This is a true story based on interviews with a memoir client. Names and details have been masked on the web version for privacy.
We left our Budapest flat on October 10, 1979. When we closed the door, we walked away from everything – all our possessions – knowing we’d never see any of it again. Oh, and it was such a beautiful flat! Third floor corner apartment built in 1910. It had huge rooms that opened up with French doors, tall ceilings, and large windows. We had just finished a complete remodel. This we were able to do because of a sudden inheritance. G’s Uncle had died, a wealthy dentist with no kids. Everything was to go to his niece in Milwaukee, but she said, “No, I have what I need. Give it to G.” Everything came to us, including some valuable property in the heart of Budapest.
You can’t imagine how beautiful our flat was after the remodel! We filled it with the oil paintings, silver, and Persian rugs we’d inherited from our Uncle. But when the remodel was done, we started to dream of defecting.
The first time we thought of leaving Hungary was in 1956, during the revolution. Because of the uprising, the government collapsed and for almost three weeks the borders were open. Under the communist regime, people were not allowed to go anywhere near the border. You would get shot. But the turmoil of the revolution gave people the chance to leave. Lots of our friends went to other countries. In fact, about a quarter of a million Hungarians left.
We knew the openness wouldn’t last, and it didn’t. The Soviets came back into Hungary and suppressed the revolution. There were tanks in the streets of Budapest. The borders were closed again and the new communist dictatorship took revenge on those who had participated in the uprising. People were jailed, and people were executed. We had friends who were punished, but we had learned not to cause trouble. Not to attract attention.
We didn’t like the communist regime, but Budapest was our life and we learned to live with it. A. was born in 1959, so that was a reason to stay. Everyone had their stories about why they didn’t leave in 1956. G. always dreamed of going to America, but he said the reason he didn’t leave then was because he’d just started some interesting projects at the research institute. I also think he didn’t want to leave his widowed mother. He was very close to her. My parents, too, would have stayed behind in Hungary. They weren’t that old, but they thought they were too old to go.
Twenty years after the revolution, we started thinking again about leaving. A. was 19, an adult, but she was not attached to anyone and she shared our desire to leave. The regime was getting a bit more relaxed, but it was still very risky to talk about defection.
We had a few opportunities to travel outside Hungary. G. attended professional meetings, but usually he’d have to leave a member of the family back in Hungary. They were the “pawn” to make sure he would return. In 1977, George worked for a year at an institute in Switzerland and we were allowed to join him. While we were there we applied to the Swiss government for asylum, but were denied. Even doing this we were afraid, hoping the Hungarian government wouldn’t find out.
Finally, in 1979 we applied for and got tourist passports for the whole family. We felt very lucky. All three of us would be allowed to leave the country on a vacation. This was going to be our escape.
We couldn’t tell anyone of our plans. We’d heard a story about parents whose two young children knew of their plans to defect. The children talked to their classmates, the classmates told their parents, and soon the authorities knew. The family was stopped at the border and turned back. Everyone shared stories like this.
Everything had to be done in secret. We couldn’t trust anyone. We needed to make sure we didn’t act in any way out of the ordinary. We would never talk about our plans at home because our phone was likely to be bugged. If we absolutely had to discuss something, we would go into the bathroom and turn on the water to drown out our voices.
Finally, as our departure date approached, I told my analyst and my brother. I asked my brother to go to our flat the night of our departure and take everything he could carry, including the beautiful Persian rugs. Our passports allowed us to travel for 30 days, but we knew as soon as our defection was discovered the authorities would come in and take our things. The government owned the flat, so they could move anyone in. So we had an official paper showing my step-nephew as a resident. He lived there for a while after we were gone, but eventually the government kicked him out and gave someone else the flat.
We couldn’t take anything in our car or our suitcases that would raise suspicion. We packed for a vacation. No family photos, no sentimental items, no large amounts of cash. Nothing.
In the weeks prior to leaving, we had entertained good friends who were visiting from Switzerland. I gave them a pair of very expensive diamond earrings and a necklace, which they kept until we saw them again in Switzerland. We later sold the diamonds in New York for some cash. A box of family photos went to an Austrian friend, but tragically she died in a car wreck and the photos have been lost.
I had friends who were interested in books. The night before our departure, I told them to come over with boxes. They could take any books they wanted. These were friends we could trust not to betray us.
Finally, 13 days before the 13th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, we walked out of our flat and closed the door for the last time. There were no emotions. When you do something like that, you can’t afford to have emotions. You just need to act calm, be focused, and see it through. It takes about an hour and forty minutes to drive 170 kilometers from Budapest to the Austrian border. We kept our eyes on the road and said very little. We didn’t dare speak about our plans for fear the car was bugged. We weren’t nervous or afraid. We simply did what needed to be done to get across the border.
But then, as soon as we were in Austria, our emotions broke free. We started to yell. All three of us were yelling with joy. Yelling and driving. In Vienna we checked into a cheap hotel. It was nothing special, but I still remember walking around, breathing the fresh air. In ordinary shops we saw a kind of soap you could only get on the black market in Hungary. And things we couldn’t buy in Hungary at all – like bananas!
We were so happy we’d made it out. And even though we had no idea whether we’d end up in France, Switzerland, England, Sweden, or the U.S., we realized our precious things and our beautiful flat were not as important as the ability to speak and do and travel as we wish – and breathe the fresh air.
After six months traveling from Vienna to Switzerland and then to Paris, and with the help of friends, family, colleagues, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), we flew from Brussels to our new home in the United States. We arrived in Seattle, Washington, on April 16, 1980.
Copyright Liz Behlke 2017