When my husband, Géza, was 9 years old he had to run for his life, vaulting over dead bodies in the street, dodging bullets, bribing guards and crossing the border into Austria in the dead of night on Dec. 6, 1956. The Hungarian Revolt against the Soviets was underway, and he and his father escaped with their lives and only the clothes on their backs.
They spent two years in refugee camps, mostly in Austria, waiting to clear the immigration quotas for Hungarians to enter the United States. During those years while his father worked with the other refugee men, Géza was sent to a remote mountain village with the other Hungarian children his age to attend school and stay out of sight.
Recently our family were staying in Austria for a few months and Géza wanted to find the place where he spent the winter months of 1957. He recalled the name of the town where he was sent, Spital am Semmering. He remembered that there was a path beside the stream where he tried to jump the water in his sled and instead broke his nose on an inconveniently positioned tree. He remembered the parish school where he snow skied down the hill to classes and where he went to church on Sundays. And he remembered the building where he lived that was a dormitory for the Hungarian boys and girls and the adjacent building where their meals were served.
But that was over 50 years ago, and the town looked different now.
We took the train from Vienna to Graz, but got off in the Styrian city of Semmering. From there we walked to the bus station and grabbed a local bus to Spital am Semmering. The three of us wondered around the town for half an hour or so, looking for clues but not finding any. Finally, we stopped at a hotel in the center of town to grab a bite to eat and Géza struck up a conversation, in Hungarian, with one of the hotel staff. She contacted an 80 year old man who remembered the school for Hungarian refugee children back in the 1950’s. He was able to give us a general idea of where the children’s refugee facility used to be. So we stuck out, over hill and vale, walking for a long time along a stream that Géza thought looked familiar.
We climbed over fences, crossed fields and hiked into the woods. Finally we found it! The dormitory building was just as Géza remembered, with the adjacent cook house right where it was supposed to be. Except now, the building was falling down and all the residents were bovine. But Géza smiled anyway. All the memories came back, the days at school, the weekends of play, the dormitory room where he slept, the table where the children ate. It was a traumatic time of life for a nine and ten year old boy separated from family, on the run from oppression, homeless, but what he remembered were the good times and all the fun he had. Children are so resilient!
Afterward, we walked back to town and found the Catholic Church and school. The school was a new building, but the church was the same. We were quiet. Géza’s refuge from 1957 was no longer a haven for children who fled their homes looking for a better, safer life. Now it’s a pastoral farm with a dilapidated cow shed. The revolution is over. The Soviets are gone. Hungary is part of the European Union and you can come and go as you please. The world is a better place.