The train stopped on the Hungarian
side of the Austrian border. Special Hungarian guards with serious expressions
came onboard to carefully check everyone’s paperwork. Marika sat very still, papers in hand,
waiting for their turn.
“Marika,” Zsuzsi said softly in the
dark. “I need to use the water closet, please.”
She looked down, touched by her
cousin’s polite request. “Not now,” she answered gently. “We must wait for the
guards to check our papers. Then I’ll take you. Sit back and play with your
Zsuzsi obeyed, quietly rearranging
her doll’s clothes and hair.
One of the guards approached them
with a tip of his hat.
“Your papers, miss—are they in
order?” he asked, reaching for them.
“Yes,” she nodded.
The guard was young, not much older
than Marika. She swallowed hard and held her breath. The guard’s eyes scanned
the papers, looking for irregularities. In a lightning-quick move of
efficiency, he folded and handed them back, tipped his hat again and moved on.
Marika exhaled slowly and sat back.
Thank You, God, for Your mercy, she prayed silently.
After settling into her uncle’s
home, Marika established a comfortable daily routine of lessons, meals, and
playtime for her three young cousins. She liked her aunt and uncle and enjoyed
experiencing a new culture. It was also a good opportunity to put her German to
use and teach her cousins Hungarian.
One night after dinner Marika
overcame her shyness and asked a personal question.
“Uncle Péter, why do you live in
West Germany? Why don’t you live in Hungary with the rest of the family?”
He thought for a minute, apparently
choosing his words.
“Well, when I was a younger man, I
did live in Hungary. But one day the Russians brought me in for an
interrogation, to ask questions about a photograph they possessed. It
showed me holding a gun.”
“Were they mad, Uncle Péter?”
“Yes, they were. So mad, in fact,
that I decided to run away to England and become a British citizen. That’s
where I met your aunt. Eventually we settled here because this is where she
That night Marika lay in her tiny
bed considering his words. Uncle Péter had given up his parents, brothers, and
his homeland, all to gain freedom. Just that day, she’d received a letter from
Mama telling of Papa’s trip to America. He was staying with Hungarian friends
who’d moved to Massachusetts and had become American citizens. Papa worked odd
jobs to pay his way, and Mama did piecework in Budapest to support Ilona and
Erzsébet. It was a miracle he’d gotten to go at all. The Hungarian government
rarely let two family members be out of the country at the same time.
In the days ahead Marika thought a
lot about freedom and what it might be like to have it.
In the spring Papa left America and
came to West Germany to buy a new van. After visiting his brother, he planned
to drive back to Hungary.
“You can’t believe the feeling of
freedom in America,” he told Uncle Péter his first night there. They’d gathered
in the living room, drinking cold lemonade. “It’s amazing! In America, you
don’t have to watch what you say or explain where you’re going. We even carried
our Bibles out in the open on Sabbath, and no one cared!”
Uncle Péter laughed.
“Are things so rough in Hungary now
that you must hide your Bibles?” he asked.
Marika, who was listening nearby,
“Yes they are, Uncle,” she said,
remembering those uncomfortable trolley rides to church. Looking at Papa, she
added, “That’s a wonderful thing, Papa.”
“Yes, it is. In fact, come outside
with me to the new van. I want to show you something.”
They crossed the dark yard to where
it was parked. What could he possibly show her at night?
When they reached the van, Papa
turned them both away from the house.
“I don’t really have anything to
show you. I just wanted to speak in private. Can you keep a secret?”
She nodded, bewildered yet curious.
“OK, here goes. I’m thinking about
moving the family to America. What do you think?”
“Papa!” she breathed, shocked.
“America? It’s so far away! We’d be like Uncle Péter, all alone without
He looked at her with a sympathetic
“Yes, I know, Marika. But just think—there are plenty of good jobs
there, and we’d be free! And we’d still have each other—Mama, Ilona, and
Erzsébet. We’d all be together in a wonderful new land. Please think about it;
you are the oldest, and I need all you girls in agreement if we go.”
A few weeks later, after an
emotional goodbye, Papa made the long drive home. Several months after that,
Marika left too, returning home on the train. Once there, she looked for a
seamstress job, but they were scarce in Hungary, and no shop would hire her
After much searching, she found a
job doing menial, uninteresting work. Yet she was grateful to have work at all.
Papa’s glowing description of
American jobs was sounding better all the time.
In the meantime Ilona was happy,
having found a way to attend high school at night.
Over the next year Papa continued
talking about America. Eventually he told the family to get exit visas for
Yugoslavia, just in case they had to leave in a hurry. The visas wouldn’t be
hard to get, since Yugoslavia was a common vacation spot for Hungarians. But it
also provided a route to Austria and beyond.
A couple of years later, on a
Friday in September, there was a late-night knock on the door.
Twenty-one-year-old Marika watched
with her sisters as Papa opened the door and peered out anxiously, not knowing
what to expect. It was Uncle Oszkár, who immediately pulled Papa outside. A
little later Papa came back inside, his face a map of worry.
“Come,” he gathered everyone close.
“We must all go outside, quickly.”
Confused, Marika followed them
outside to a far corner, away from the house.
“I’m sorry to drag you out here,”
Papa said, “but the house may be bugged with listening devices. Now hear me
out. Your uncle told me about a family at church that got a letter from a
friend of mine who left Hungary for a refugee camp in Vienna. Apparently this
friend credits me and my stories of freedom in America with leaving his
homeland for a better life.”
“Oh, no!” Mama exclaimed.
Papa nodded grimly and went on.
“The family has shown the letter to the government, and Oszkár says the police
will surely come here in a day or two to question me, and probably take me to
prison. If we want to go to America, I believe now is the time to go.”
Mama put a trembling hand to her
“How could members of our own
church do such a thing?” she asked.
After that, Papa sent the girls to
bed while he and Mama stayed in the yard to discuss options and make hasty
Despite her faith, Marika lay in
bed that night filled with fear. Would they have to leave right away? What if
the police came before they could get away?