police that we were planning to escape; so we could not take anything like that. We had on two sets of underwear, two suits of clothes and carried a small briefcase with some documents and personal belongings. Our most precious possession was invisible, imprinted on our brains: a degree in chemical engineering and a degree in architecture. It was enough to provide us comfortably with everything we needed in our new life. We had practically no material possessions as we hugged Ily's parents one last time and under the cover of darkness we stole out of the apartment. It was the l8th of December 1956.

Goodbye to our home

We spent the night at the Juhász's apartment so we coul have one last planning session for the trip. There were five of us in the group. Two couples: Ily and I, Leslie and Mártha Juhász. The fifth was Joe Hecks, who left his estranged wife and their one child behind. Leslie, Joe and Helen were colleagues from the same office. Leslie's wife and I were the outsiders. At twenty-nine years of age, I was the oldest of the five.

Our cover story was that we are going to relatives of Mártha Juhász, to attend a wedding in western Hungary, at Zalaegerszeg, a town near to the Austrian border. We chose our route, because it was out of the way of the direct traffic to the border. Mártha's parents lived there, and since Ily had spent many summer vacations there, she was quite familiar with the Rába river and the border area.

The main railroad stations in Budapest were patrolled by the Soviets, so we decided to use the less popular Kelenföld station, the same one where we arrived from Austria in 1945. I could not help but notice the irony...

There were eight seats in the compartment. Our party plus three other passengers who were already seated there, filled it all. Hungarians are a talkative people. Under normal circumstances, there would have been introductions and exchange of information about who is traveling where and why. That evening we all sat there without saying a single word.

We left the station more or less on time, without any questions from the authorities. But as the conductor came along to check our tickets, he was accompanied by two armed AVO man. Those who had tickets to Györ, a major railroad cross-point, and further west, were questioned by the AVO man. Identities were checked. Since we were going southwest, they left us alone. They accepted the story about the wedding, because Mártha's parents lived in Zalaegerszeg.

We arrived late at night and walked the short distance to the house. They were expecting us, although they did not know which day we were coming. We had supper and bedded down for the night. The two women and Leslie slept in the parents large bedroom, while Joe and I slept on folding beds in the dining room. Before I fell asleep, I noticed that Joe and Magda whispered together for a long time in low voices so I could not understand. Before she went to bed Mártha kissed Joe goodnight.

The next morning we had a conference with our hosts about the next move. We were a mere twenty-five miles from the border. But we could not use the major roads since they were patrolled by the Russians. Also the roads ran east-west and the border was to the north. Martha's father arranged with a farmer whom he trusted to drive us on the backroads to a village South of the Rába river, only a few miles from the border. Since it gets dark early in December in Hungary, it was dark when we took of in the wagon. Mártha's dad came along.

We spent the night with another peasant family. They were friends of Mártha's father's. I think the village was called Rábafüzes. They took a considerable risk by sheltering us since those who helped escapees risked being sent to concentration camp or worse. Bless their heart, they did it anyway. This time we slept four to the bed, fully clothed, under a heavy comforter. I did not sleep too well.

After breakfast our host hitched his wagon and we took off for our final leg to the border. After driving through dirt roads for hours, we finally reached the river Rába. It was not too deep, we guessed it would reach just above our knees at that point; it was fordable. But, being December, it was freezing cold.

We said goodbye to Mártha's dad. Looking back after all these years, I realize he was another Messenger sent to us by God. Then we stripped to our underwear for the river crossing. The old man stood at the riverbank, crying. He kept calling after me: "Take care of my little daughter!" I assured him that I would. Alas that was one promise I could not keep.

Leslie went in the water first and Joe followed. Mártha whispered to Ily that she could not get wet, so I volunteered to carry her over on my back. I handed my briefcase to Ily who was the last in the water.

We were all in a somber mood, but I could not help noticing the way Joe was crossing the river. He was a short person to begin with. He was bare footed and in his boxer shorts, wearing his jacket, white shirt and tie. Joe waded in the water, carrying his briefcase. His strides were that of a businessman going to the office in the morning. And at every step he dunked the briefcase with all his earthly possessions in the water. I found the way he walked, the water soaking his jacket, with an "I don't give a damn!" expression on his face was hilarious.

On the far side we gathered together, our legs frozen blue, shivering. A young gypsy boy of about nine or ten years old came along and sold to us three sticks of matches for a hundred forints. (In the store an entire box was sold for half a forint.) We gathered some driftwood and made a small fire to dry and warm up a little. After that we got dressed and headed for the small farmhouse and barn that our host with the wagon had pointed out to us. We were told that they were friendly people and frequently guided refugees across the border.

First we entered the house but the farmer told us to go to the barn. We found a dozen people already there, waiting to cross the border. The main rail line to Austria, also a principal highway, ran between the farm and the border. It was frequently patrolled by Soviet armored carriers, which carried a squad of infantry inside. There was nothing to do but to wait until darkness fell to cross these barriers. Again, nobody made small talk. We did not want to know our traveling companions in case we were captured. We just sat in the hay and ate the sandwiches we carried with us.

By seven o'clock it was sufficiently dark to risk crossing. A young man from the house collected all the Hungarian money we carried, about a thousand forints each. That was two week's wages for a well-paid tradesman. He led us out of the barn, pointed toward the railroad tracks and warned us about the patrols which he said came "about every half an hour." He also told us to always bear to the left, westward, and remember not to go north, because we might walk right back to Hungary. With that said, he turned around and went back to the house, leaving us on our own. Not much guidance for almost twelve thousand forints... But he had risked a lot just by talking to us.

We walked to the banks of the railroad tracks, and crossed to the other side. The land was flat. About a hundred yards ahead of us was the highway. There was a fairly large well nearby, really a large concrete ring, the only place to take cover. We ducked behind it and waited for the patrol to pass.

After about fifteen minutes we saw the headlights of two oncoming vehicles. They traveled slowly, with the top open to allow one solder to scan the landscape with binoculars. By some miracle they did not notice us. They passed and darkness fell on the countryside.

We crossed the highway in a hurry. On the other side there was a grassy slope, that looked like a cornfield in the darkness. The crop had been harvested. Past the field was a wide, muddy strip that used to be the minefield. The mines had recently been removed because of the elections in Austria. The communists took a terrible beating at the polls, because the opposition transported busloads of people to the border to show them the brutal reality of the Iron Curtain. After their Austrian comrades complained, the Hungarians removed the mines.

We started to walk in the direction we were told. There was not one star in the sky, no light anywhere, not a sound in the darkness. It was hard walking in the mud, so we made slow progress. Others started to fall behind, but the five of us were young, and we continued on at a brisk pace. We did not ask for or offer help to anyone else. It was every man for himself.

After about a half a mile we found a dirt path that led into a small growth of trees. Gradually we entered the forest, but here we found another obstacle. The trees had been cut so that they fell into our path from both directions. We were forced to climb over them. In the darkness that was not easy, and we kept sliding and falling. Although no one had a compass, someone knew that moss grows on the northern side of a tree. Would did not dare risk using our small flashlight, so we groped around in the darkness to feel for the moss on the bark of the trees. All the time we were moving westward - or what we thought was West - to avoid going back into Hungary. The group spread out even more and soon there were only the five of us left together.

It seemed that we had been wandering among the trees forever. We were not even sure the path was still there. Every so often one of us bumped into a tree, and there was a muffled outcry of pain. We would stop and wait, join up together and keep walking in the darkness. Since I had lost my watch in one of my many falls, I did not know what time it was.

Suddenly Leslie cried out. He had walked headfirst into something, almost knocking himself out. As we gathered around him, I noticed that he had bumped into a concrete post. Cautiously we shined our small flashlight on it to se what it was. It was a border marker to Austria. It was December 21, 1956, about ten o'clock at night when I left Hungary for the second time. [The first was in 1944.]

Once more a homeless refugee

We arrived to freedom exhausted, cold, penniless, stateless, but exhilarated.
We were young, healthy and full of hope.

We had another half hour of slipping and sliding ahead of us, but guided by the barking of some dogs we reached the outskirts of the Austrian village of Deutschbilling. I have loved dogs since that night...

I also noticed that by morning we had the first snowfall of the year. We were lucky in that respect too. Those who tried to escape after us left their footprints in the snow, making it easier for the Soviets to track them down. It also showed the routes that volunteer guides had used to help other refugees. The snow made escaping much more dangerous and difficult.

In the dining area, a mountain of sandwiches and more hot chocolate waited for us. I learned that they had all been made by a young Swiss girl, who slept on the top of a table, and had made up to five hundred sandwiches every day for Hungarian refugees for the past four weeks. Her hands were raw. They told us that she was a concert pianist. May God bless her for this labor of love.

Early afternoon the buses arrived and we were transported to Güssing, a larger community nearby. The Franciscan fathers opened their monastery for us. There were several large halls, probably their working area or assembly hall. Men and women were separated and we all slept on the floor on blankets. Christmas was only two days away.

It is hard to recall all of the many acts of kindness we received from the Austrian population. There was one incident however which I will never forget. It was winter and Joe was very lightly dressed, and had no overcoat. When one farmer noticed this, he called Joe to his house, took out his "best" coat from the cabinet and gave it to him. For centuries the Austrians and Hungarians were at war with each other, but from that point, I knew with certainty that we had become brothers.

My fluency in German and familiarity with the local customs came in handy. We had been on the road for many days at that point, without any opportunity to bathe. When I found out there was a small hospital in the town, I walked in and asked them if I could have a bath. They let me use one of their bathrooms and I soaked in the hot water for a long time. I never enjoyed a bath so much.

Christmas was a bittersweet event since we missed our loved ones. They did not know yet whether we had made it successfully to freedom. But the Christmas dinner... I don't think our hosts really appreciated our hunger for "luxury " food like oranges. They peeled a large amount of oranges for fruit salad. The smell of oranges was all over the building. We found the mound of orange peels and ate them as if we were starving. During dinner an elderly gentleman, possibly from the Red Cross, amused himself by tossing us snacks, as if we were monkeys in the Zoo. It did not matter. We grabbed them and enjoyed them like never before.

The next day at lunchtime another visitor came by. It was another "messenger," although I did not realize it. It was the Hungarian Count Szechy, who left Hungary in 1945 and never returned. He had enough land and property in Austria to live on. But he was a patriot and cared for the refugees. He walked around by the tables, and talked to the people. When he came to us, he asked me if we were well looked after. I said yes, but I had a problem. I explained to him that I had friends in Vienna, and wanted to get in touch with them but had no money for bus fare. He said something like "we'll see what can be done" and moved on.

The next morning the Pryor called me to the office. I was told that the Count had left bus fare for us so we could travel to Vienna. It was for all five of us. Before he gave me the money, he asked for our identity cards so he cold make sure that we were really married couples...

We said our thanks and bid goodbye to our hosts, and left Gussing. (About a year later I made it a point to send a hundred dollars to the abbey - quite a bit of money for us - as a gift of gratitude.)

We were eager to move on, as far away as possible. Australia and South America were the popular destinies, but anything overseas was OK. Not that we had much choice. Many western European countries wanted no part of us. Others had stringent health restrictions. An appendectomy scar was enough to be rejected for "medical reasons" Béla was not accepted for Australia because he was too short-sighted. He went to England, which was, as it turned out later, a much better choice.

The U.S., my current adopted country, was the most bureaucratic and hypocritical of all. At first they airlifted a few thousand people from the camps, but after that, they only admitted those who had American citizens or institutions "sponsoring" them. That meant that the sponsor accepted total financial responsibility for the new immigrants until they could support themselves. The only ethnic group that took such responsibility was the Jewish community which meant that for a long period of time, the only people accepted for US immigration were Jews.

It could be that someone remembered that in 1939 America refused to admit Jews seeking refuge from Hitler.

It was most surprising to meet among the refugees some Russian solders who fought alongside the Hungarian freedom fighters against Khrushchev's Bolsheviks. Nobody knew it at that point, but the end of the "glorious" Soviet Union was near. (During our visit to Budapest some thirty years later we also saw the graves of Russian soldiers who gave their lives fighting for a free Hungary.)

On January 21st, we received five dollars in spending money, boarded the train, and left friendly Austria for Trieste, Italy, to embark for the New World.

A cruise-ship to remember

After the rundown, threadbare communist trains we were used to riding on, the train ride on the plush Austrian express was a dream. We arrived to Trieste on the evening of January 22nd, 1957. We were treated to the best Italian dinner in my memory (including a paid Italian cruise forty years later). We slept in a small but comfortable hotel and in the morning, took buses to the harbor. Time to embark! This was the first time I have seen the good ship SATURNIA.

The Saturnia was a 26,000 ton displacement cruise ship, of Italian registry. Its prime functions were Mediterranean cruises and to transport Italian immigrants to the New World. The immigrants traveled third class. We were booked in the second class. We had a two-bunk cabin with a private bath and a porthole, which was nice. In good weather we could have some fresh air, which we did not appreciate until we discovered that the ship's ventilation system did not work too well. Below us the third class passengers did some of their own cooking, so our cabin was soon saturated with what we called "Saturnia-stench" - it was a mixture of burned vegetable oil, garlic and human odor. (Third class did not have the luxury of shower stalls in every cabin, like we did.)

When the ship departed, the orchestra played the then very popular song: "Arrivederci Roma", say goodbye Rome... While the Italians cried their hearts out, we spat in the water and shouted: good riddance Europe! We did not want
to see that place again, full of so many bad memories.

Then we went to Barcelona, Spain. Despite the fact that it was late January, the sea was deep blue, the dolphins were playing around the ship and people were swimming in the pool on the deck. The water was smooth like glass. In Barcelona we were shipbound once more - no shore leave for stateless people... But at least we could see a little of that beautiful city from the ship.

When we crossed into the Atlantic, the color of the water turned grayish black and the waves became noticeable. The ship sailed along the coast to Lisbon, Portugal. Here the local Hungarian colony visited the ship (again, no shore leave for us). These were the families who arrived in 1945 with admiral Horthy, who took political asylum in Portugal from the western Allies. (He was considered to be at the very least a participant in the war, and possibly a war criminal. He could have ended up in Soviet hands which meant either being shipped to Siberia or the rope. Our countrymen were warm and loving but having lived in Portugal so long did not really appreciate our predicament. They asked us about the situation in Hungary, gave us rosaries and religious articles and wished us all the best for our new life. At that time we did not realize that these Hungarians were very poor and had had a tough life in exile.

We left Lisbon at night. The next morning the storm started.

Helen [Ily] must come from a long line of seafaring people since she was never seasick at all. She had an excellent appetite for the entire trip, and ate breakfast with gusto. It never bothered her that some of the waiters were even a little green when they brought the food to our table.

I did not eat at all. I found out the hard way just how sensitive I was to motion sickness. Soon I was on deck, by the rail, feeding the fish. Next to me an Italian sailor stood, in uniform, with a chest full of medals. I asked him, that with his naval service, why he still had motion sickness? He just pointed to the submariner's dolphin on his chest, the poor devil.

The humor of the situation came the next morning. Helen told me that she had a sore throat which I mentioned it to our cabin steward, who only understood that the signora is "sick," which at that time could only mean seasickness. At mealtime, he showed up with a glass of milk and a single piece of toast. Helen starved all day. She was probably the only one on the whole ship who had enjoyed a good meal.

We kept setting our clocks backwards as we moved through the western longitudes. One morning we awoke to the sight of the ship's deck covered with a thick coating of ice. Our new country, Canada extended her frosty welcome to us.

We land on the shores of the New World

Our ship set anchor in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the 12th of
February 1957.

Before we left the ship we took advantage of the duty free bar on the Ship one more time. Our already depleted fortunes yielded two more drinks per person. We set foot in Canada with two suitcases, and 10 cents (US) in our pockets. The Canadian dollar was at the time the worlds hardest currency, at 113 U.S. cents. That meant that our fortune was less than 10 Canadian cents.

In contrast to what I have heard of the U.S. Immigration service, the Canadians were friendly, quick and efficient. They had translators on hand and processed approx. 800 Hungarians and I don't know how many Italians, in just a few hours. We were told that unless we had friends and relatives who could take care of us for a while, that our best bet was to accept the government's hospitality. They gave us food and lodging for a month, but at a location of their choice. As a policy they channeled new immigrants to the sparsely populated prairie provinces. Our destiny was Winnipeg, Manitoba. Since we had no preference,this was fine with us.


We arrived to Winnipeg in the middle of winter. Just the week before, we had enjoyed the balmy Mediterranean climate, but now we had to cope with sub-zero weather.

We were billeted in the "immigration hall," maintained for newcomers like us by the Canadian government. The idea was to keep us alive until we learned enough English to be able to hold down a job and support ourselves. That was more than we expected. Although, to admit it as it was, we were a very cocky bunch, hot from being the "heroes of the uprising," and we thought that the world owed us one since everyone had let us down against the Russkies.

Soon we learned a few facts of life. First, a large number of "old" Hungarians, who escaped AFTER the 1919 communist revolution lived in Winnipeg. Even after thirty years, hey remained confirmed Marxists. The local office of the "Hungarian Communist Party" still had a picture of the hated Soviet vassal Rákosi in the window. During the Russian occupation he was Stalin's proconsul, but by that time he was even "out" in Hungary

There were also people who had left Hungary in 1945, but never returned to the country. They spent a rough time in the "Dipi" (displaced persons) camps, where they were treated as suspected war criminals. After they crossed the Ocean,(the lucky ones) they had to repay their transportation costs to the Canadian government. They never received any special favors from anyone and because of this, they were jealous of us and disliked us.

Then we had to cope with the bad reputation that some of our own comrades Had earned for us. There are bad apples in every barrel, and there were those who believed the Hollywood myth that in "America" it is enough to pretend that you are a doctor or engineer and you can get away with it. (Under the years of Soviet rule, lying to the authorities, stealing and cheating became acceptable behavior as long as you did not do it to your own people.) They soon found discovered the consequences of their behavior, but we had already started to see a certain new bias toward us, thanks to those hooligans.

Our future was far from certain, but suddenly a whole string of "messengers" came into our life.

Someone is looking out for us

Even today I cannot recall those first days in Winnipeg without awe. Around us many of our people were swept away to poverty, uncertainty and trouble, but ours followed the straight path.

It all started with the notice that a free English course was available in the dining hall. French language is seldom used in Canada outside Quebec, except where it is required by law (like in writing on toothpaste tubes). Realizing the importance of speaking the main Canadian language, we made an effort to learn English as fast as we could. Our teacher was a volunteer, a nice retired schoolteacher named Mrs. Wilson. We took to each other and became fast friends. After a few weeks we managed to converse with her. She learned of our adventures and how we left our baby behind. She understood our loss and shared our grief.

One day she invited us to their home for dinner. Her husband was a very nice old gentleman of the "British" mold, with Scottish background. He was also a "messenger" to take care of us.

He was very interested in everything we had to say, particularly when he found out about our academic backgrounds. We talked at length about my work at the Plastics Institute at Budapest, and about my knowledge of polymer science. As it turned out he was the owner-manager of a placement firm for technical people. (I never heard that such a thing existed! I had just been looking for a job as a photographer's apprentice the day before.) He composed a resume for me and sent it out to a number of firms who had previous contact with him.

He was also a member of the local Rotary club and thought that I had enough English to give a presentation at the next monthly dinner. He helped me to write a speech, which included the fact that we had to leave without our baby girl. This had a very great emotional appeal on the good people of Canada.

My speech was a success. I even managed to answer a few questions about Hungary in general and myself in particular. It came out that I was a chemical engineer.

After the meeting a gentleman came to me and gave me a card with his phone number. He was the director of Ogilvie flour mills, a large conglomerate in flour milling and food processing, and also one of my "messengers."

I showed up for the interview in my "best" outfit (which did not amount to much). The first thing he did was to make me write down the Arabic numerals from one to ten, explaining that in English speaking countries one NEVER crosses the number seven. (With the arrival of computers that is changed by now). Next I was escorted to the lab. It was surprisingly large for what I knew about flour milling, but entirely familiar. I was shown to a rather old analytical balance, just like the one we had in the lab back at the University. He asked me if I could take it apart and calibrate it. Could I ever! I also promptly recognized a battery of Kjeldahl flask which were set up for testing the nitrogen (protein) content in the flour.

They must have been properly impressed with my expertise because I was offered a job on the spot, beginning the next morning. My salary was a princely sum for a freshly arrived refugee: Can $150.00 per month. My benefactor shook hands with me and asked me if we had any place to stay? I told him that we had none.

The next morning a very dignified Canadian lady came into the room smiling. She introduced herself as Mrs. Ella Gibson and invited us to stay with them - as house guests and family members. I did not realize it, but we had just met our Canadian mom.

In less than three weeks in Canada I had a professional job, a home with a well to do Canadian family and a placement agency working for me to get me a permanent job. You may call it luck or coincidence. Knowing what happened to others in Vienna, to me this was no coincidence. Divine Providence was guiding us, every step at the way.