Immigrant Stories: Escaping from the Russians in Hungary
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email email@example.com. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
Intro: Many people remember Kristina Mace from her days at the Pine Creek Cookhouse in Ashcroft, Colorado, where she and her husband, Greg, served Hungarian cuisine to guests from around the world, but most have never heard her harrowing story of escape from Hungary as a child.
In 1956, Kristina was 8 years old and living in Budapest, Hungary, when the Soviets rolled down her street and crushed college students and their demands for a more democratic government. Twenty-five hundred people were killed and 200,000 fled.
Mace: During the uprising, my family lived in this beautiful neighborhood called Rose Hill. In late October, the youth of Hungary rebelled against the communist regime that was far more brutal than anyone had known.
The rebellion only lasted for about two weeks because the Russians came with thousands of tanks and surrounded the city. Our neighborhood became a Russian outpost, and the tanks started coming up and down our street.
We had to have our windows covered with blankets, and we weren’t allowed to look out. We lived in an apartment building and, during the night, everyone slept down in the basement just in case the building was bombed or strafed.
At night, we could hear the bombings and shootings throughout the city. The Soviets were very destructive and brutal and they were ordered to shoot people on sight if they looked suspicious.
Gallacher: How did you get food and move around?
Mace: We couldn’t go to school, so we were pretty much confined to our apartment. We did venture out for food when it seemed safe. So there were a few times when my sister and I went with my mom to the town center looking for food. That was where all of the mass destruction was. We saw tanks turned over and houses totally bombed out. Many of our favorite places to shop had been blown apart.
We stood in long lines to get food and bread. That was the only way to get food, and we did what we had to do to get by. My grandmother was the wife of a farmer, so we had a lot of food that she had canned.
The uprising was squelched in two weeks, and after that we could move about, but it still felt very dangerous.
Gallacher: Did your grandmother live with you?
Mace: Yes, our grandparents lived with us. They were our little guardians. They took care of me and my sisters, when my parents had to work. I was the oldest, my sister was a year younger and our baby sister was three-and-a-half.
Gallacher: That must have been terrifying for your parents to have such small children in such a dangerous place.
Mace: Well, they both went through World War II, my mother lost her mother in a bomb attack. My dad’s sister and her husband fled to the United States right after the war, and my mom’s sister escaped to Brazil. So they were survivors.
My mother always dreamed about reuniting with her sister so, when this uprising happened, I think my mother saw it as an opportunity to leave the country.
Gallacher: Did you know that your parents were thinking of leaving?
Mace: No, they didn’t tell us because the Soviets didn’t want anyone leaving. So my parents were very careful about whom they told. The night before we left they told us that we were going on a holiday to a far, far away country.
My sisters and I were very excited but it didn’t take us long to realize that this was no holiday. On December 5th, we packed up and started on our journey. We boarded a train that was packed with people and supplies and headed to my uncle’s home in Szombathely near the Austrian border.
We got to his house after the curfew, so we were trying to move carefully to avoid being caught. My father threw little pebbles at my uncle’s window to let him know we were there. When he came to the door, he was carrying a machine gun.
Gallacher: How long did you stay there?
Mace: About three days. It wasn’t safe to stay longer because the Russians had commandeered a building across the street from my uncle’s house and set up their headquarters. That was a very tense time because the soldiers were so close.
Late one night, we snuck out, and our uncle drove us to a drop site near the border. That’s where we met the man my dad had hired to guide us across. He gave us some basic instructions, and we started making our way in the dark.
We hadn’t been walking very long when he signaled us to stop and hurried us into the trees along the path. Three men came out of the darkness, and I was so scared, but it turned out that they were the people we were supposed to meet, so they joined us.
It was very slow going in the dark because we had to be very quiet. We finally came upon an abandoned shed and stopped for a rest, and that’s when a group of soldiers with dogs passed by. We weren’t discovered, but that’s when I realized all of the adults were scared, and that terrified me.
I can remember my mother saying, “We will be all right, just stay brave and courageous.” What I didn’t know then was that if we had been discovered we could have been shot.
Gallacher: You kids were all so small. Trying to shepherd you along must have been an ordeal for your parents.
Mace: My parents gave my youngest sister sleeping pills, so they were just carrying her, and the three young men who had joined us quickly took on a protective role. They did their best to reassure us and distract us with little games. If they hadn’t been with us, it would have been a much scarier trip for my sister and me.
I remember a very scary time when we were right at the Austrian border, and suddenly we heard the rumble of tanks and saw their lights approaching. The young men picked us up and followed my parents into the trenches along the road. We lay there as the tanks got closer and closer.
The sound of the approaching tanks woke my sister, and she started crying. My parents did everything they could to quiet her, but nothing worked. We all thought that this was the end of us, but we were lucky that the roar of the passing tanks muffled her cries, and the soldiers didn’t discover us.
We stayed in the trenches a while to make sure no one else was coming, and then we slowly made our way through a minefield to the border.
Gallacher: A minefield — did you have flashlights?
Mace: No, I think the man who was guiding us knew the way and was careful to guide us through. My parents didn’t tell me that story until much later. We made it to the river that divided Hungary from Austria and our parents and the young men carried us across.
It was December, so the water was freezing cold. But when they got us all across the river, the Red Cross was there, waiting for us. They packed us up and took us to a nearby school where they had hot chocolate and fresh oranges.
From there we were bussed to Salzburg, Austria, and eventually to Munich, Germany.
Gallacher: So you were refugees.
Mace: Yes, refugees. We left our country with nothing except the clothes we had on. Mother made sure we were well dressed with lots of layers. My dad was carrying all the money we had so that we could try to bribe our way out of trouble. I think he ended up giving a lot of it to the guide who helped us cross.
We ended up in a refugee center on an American army base in Germany while my dad tried to work out the details for our immigration to Illinois. We were some of the luckier ones because my father could speak English, and we had relatives in the United States who wanted to take us in.
At this same time the United States was looking for a way to show the world that it was responding to the Soviet crackdown. U.S. officials came to the refugee center looking for Hungarians who could speak English and help them better understand the situation in Hungary.
My father was chosen, and our family and two others were loaded on a plane and flown to the United States. We were taken to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey and waited there while my mom recovered from bronchitis. From there, we boarded a train to Quincy, Illinois, where my father’s sister lived. We stayed there for about a month while my dad made contact with one of his distant relatives, whose family had immigrated to the Chicago area in the late 1800s.
This guy had a moving company, and my dad saw this as an opportunity for him to use his skills. My father was very well educated and had worked as a CPA in Hungary, so he moved us to Chicago, and he went to work doing accounting for the family moving company.
My father eventually got his CPA certification in the United States and opened his own business. He was very ambitious and was able to move us along very quickly in our financial security but it took us all a very long time to recover from the trauma.