Illustration by Andres Garzon
Exert From: Chronicles of a Young Immigrant Girl
Chapter One — On the Run by Judy Fischer
Budapest, Hungary 1956
It was toward the end of September 1956 when the leaves from all the inner-city trees had already fallen. The dead, brown foliage lay thick and heavy on the sidewalks of my home town. Those sweet smells of summer and the feeling of hope that accompanies the happiest season of the year was slowly coming to an end as the autumn of that particular year made its ugly appearance. It was showing signs of a more ominous and frightful season than those previously. A hint of terror hovered over the entire country of Hungary.
There was a cold nip in the air awaiting us as our tiny airplane landed at the local airport following a month-long trip to my father’s childhood home. The summer vacation to Bulgaria was my first trip abroad, and although at six I was indifferent to its significance, I did enjoy the trappings linked to the fun and excitement. Whether our trip was the result of something my father foresaw and feared, or a well-deserved vacation, I will never know. Too young to have recognized the political atmosphere of the time, the trip was just a magnificent adventure for me. My father was a man in his fifties who had out-lived many tragedies in his life. Having survived World War One by fleeing his birth country, and adopting a new language and culture in Bulgaria, my father must have known there was something terrible brewing in the wind. A longing to visit his parents’ graves possibly for the last time was his main reason for going. Arriving there was very rewarding, but returning home proved to be perilous.
School started before I came home. Though my first day of school should have been memorable, it was not. The grade one class had made their first day of school memories and friendships without me, and I arrived at their doorstep a stranger. The one month I remained in school was as traumatic as the month that followed. On October 23rd, a caravan of Russian tanks stormed into Budapest following a civil uprising and all hell broke loose. To squelch the revolutionary sentiments forming strongly in the hearts of many, foreign soldiers in full uniform arrived. Soon, chaos and fighting became an everyday reality. At the age of six, I knew little and understood even less, about war. The fear and terror written on the faces of my neighbors and strangers on the street was, however, the harsh lesson I soon learned.
After the invasion, the city became a war zone. My mother made an honest effort to keep me safe and to protect me from the harsh truth, yet she decided to take our afternoon walk, even though something ominous was happening in the streets of Budapest. She dressed me in a warm fall jacket, but without a hat to cover my blond curls. Even those fall garments could not protect me from the things I was about to see. While the cold was not the threat, the scene outside was. I was only six years old. Young children should only see the wonderful side of life, not the atrocities of war. Nonetheless, we walked through the crowds. There were people everywhere. Horrified, they staggered from place to place. But it was just another day for me, walking hand in hand with my mother. Around me, an era had just come to an end. People were running through the streets. Some were screaming, some were just making awful sounds, and others were staring up toward the sky. In the park, naked bodies swung from gigantic trees. They were on display for everyone to see. I couldn’t understand what was happening, and my mother’s answer was enough at the time. She told me that the men were being punished for the bad things they had done. That they were being displayed as examples to warn those who were thinking of doing the same bad things. I did not question it. She begged me not to look up. But how could I not? My young eyes had never witnessed such horrific sights. How was I supposed to make any sense of them? As we walked, there was a soft cushion under our feet. It wasn’t like the hard cement sidewalks that I recalled from our past walks. Upon a closer look we could see faded, muddy and shredded garments. But it was not the garments providing the cushion. It was the dead bodies of the people who wore them. There was an odor in the air, something heavy and indicative of blood and death.
The following day, as we sat in our kitchen, the sounds of bullets echoed through the streets nearby and the sound was coming closer. They bounced off the walls under of our own kitchen window without warning. My parents grabbed me by the hand and hustled all of us downstairs to the bomb shelter. We ran with the other tenants to save ourselves. We huddled close together for safety, and to find a little comfort. No one really felt safe after those first weeks of the uprising while the Revolution of October 23 kept raging on. My parents quietly plotted our escape. I was too young to be included in the preparations.
My mother gave me a bag, and instructed me to fill it with a day’s worth of clothing and one of my favorite dolls. I wanted to take many more, but there was no more room in it. On November 20, almost one month since the beginning of the revolt, we left the comforts of our home with a small suitcase each by our side. It was my 7th birthday. I was abandoning my childhood, my innocence, my cousins, all my dolls and my favorite toys. But I had no inclination of what was happening around me. The disruption in my life was disturbing, yet through the eyes of a child, reality was tempered. The adults made all the necessary plans, children obeyed and followed. There was a definite advantage to being young and naive. To prevent a disaster, I was told we were going to visit my grandmother who lived in a neighbouring town. I used to go there often, but never by train. I was joyful about our unexpected trip. It was my birthday after all, so going to celebrate with my grandmother was not unthinkable.
The train station was jam-packed. It was noisy, and people were pushy. Hysteria. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. I was just happy to be visiting my grandmother, and was telling anybody who stopped and listened to me. But they laughed at me. The train was not going to take me to my grandmother. It was taking me to a new life far away.
The train ride was quite uneventful. It was quiet and somber. Fear was written on the faces of each passenger. Unable to move, we all sat crammed together. The oxygen got thinner with each kilometer the train moved, and a few passengers fainted in the aisles. When the train finally stopped, the scene changed. People yelled as they climbed out by the windows unto the platform. People were acting like caged animals trying to set themselves free. The aisles remained crowded, and sweat dripped from everybody. My innocence was now stolen, and the hope of sharing my birthday with my grandmother had vanished. I could not ignore the fear in my mother’s eyes. I started to cry.
The border between Hungary and Austria was unarmed, and the border guards had abandoned their posts. The message as suggested by the news reports encouraged more and more people to seek asylum outside of Hungary. There was an urgency to get to the border before it would again be closed. It was accessible, but far away from where the train could go. The rest of our journey had to be continued by foot, and in the dark of the night.
I turned seven. I was a cry-baby and complained from the minute we started on foot. It must have been terrible to travel such a dangerous journey with a young child. I complained about the blisters on my feet, about my hunger pains and about my fatigue. My father had sadness and uncertainty in his eyes and voice. We did not rest very often. There was no time to delay, for there was an urgency in every step that brought us closer to freedom. I remember taking refuge in a farmer’s house. We were there given hot food and the adults were treated to strong homemade brandy to calm their nerves. These good Samaritans opened their homes to all those needing some comfort and warmth. The quest for a better life became a monumental challenge my parents had not foreseen.
Our trek toward the border was also interrupted by one very frightening incident. On the road we walked on during the day, the anti-revolutionary movement had a pickup route. They travelled back and forth picking up stragglers, and collecting and depositing them into makeshift prisons. Nobody was legally allowed to leave the country. The trucks they were using were cruising the area at the same time we were on our last few kilometers. The anticipation of being caught made the journey more terrifying. We had joined up with a group of others who were also finding their way to the border. The group of travellers, made up of young adults, were compassionate, but travelling with a crying and complaining child tested their patience. My father insisted that we stay at the end of the line. As we walked, a young man on a motorcycle pulled up beside us. He was heading in the same direction, and kindly volunteered to take me on his motorbike. He offered to deliver me to a milestone further up the road. Without hesitation, my father agreed. Seeing I was having a difficult time keeping up, this was a very good opportunity. But the decision he made to keep me from crying and to make better progress on this last stretch of the road nearly separated us from each other. It could have been forever.
My ride up the road was memorable. I can still remember the cold breeze blowing my hat off my head, but the pain from my blisters was gone. I was focused on holding onto my escort with both arms, so looking back was impossible. My parents were too far behind. I felt strange without the security of my mother’s hand holding mine. But sitting without pain was a welcome relief that outweighed the loss. We arrived at the checkpoint where we had agreed to reunite. The young man and I sat on the cold, damp grassy shoulder. Suddenly, the sound of a truck roaring in the distance brought my companion to his feet as he pushed me under a nearby bush. The engine’s thunderous echo came from the same direction as my parents. As it approached, my young escort seemed more agitated and motioned at me, signalling that I should remain in hiding and silent. The truck came closer and closer to where we were waiting. As it passed us by, I could see it was full of people standing close together. There were so many, there was no room for even one more person. My escort gazed quickly at the truck, and looked very worried. Then in the far distance, we saw the group of people I had been walking with, and I saw my mother and father leading them. Their faces of relief were obvious as they ran toward me. We were reunited. I didn’t know what all the fuss had been about. We were together and hopefully, I thought, never to be separated again. Little did I know that it was by sheer luck and good fortune that neither my parents, nor I became passengers on that prison-bound truck.
JUDY FISCHER is a Montrealer by love and choice. She is the author of He Fell From the Sky and Missy Loves René, two books published in the last two years.
Copyright © 2019 by Judy Fischer. All rights reserved.