Canmore resident Eva Kende originally wrote this account of escaping Hungary in 1956 for the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Kende, nee Varadi, passed away earlier this year and is survived by her husband John, who still calls Canmore home, her son Leslie and his wife, and their two grandsons who live in Calgary.
The journey began with a trip to a luggage shop to buy two bags to hold our most prized worldly possessions.
The revolution that started with so much hope was beaten – Budapest was in ruins and bleeding. Mother’s yearning for the support and comfort of her brother who has been living in Spain since the end of the civil war there, made her set aside all her fears and phobias and she declared that we are going. I was 15 years old.
Her decision was not made lightly. The great migration started soon after the Russian tanks ended all hope on Nov. 4, 1956. Now it was mid-December.
We had spent the evenings of the past month glued to the radio, listening to Radio Free Europe broad casting messages from friends and relatives who safely made it to Austria.
Mother’s best friend Mariska, a decisive leader, her husband and daughter were going, which gave mother the courage to join in this trek to the unknown. It was decided that the five of us will have to rent a hotel room near the railroad station the night before, so as not to be conspicuous in our neighbourhood leaving in the early morning carrying our satchels.
These small bags were packed, over and over again, with our most prized possessions. Mother’s heavy stocking repair machine had to go in first. After all, she had to make a living somehow, she rationalized. My doll that my deceased father gave me for my first birthday and that was my constant companion and confidant during the war and throughout my childhood, was also a must.
Next came the family jewelry, part heirlooms and part items collected by my father as security “in case” we need to sell something for essentials. The photo albums were declared essential and I couldn’t part with my new burgundy sandals, navy blue suit, and the fruit of my first job as a summer student at the Horticultural College.
Of course the new pale blue silk blouse so lovingly made from strips of remnants by the clever fingers of my beloved great-aunt Nene couldn’t be left behind either. Two little miniature paintings, to sell if the need arose, fitted nicely.
As we had a little bit more room yet, mother opened the linen cupboard to look for small pieces of embroidery and lace that might also be sellable. Mother couldn’t bear to part with the beautiful pink embroidered bedding that she had commissioned to be made for when she gave birth to me, so we packed that too. We paraded up and down our apartment testing the weight of the satchels and decided that we can handle carrying them for hours.
My mother’s cousin gave us a large sum of cash so that we can pay for the “guides” that lead people across the border. We packed a string-bag with food and we were ready. We met our friends in the seedy hotel in the early evening. The mood swung from sadness to nervous laughter and all points of emotion in between. In the early morning our rag-tag team walked the wide avenue to the railway station. It was Dec. 19, 1956.
The trip was uneventful on the way to Gyor, but the new regulations declared that you must have a pass, which of course we didn’t have, to travel into the border zone. So after Gyor our troop, now swollen to about 15 people, some of them total strangers, had to move into the baggage car to keep out of sight. I was lucky. I had a sled to sit on, but the Christmas tree behind me was prickly. At each station when the border police came to inspect all 15 of us had to cram into the single toilet compartment of the car to hide. The largest person sat down on the fixture and the rest of us piled on top of her. This was repeated four-to-five times until we reached our destination, a small border village, at dusk. We marched on foot to an outlying farmhouse, were crammed into the front room, there was another small troop ready for the crossing.
Suddenly the door flew open and a very young uniformed border guard burst into the room. "You are all under arrest," he shouted.
"We are shipping you back to Budapest immediately. Anyone attempting to escape will be shot."
Silence fell. He left the room and we heard some shots ring out in the yard. He returned then people began to beg the guard and ply him with watches, money and jewelry to let us go. He was stony faced, but accepted the items. He assembled us and we started to march to what we thought was certain prison. There was no sign of our “guides.” However, the direction seemed to be wrong, but it could have been the deep dark of the night.
Mother from fear and exhaustion was ready to throw away her satchel, as she stumbled her way in the column of fearful humanity. I grabbed her bag and marched like a robot in silence. I didn’t know what to think. It seemed like hours later, but I suspect it was less than half an hour, the guard called us to halt. He pointed into the darkness and said there is the border and I am going to turn my back on you. It wasn’t until a few meters later mother tripped on a low wire that I started to believe him. We, by now there must have been about 30 of us, marched in silence for about an hour across muddy plowed fields that sucked the shoes off our feet and wrenched our ankles. There was even a blind woman in the group with a seeing-eye dog. The lovely “sturdy” walking shoes a neighbour gave me for the trip were ruined. The soles separated from the uppers in several places.
It wasn’t until a few meters later mother tripped on a low wire that I started to believe him. We, by now there must have been about 30 of us, marched in silence for about an hour across muddy plowed fields that sucked the shoes off our feet and wrenched our ankles. There was even a blind woman in the group with a seeing-eye dog. The lovely “sturdy” walking shoes a neighbour gave me for the trip were ruined. The soles separated from the uppers in several places.
I lugged the satchels valiantly while looking out for my mother stumbling along. About an hour into this walk across the fields an apparition seemed to float in the sky.
A small town lit in bluish lights, all the streetlights in Hungary were yellow, appeared outlined in mid air. The relief was palpable, people started to talk. Our friend remarked that we must be close to Budapest by now; he can recognize the church spire of Soroksar, his hometown near the capital.
The satchels got a little lighter and it seemed that the ruts became a little shallower. As we progressed it became clear that the apparition was an Austrian village perched on a plateau. It was the prettiest sight.
As we marched into the town in the middle of the night a few windows opened begging us to be quieter. The good burghers of Deutchkreuz had very little sleep for the past month.
In the centre of the town we were led to the firehall, which was empty save for a thick layer of clean straw topped by a layer of humans of every shape and form. About 300 people.
In the foyer a huge pot of sweet tea with lemons was boiling away and several women were spreading jam on slices of bread as fast as their arms could go. Someone was begging me to take some, but all I could get down was some of the hot tea.
The thought of bedding down somewhere in a free patch of straw was quickly dismissed. Our friends were arranging for a taxi to go to Vienna, where there were some friends waiting. Their $11 U.S. was not enough to secure transportation for all of us. We had no currency.
It was suggested that we stay and our friends will get some money in Vienna and send for us. Mother became upset. She is not an independent soul and the thought of being left alone with me was more than she could handle.
An argument ensued and that was more than I could handle. My stalwart facade crumbled and I sat on the wrought iron fence of the church in the middle of the night and cried like a three-year-old.
Two young men came to ask what the problem was and I told them. They reached into their pocket and handed mother $2 to cover our share of the taxi. She tried to repay them with some trinket from our bags, but they just waved her off and disappeared into the night.
In Vienna it became painfully clear that my shoes were a wreck. Slush and snow kept my feet continually cold and wet. There was several relief agencies set up to help the refugees. The Unitarian Service Committee gave everyone a green bag emblazoned with its name containing essential hygiene products.
Another organization gave out huge blocks of American processed cheese and powdered milk. We had cheese and milk warmed on the radiator of our hotel room for supper for a month.
Depots of used clothing were set up all over town. The refugees were giving tips to each other about where to go to get stuff. After several unsuccessful attempts, I landed a good pair of emerald green shoes that fit well.
We walked the streets for hours admiring the well-stocked shop windows. Occasionally, treating ourselves to an orange or a piece of chocolate. Mother got in touch with her brother in Spain, but he discouraged us from trying to go there. Women couldn’t make a living and he was not doing well enough to consider taking responsibility for us. He suggested we try to come to Canada, or the U.S. He sent us a little money to supplement the freebies. The next problem was to get a visa for one of those places.
The U.S. quota on refugees was closed. Only sponsored people were considered. We had no sponsor. The same situation faced us at the Canadian Embassy, where a small crowd of refugees milled around in the square in front of the building.
Up to early December, the Embassy had handed out nameless appointments on slips of paper for processing into Canada to all who asked. But if people succeeded in getting into the U.S., or decided to wait for other family members, they didn’t need those slips and gave them to others who needed them.
We wandered about the square for about half an hour until we found a man who had an extra slip. After a cursory medical exam, we were told to show up at the railroad station in a few days to be transported to the Canadian refugee camp in Wiener Neustadt where we would be gathered, processed and assigned transportation to Canada.
The Canadian camp at Wienerneunstadt was rumored to be a former Nazi concentration camp. Some of the kids even took the new comers to the ruins they claimed were that of the crematorium. I never tracked it down whether this rumour was true.
It certainly was not a pleasant place. The barrack-like structure had unheated bathrooms with rows of 20 sinks and toilets. It was so cold that most of the sinks had water frozen in them.
We were in the middle room of a group of three each containing metal beds with straw mattresses for 10-12 people. Children, adults, married, single, families all heaped together.
There was a potbellied stove in one corner valiantly trying to emit some comfort. Those near the stove burnt, those in the next row froze. The windows were so bad that we put extra straw mattresses up to try to keep out the cold. Luckily we only stayed three days. The food was plentiful, basic and hot. The cafeteria doubled as a classroom for English lessons between meals.
On Jan. 25, at dawn we gathered to be bused to the train that was to take us to Bremenhaven to sail for Canada. The trip took all day and the next night.
As we neared Bremen mother could hardly contain herself. Her brother who she hasn’t seen for 20 years promised to try and meet us at the ship. I was looking forward to seeing my larger than life uncle for the first time.
As the train pulled into the station gray with drizzling rain, there was no one to be seen. Then suddenly a lone figure came into view, mother shrieked and I knew that must be Robert.
He accompanied us onto the ship, bought me a coke, my very first, in the bar and gave us some warm scarves and a big box of dates and figs for snacking on the voyage.
In a couple of hours the visit was over and we sailed for Canada. Almost as soon as we passed the marvelous white cliffs of Dover, the sea turned mean and we spent most of our time being seasick.
Whenever possible we made it to the after dinner dance which was great fun. There were a lot of young German and Yugoslavian immigrants aboard in addition to the Hungarian refugees. Plenty of dance partners even for a 15-year-old.
The morning of Feb. 4 was grey and drizzly as we crowded the decks to get a glimpse of Canada. We were lead to a great hall for processing and from there to our train for Winnipeg. Most of this has faded in my memory, because we were herded along as a group.
The train was fabulous. We have never seen anything like it. Luxurious plush seats, friendly black porters in crisp uniforms and boxes of Kellogs Corn Flakes in every nook and cranny. We have never seen corn flakes before and never had cereal for breakfast. Tasting this freebie we decided it was a Canadian equivalent of potato chips and snacked on it during the whole trip.
As we left Halifax, we could see an occasional house here or there, but the sparseness of the population was odd to us mostly city folks. Even odder were the bright pastel colors of the houses.
In Montreal, a few of our sponsored compatriots and a few adventurous ones decided to stay behind even though they were told that they will not get help in getting settled from the Immigration Department. From Montreal to Winnipeg, crossing the shield we hardly saw any populated areas. The sun shone brightly and lakes followed forests and vice versa for days.
On Feb. 8, we arrived in Winnipeg. On the platform a contingency of middle aged ladies wearing silk dresses, straw hats and fur jackets waited to minister to us and help ease our way into becoming Canadian.
The road was long and hard, but well worth traveling. I received my degree in Science from the University of Manitoba in 1963. Married my husband John in 1964. John was also a refugee from Hungary who came aboard the Venezuela. He started life in Canada in Vancouver.
We lived in Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and now semi-retired to the jewel of Canada, Canmore Alberta. We had one son and now enjoy two wonderful grandsons.