Interviewing Father Maurus: “I’m too young for this!”

BY: JAMES PHELPS 

Portola Valley, California— It was a sunny Wednesday morning and I had just taken the routine break that was given to all Priory students after the first class that day. I was walking up the hill and past the art building to the monastery when I saw a car pulling up towards me. It was Father Maurus pulling up and coming back from a doctor’s appointment with Father Pius. He parked the car, stepped out and greeted me warmly with a handshake. He then showed me into the Monastery and into his office. He was wearing casual clothes that day and not in his usual monk attire. His office was welcoming and cozy. He offered me a chair and something to drink. I was glad for the drink and thanked him.

“How are you doing?” he asked me.

“Good,” I replied. “Thank you so much for letting me interview you.”

“I’ll do my best,” he responded.
With pleasantries covered, we launched into the interview. I had only been in the Monastery once before and I was once again struck by quiet, solemn atmosphere. The Monastery has a long hallway with a living room and offices at one end. Bedrooms or “cells” as the monks call them are at the other end of the hall. Each monk has their own room that consists of very minimal furniture, a twin bed, table and dresser. I continue to be amazed at Father Maurus’ dedication of his life to God and the Priory.

Born in a small village near the Austrian border in Hungary, Father Maurus went to high school just before the Hungarian revolution broke out. Also, at the time during the revolution, Soviet Russia viewed going to church as a criminal offense. Hungary was under the Communist rule of Soviet Russia at this time. Communist Russian Rule started in Hungary after the defeat of Hungary during World War II when Russian forces took the capital city of Budapest on February 13, 1945.1 Russian forces would remain in Budapest until Allied forces liberated the city on April 4, 1945.2

“So, James, you’re a senior this year, does this mean you’re eighteen?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I was your age when I fled my home country. But, I couldn’t just leave. I had to say goodbye to my family and friends first.”

Father Maurus said goodbye to his family, which included his mom, dad, and his younger sister who was eight at the time, and started the journey to the Austrian border. Just after crossing the border into Austria, and approximately twenty-five miles from his hometown, Father Maurus was placed into a refugee camp and given temporary asylum in Austria. He was then given a choice as to where to eventually end up and start a new life.

With the goal to eventually get to the United States, Father Maurus chose Canada as his final destination at the time since the United States had already filled its quota of refugees for that particular year. After a week’s time on a boat, he finally landed in the Quebec Province of Canada. But, that was not Father Maurus’ final destination; he wanted to get as far west as possible. So he hopped on a train, “a nice sleeper” as he called it, and rode the train all the way to Vancouver and arrived in June of 1957. While in Vancouver, Father Maurus participated in various job settings, two of which were the most interesting. During the non-winter months, he worked in the railroad industry making repairs on various parts of the railroad in order to keep the trains and the passengers safe. During the winter months, he worked as a lumberjack in the cold Canadian North miles away from any big city such as Vancouver. He told me that he enjoyed doing various jobs in Canada. But, he was always focused on his ultimate goal, to eventually get into the United States.

Father Maurus came to the Priory on August 10, 1963, but had to work hard in order to get to the Priory. Since arriving in Vancouver, he had been in constant communication with Father Egon around the holidays. Father Maurus contacted Father Egon by phone through a mutual friend and asked for help with their Hungarian Christmas celebration in Vancouver. Father Egon gave him help and sent Father Leopold to Vancouver to help in the Hungarian Christmas celebration, specifically with the Christmas mass services and celebrations. This went on for the next couple years and after the second Christmas was held in Vancouver, Father Maurus was invited to come to the Priory. When he arrived, Father Maurus immediately loved the campus. He joined the Priory community that very day. After joining the Priory community, Father Egon asked Father Maurus if he wanted to go back to school in the United States. Father Maurus took the offer and graduated from St. John’s University in New York in 1968, studying Biology and Philosophy. After graduating, Father Maurus went to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and graduated in three years. Upon his return to the Priory, Father Maurus became the Biology teacher and Science Department Head for 25 years, relinquishing his role in 2008.

Since his arrival at the Priory, Father Maurus has become the spokesman between Priory and a number of Catholic schools in Hungary and he goes back to Hungary every year to recruit possible students for the next academic year.

“This allows community expansion,” he says. “It is a change for Hungarian students in that they get to experience American culture and lifestyle.”

At the end of the interview, I asked him whether or not he forgave his oppressors during the time of the Hungarian Revolution. He responded with just a simple sentence.

“Not to forgive is hurting no one except the person who refuses to forgive, and to forgive is to also be free.”

Father Maurus did eventually get to see his family again. Thirteen years after the Hungarian Revolution had ended, he went back to his hometown to visit. Since he had left, his sister had grown up and become a teacher but she suffered oppression from the government due to the fact that he had escaped during the revolution. Father Maurus feels that he has a scar from his escape that “wouldn’t cause bitterness or regret” and that, “it was God’s will for my escape.” He views this event in his life as “a miracle from God himself” and he is deeply grateful that he was able to escape from Hungary at the right time.

Looking back on the interview, I think that this was a good experience to get the chance to interview a refugee from a significant event in world history. Father Maurus provided the intellectual insight that helped to educate me about the Hungarian oppression during the time of the Soviet Union and Communist Russia. He also provided understanding into his own life that I had not previously known about in my entire time at the Priory. It is important for researchers to study this event because it marked the break-up of the Soviet Union during World War II and contributed to perhaps one of the most major events in American History. I believe that smaller events within bigger ones such as World War II go unnoticed by the public eye most of the time and doesn’t give those who suffered traumatic events during those times the opportunity to share their stories. Father Maurus’ story is one of these cases.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_occupation_of_Hungary

2 Ibid.

 

A Simple Life Story

BY: MICHAEL GUTHRIE

Witness. It’s a deceptively simple word; completely humble and unassuming, it doesn’t feel as though it accurately conveys the sheer importance that the witness constitutes. Appropriately enough, I found that these qualities were perfectly reflected in Father Maurus Nemereth. Father Maurus had always been something of a pleasant mystery to me; I first met him nearly five years ago when I attended a Priory open house. During one of the science lectures I, somewhat hesitantly, answered a question correctly and induced a particularly memorable response from the Father. Clapping my shoulder he said, “You must come to the Priory.” His warm smile is what I remember most vividly from that day. When I was given the chance to interview him as a refugee, I eagerly accepted, and one beautiful Wednesday afternoon I found myself trekking to the very top of campus to the monastery, one of the few places I had not yet explored at the Priory.

I have never been particularly religious. Faith has never been something that comes easily to me, and for this reason I have always harbored some trepidations regarding the monastic community at Priory. Not wanting to offend or embarrass, I was more than a little anxious as I knocked on the Father’s office door. I needn’t have worried. Father Maurus welcomed me in, shaking my hand and drawing me into his simple, cozy office. The entire room felt homely, worn out but well loved as benefits an old monastery. He asked me to sit down, and I found myself sitting next to a well-tended fish tank, a colorful underwater menagerie whose inhabitants darted around coral and vegetation.

“I understand you wanted to ask me some questions.” His voice shocked me into action.

“Right, yes, sorry,” I stammered, fumbling with my tape recorder. “So how old were you when you were forced to leave Hungary?”

Father Maurus leaned back in his chair and looked at me, a slightly bemused expression on his face. “Michael, how old are you?”

“Seventeen,” I replied.

“I was eighteen, one year older than you are when I left.”

I felt the breath leave my lungs as I tried to grasp what he just said. He was my age, and he had to leave behind everything he had ever known.

In 1945, following the liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany by the Red Army, Soviet military occupation ensued, as Father Maurus vividly recalled. “Hungary never wanted to be part of the war. We were forced into it; we never wanted to be part of it. I remember when the Russian army came to my village; one of the soldiers came to our bunker and swung his rifle over my soldier and said something like, ‘Oh, I have a son like you’ in Russian.”

Unfortunately Hungary, along with a majority of Eastern Europe, was awarded to the Soviet Union and, through coercion, force, and manipulation, Russia established a puppet government that, in 1947, began to severely oppress the Hungarian people. This brutal crackdown on personal liberties was complemented with complete denouncement of religious institutions, something Father Maurus himself protested.

“You are a teenager; you know that you like to do things that you aren’t supposed to do. When I was your age, the thing to do was to go to church.”

“Church?”

“Yes, myself and several of my classmates agreed to go to a different church every Sunday to protest the oppression.”

I was stunned. Religion has forever in my mind always been associated with the traditional establishment. I had always considered it synonymous with obedience and maintaining the status quo. And yet, when Father Maurus was my age, his protest, his act of rebellion was to attend church.

“So was your reason to leave Hungary specifically religious persecution?” I inquired.

“No” he responded, “I had to make a choice. I was 18, I had just graduated from high school in 1956 June, and the revolution broke out that same year, October 23, and I was part of it like hundreds of thousands of other young Hungarian students. But by the end of November, I had to make a choice. I was part of the revolution, I was part of the demonstration, I was part of the scene, but certainly not in any kind of a position where I would have considered myself a threat.”

The revolution Father Maurus referred to began as a peaceful demonstration of students in Budapest, but the unnecessary force utilized by the Hungarian secret police provoked widespread riots throughout the capital.

“My former Mathematics teacher,” Father Maurus continued, “who was also a good friend of mine, actually sought me out and told me that he had heard from reliable sources that the government was after us, a group of friends, and he recommended that we try to escape to Austria if we could. We knew that after the revolution, a large number of people were taken to the gulags in Siberia and executed. About 1200 young people were executed as a result of these mock trials.”

He paused suddenly, and I tried vainly to study his face. The usual cheerfulness I was accustomed to was no longer there, I but I was unable to tell if it was anger he was displaying … or remorse. There was an almost palpable dread that had corrupted the atmosphere of the room. I couldn’t imagine my fellow classmates, let alone my close friends, being unjustly imprisoned and executed. Just as upsetting was Father Maurus’s account of saying farewell to his family. Understandably, his parents were devastated and even his sister, only eight years old at the time, could understand that something was terribly wrong. It would be fifteen years before he saw them again. Father Maurus suddenly appeared tired; he furrowed his brow as he recounted the tearful goodbyes. I did not feel that it was proper to push Father Maurus into revealing more.

“So you mentioned Austria….”

“Yes, on November 28, 1956, we escaped, all of us, and we registered with the Red Cross. I ended up in a refugee camp not far from the Hungarian border, and we made our choices as to where we wanted to go. My first choice was the United States, but because we escaped from Hungary so late in the year, the United States’ quota was full. But there was a chance to go to Canada.”

Father Maurus went on to tell me that he and some 260 other Hungarian refugees were invited by the Queen of Holland to be her guests during the transition period and, on May 27, 1956, Father Maurus and his fellow refugees began a six-and-a-half day journey across the Atlantic before finally arriving in Quebec. Opting to travel to Vancouver, Father Maurus began his official Canadian life. Becoming a Canadian citizen after six years of living in the Yukon Territory, as a lumberjack no less, in 1963, Father Maurus eventually moved back to the cities and became involved in the burgeoning Hungarian Catholic community. As he recalled, “We put some money together and bought a church. Now we had a church, but we needed a priest. By that time I knew about the existence of the Benedictines. I was the president of the Holy Lamp Society, and I contacted Father Egon Javor and asked if he could spare any monks for Christmas. And he did.”

“And that was your first connection with the Priory?” I asked.

“Yes.”

After that, Father Maurus became friendly with the monastic community at Priory and eventually travelled to California to discuss becoming a monk. Arriving on August 10th, Father Maurus informed Father Egon Javor that while he was eager to become a monk, he wasn’t entirely certain of what exactly that entailed.

“Father Egon asked me if I would be opposed to continuing my education; mind you, I hadn’t been in school for seven years. When I said yes, he came back the next day with a plane ticket to Minnesota. I didn’t even know where Minnesota was!”

I laughed for the first time during the interview at that; it seemed that Father Maurus’s story was finally taking a turn for the better. Father Maurus had been enrolled in St. John’s Abbey and University, where Father Maurus arrived on August 27th, a mere seventeen days after first coming to America. Earning degrees in Philosophy and Biology, Father Maurus returned to the Priory where, in addition to teaching full-time, organizing the school treasury, and running one of the dormitories, Father Maurus also began additional religious studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.

Father Maurus first returned to Hungary in 1969, fifteen years after he had escaped. Immediately after arriving, he was interrogated by government officials and was questioned about the religious community at the Priory, although he refused to answer any inquiries about the nature of the Priory. After this harrowing experience, he was told that he could not leave his home village without express government permission.

When a lull finally appeared in the conversation, I somewhat self-consciously glanced at my watch. I had been speaking with Father Maurus for over an hour. I looked up quickly when Father Maurus began speaking again.

“So Michael, don’t become a refugee,” he grinned, “and don’t leave your family too soon.”

“Thank you for letting me interview you. That’s an amazing story,” I responded.

“It was nothing. It was just a simple life story.”

Those words shocked me. This was a man who remembered the resolution of WWII, who had actively protested Communist oppression, and who had been forced to leave his home when he was only a year older than I. If anything, this was the most incredible story I had ever heard. As I left Father Maurus’s office, I deliberately took a roundabout path back to my car. The nervousness I had experienced when I first entered the monastery had been replaced with a kind of serene tranquility now that the experience was over. Certainly Father Maurus was no longer simply the kind old monk who had convinced me to come to the Woodside Priory all those years ago. If anything, his “simple” life story made him the most interesting person I had ever had the pleasure of speaking with. For all his modesty, Father Maurus’s status as a refugee, as a witness, made his experiences all the more important. They serve as a living connection to the past, reminding us of the tragedies and hardships that came before us, and effectively guarding the future from these terrible mistakes.

How Is Your Family?

BY: JOE FARNED

As I marched to up to the monastery one Thursday afternoon, a small, blue Volkswagen rumbled up the hill and pulled into a parking spot across from the monk’s quarters. I suspected that Father Pius — an eighty-three year old monk whom I was scheduled to interview — was the hunched figure with silvery, gray hair in the driver’s seat. My suspicions were confirmed as the door eased open. Protractedly, a cane emerged, followed by feet in well-shined black loafers, succeeded by an aged man in a black robe upon whom the weight of the world and gravity had taken its toll. I approached and, speaking with deliberation, greeted him.

“Hello!” I enunciated.

Unfazed, he raised his head to meet my gaze, and bluntly questioned, “Are you the one?”

“Yes, I believe so,” I stumbled, caught somewhat off guard. I had arranged with Brother Edward to interview Father Pius a few days prior, but was unsure how aware Father Pius was of my plans.

Noting a plastic bag in his hand opposite of his cane, I offered, “May I take that bag for you, Father Pius?”

“No,” he replied, with tinge of disgust and insult, “it is very light.” His utterance of this simple comment was laden with potent, yet unspoken meaning. The Father’s stubbornness and consummate self-dependence revealed a lifetime of self-sufficient struggle, a certain grit which manifested itself in the way he pressed forward with cane in hand.

Father Pius and I walked into the Monastery, and, after dropping the plastic bag into the kitchen, he gave me an abridged tour of the facilities. Five minutes later, we found ourselves in the well-furnished reception room. The Father invited me sit on a plush couch, situated between two 1930s lamps, each with intricately colored glass shades. Meanwhile, he lowered himself into a cushioned, beige seat.

“This is very comfortable!” I remarked.

“I do not like these plush seats,” Father Pius retorted. “They are not good for my back. I would rather sit in a hard chair.”

I was yet again struck by the Father’s austerity and self-reliance, which he so ostentatiously exhibited. Hoping to ascertain the origins of his idiosyncrasies, I launched into the interview.

Born in January 1930, Father Pius Horvath was raised in Izsa, Slovakia. He was the son of a blacksmith and the blacksmith’s wife; he had only one sibling. The small village of Izsa, he explained, lay along the River Danube, which delineated the border between Hungary and Slovakia. The border represented an inhibiting physical boundary, but Hungarian culture nonetheless pervaded across the water. In the Slovak region of Father Pius’ birth, over one million Hungarian minorities resided, and, as such, his childhood was heavily influenced by Hungarian institutions.

“My education was based on the Hungarian system,” he explained. “But, when World War Two broke out, my education was unfortunately shortened.” In July 1941, the Kingdom of Hungary was invaded by Germany. Shortly thereafter, it was forced into the Tripartite Pact, which required the largely unwilling Hungarians to fight alongside the Nazis until 1945.

At first, I disregarded the Father’s comments about his education, presuming them to just be non-sequiturs produced by a drifting, nostalgic mind. Lack of formal schooling, I assumed, was just a footnote in his life of suffering under Nazi and Soviet governments — surely there were more pressing issues! Thus, instead of asking him to elaborate upon this point, I pressed forward, asking, “What was your life like under the Nazi regime? Did you feel threatened?”

“Very bad days” abounded, he recalled, for “Hungary had no choice in the matter of its allegiance.”

Neither did Father Pius, who illustrated this point with an anecdote. A few years after the German invasion, while still living in Izsa, six Nazis marched into his village and began to recruit for Hitler’s youth. A stout fisherman, well known in the village, was delegated the task of rounding up children fit for service. Father Pius, undoubtedly, was to be part of this group.

“Don’t worry,” the fisherman assured the Nazis, “please, don’t worry! I will take care of this matter with the children.”

The Nazis were oblivious to the fisherman’s deceitful intentions. Satiated by the fisherman’s categorical obedience, they blindly marched out of the village. The fisherman, as instructed by the Nazis, hurriedly assembled Izsa’s children.

“Get the hell out of here!” he wisely ordered them, this time to the contrary of the Nazis’ instructions. Father Pius listened and fled to his uncle’s house, where he stayed for several months.

That same year, Father Pius returned to his parents’ home in Isza. However, yet again, his life was fundamentally altered as the government in Hungary was yet again overthrown, and any semblance of peace and stability yet again shattered. As the Nazis left in 1945, the Russians — who sought to impose an authoritarian Communist rule — arrived.

“For me, personally, the loss was great because they had closed the schools,” he interjected.

“Weren’t you under threat, though? Didn’t you have more serious issues to worry about?” I implored. The Hungarian monks who had founded the Priory in 1957, my classmates and I had always been taught, fled a chaotic and war-torn Hungary in the midst of the 1956 revolution.

“People put you into a category,” he replied exasperatedly. “They believe that you were always in a situation that was dangerous or life threatening.”

His situation was not so, he asserted. I was astonished — I realized that not only I harbored misconceptions about the monks’ lives, but so did the school as a whole. Moreover, the foundation of my interview — Father Pius’ ostensible status as a refugee — had been shattered.

“Did you see the video that they did last year about the monks?” he questioned me.

“Uh, yes, I think I did,” I stumbled. “They showed it in the PAC.”

“I didn’t like that video. It started with those photos of the revolution.” I remembered the photos. The black and white still frames captured the images of furious protestors assaulting Russian soldiers, broken windows and clothes littering the streets, and imposing Soviet tanks rolling towards innocent-appearing Hungarian citizens.

“That’s not how it was for me. The majority of the country was very peaceful during that time,” Father Pius explained. “My little village, Izsa, in the countryside was unaffected.”

“So, Father, then why did you live Slovakia, then Hungary?” I asked, somewhat bewilderedly. “What factors contributed to that decision?”

No factor, Father Pius explained, was greater than his desire to complete his education. Oftentimes, with his friends, he crossed the Danube — first bribing fisherman to take him across, who in turn bribed the guards on the Hungarian side — so that he could study for brief periods of time in Hungarian schools. Nonetheless, while imprisoned in Slovakia, his twenty friends and he were often forced to study independent of teachers, or in decrepit, cold, abandoned schoolhouses.

“Were you able to get an education of any quality?” I pondered.

“We never felt sorry for ourselves,” Father Pius quickly pointed out though, seemingly embarrassed by what seemed to be a complaint about the quality of his life. “We simply worked hard.”

In 1948, Father Pius made a decisive and fateful decision. He crossed the River Danube into Hungary, where he was accepted into and began his studies at the Pannonhalma monastery. However, several months into his studies, he became cognizant of the fact that he was abandoning his life and family in Slovakia. The Russians closed the local monastery, robbing him of a future opportunity to return to and live in Izsa.

His ties with his past life essentially severed, Father Pius began to take note of the exodus out of Hungary to the West.

“The first people fled because they — or their business interests — had been compromised by the Communists. The second group fled because of poor living conditions and poverty.”

The Father’s fate of joining these groups was realized when the Russian invaders compromised his studies at Pannonhalma. Under recently instituted Russian policy, only a few monasteries had been allowed to stay open, mainly for purposes of propaganda. The Communists sought to prove to the capitalist, outside world that freedom of religion existed and flourished within Hungary. However, most educational institutions had been closed or severely undermined, and Father Pius was unable to pursue his studies to a satisfying extent.

As a result, Father Pius was dispatched to a Hungarian village as a priest. The village’s previous priest had been suspended by the Russians but purportedly was to return in the near future.

After taking an examination one weekend outside of the village, the Father went to a friend’s house, along with six of his fellow priests. The friend explained that their monastic superior was offering them the opportunity to leave the country, such that they could pursue their education. The friend was to leave in the coming days and asked who was willing to come with him.

“I will!” Father Pius exclaimed unexpectedly, surprising even himself.

However, when the friend’s mother discovered her son’s plans, she wouldn’t allow him to go. Rather, Father Pius and his six friends all took flight together.

“The border with Austria was unprotected because the Soviet tanks couldn’t easily reach it,” Father Pius explained.

In the dark of night, the cold, hungry group of students crowded into a truck, so crowded that “we couldn’t even sit on the floor.” That evening in 1956, Father Pius left Communist Hungary and entered into free Austria.

In November of 1956, Father Pius began university in Freeburg, Switzerland, and in 1960, after graduating with degrees in German and French literature, and Medieval history, moved to the United States. He consummated his life-long yearning for education after receiving his M.A. in German Literature from Stanford University.

At the beginning of the interview, Father Pius had exuded a certain sense of toughness, world-weariness, and self-reliance. However, as the interview progressed, this façade melted away and was replaced by an unbridled sense of optimism.

“Joe — that is your name, yes? — even in hard times, like under the Nazis and Russians,” he explained, ”people are always people, and people are always good.”

I nodded in agreement. Now was not the time to engage in a philosophic argument, I noted.

“Do you know what the one question I always asked any soldier was?” he inquired.

“No, Father, I don’t,” I replied blandly.

“‘How is your family?’” Father Pius replied. “Finding that shred of simple humanity in people, that desire to be loved, has saved me more times than you can imagine.”

 

A Hungarian Journey to Freedom

BY: AVERY MINOR

Driving past Eva Juhos’ house, I would never have guessed that someone inside had experienced such oppression, persecution, and hard times. She and her husband live in a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood in Portola Valley, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. The house has light brown shingles and lots of windows, a silver Prius parked outside. As I walked to the front door and nervously rang the doorbell, I tried to calm my first-time interview nerves.

A few seconds later, the door opened, and a small woman with gray hair and striking blue eyes appeared.

“Hello there,” she said with a lovely lilting accent. “Please come in.”

The accent was familiar in that it sounded like two of the monks who live and work at my high school, the Woodside Priory. This was not a surprise, as I had learned before the interview that Eva was from Hungary, where the monks are from.

As we settled into two wooden chairs with red pillows, Eva’s husband, also speaking with a Hungarian accent, asked if I would like coffee or tea.

I declined, anxious to start the interview.

She smiled at me and asked about school, college, my future plans. She was happy to tell me about her own grandson, who had been admitted into Wake Forest College on the East Coast, a typical proud grandma.

Finally after a few minutes of chatter, Eva settled down into her chair, looked at me, and smiled lightly, asking, “How about we get down to business?”

I nervously laughed and asked her, “When and why did you leave Hungary?”

“Well,” she started, “it was 1956, on November 10th, that Lazlo and I escaped the Communist regime. We were newly married, and both of our families were being persecuted because we were ex-capitalist intellectuals, a bad combination.”

As her husband walked by the living room, she directed her attention to him.

“Lazlo, would you like to come join in on this conversation?”

He raised his white eyebrows and softly said, “If I can be of any help in this I would like to, but not unless you want me to.”

“Your choice,” Eva stated with a wave of her hand, a wave I could tell she reserved only for her husband of 57 years.

She directed her attention back to me as Lazlo sat down on the couch.

She continued, “Anyways, I knew that there was another way to live outside of Communism. We were a well-to-do middle class family, and my parents used to tell me that there was a world outside of the corrupt Hungary, which was a driving force in my eventual escape.”

Eva folded her hands and continued. “My grandfather had a small business that he started very much American-style, creating laboratory equipment, and he was an intellectual. In 1949 the Communists took his key to his business, and it disappeared from our family forever, but we were persecuted thereafter.

“And so as a result of that, we were on a list, and they came for us a couple times,” she continued, “but my mother managed to send my grandfather to the hospital so when they came looking for us he wasn’t there. But we knew they were going to come back.

“Even before that my father was killed by the Nazis in 1944 because he was a chemist, and my mother was also a chemist.” She frowned and shifted slightly in her chair.

I crinkled my forehead as I realized how horrible it must have been for Eva to always live in fear of being ripped from her home or her remaining family members.

“Was it hard being fearful everyday that they could so easily take away your family or your possessions?” I asked.

“Well, the Communists took away most of our flat, confiscating almost 90% of our apartment,” Eva explained. “We were constantly afraid because my mother was retained at my grandfather’s company. The Communists were in charge, and if anything went wrong they would blame ex-capitalists like my mother. Everything that you did could always be turned against you that you were working against the Communist regime.”

“When someone didn’t come home in time, instead of worrying that they had an accident with the streetcar, you worried that he or she was picked up by the KGB and that is why he or she was not coming home.”

Eva continued to explain to me the difficulties living under a Communist regime, but what brought out the most emotion in her voice was when she said, “Everybody was afraid of everybody.”

During 1945 neighbors would turn in neighbors to the KGB, making it hard to trust anyone but family. Eva had an inherent suspicion of other people because one wrong word could get her taken away from her family forever.

At a pause in the conversation, I decided to move on to my next question.

“How did you travel to America?” I questioned.

“In 1956, on October 23, was the revolution, and I was right in the middle of it,” she exclaimed, smiling at the memory.

“I joined the demonstration,” she explains, “and I didn’t quite know where it was going, but I was so excited that people were friendly and people were smiling.”

“During the revolution the university students had posted ten or twelve points in the same fashion as the 1848 Hungarian revolution, and of course the top points were that the Russians leave and that we have free elections.”

“I saw people standing around the posters, and I went to go read it, but I was scared that people would see me reading an anti-Communist statement. But everyone was doing it so I was excited.

“The Communists wanted to diminish the idea of nationality, and so the Communists put the sickle and-what do they call it, Lazlo?” she asked him.

“The sickle and hammer,” Lazlo answered.

“Yes, the sickle and hammer,” Eva continued. “They put the sickle and hammer on our Hungarian flag, but the demonstrators had cut out the sickle and hammer from each flag, so people were waving around flags with holes in them!” She laughed at the memory.

“But you have to understand the significance of that, that people would even dare to defy them like that,” she stated fiercely.

I nodded and continue scribbling notes as fast as possible, but stopped when she continued on and said, “The most important aspect was that people were human beings again, and all that façade that everybody put on during Communism just disappeared.

“We were waiting for the next speaker to come on the Parliament steps, and a total stranger offered me his jacket to sit on instead of the floor. You know that was just human….” Eva trailed off, clearly moved by this rare display of kindness during these uncertain times.

She cleared her throat and continued on with the story, quickly moving past the moment.

“Anyways, that was the highlight of my life in Hungary.”

“Wow,” I exclaimed. “That must have been such an amazing feeling.”

“Yes,” she smiled. “It was.”

“Were there any repercussions for the uprising?” I asked.

“Well, in the next few weeks we did not take up guns, but we did go to the hospital and were trained in first aid,” she explains. “We went out with the flatbeds to try to bring back the wounded people from the battlefield.

“Originally after the revolution Lazlo and I thought we would stay because we had a free government for five days, and we thought we were going to build a new Hungary. But when the Russians came back, we knew that was it and that we were going to have to leave. Plus we were worried that our neighbors would tell on us because they knew we disappeared in the mornings to work for first aid.”

She continued with her story of the actual escape on November 10th, 1956. Lazlo and Eva were not able to say goodbye to Lazlo’s dad or Eva’s dear aunt who lived across town.

“What happened to the rest of your family?” I questioned.

“When we left we asked my mother and sister if they would like to come with us, but they decided not to come,” she explained. “I borrowed my sister’s hiking boots for the trip.”

“All we had was a fishnet bag, a half a loaf of bread, our wallets with no money, and did we have bacon, Lazlo?” she asked her husband.

“Yes, we did have bacon.” Lazlo nodded and chuckled.

“And a flask!” Eva exclaimed. “A flask of whiskey in case we were injured along the way. Here I will show you!”

Eva nimbly lifted herself from the chair and brought out a worn green box with the label “Hungarian Revolution Memorabilia” written in careful cursive. Inside the box it was like a treasure chest that brought Eva’s story to life. There was the glass flask (no longer filled with whiskey), the tangled green fish net bag, worn leather wallets, and train tickets.

My eyes grew wide as Eva took each item out and showed it to me.

“What were the train tickets for?” I asked as I held two small train tickets in my hands with Hungarian writing.

“Those were for the train we used to escape on,” Eva explained. “It was serendipity, because five minutes after we got to the chaotic station, a train pulled up that was heading to the border. We met three guys who we knew from the hospital, but neither of us said out loud the real story, but we all knew we were trying to cross the border. We were afraid to talk on the train because people could hear it, and if the Russians came on the train we could be turned in by them.

“We got off at another train station and waited for the next train to come that would take us closer to the border. It was hair-raising sitting in the station, because we did not want to leave each other for fear of getting taken away. We sat there playing cards and trying to look very nonchalant,” said Eva as she laughed a big belly laugh.

“Anyway, we got on the second train, and since it was in November it got dark very soon, so in the dark it came through word-of-mouth that we shouldn’t get off on the last station because there were too many Russians,” she explained.

“We got off on the second-to-last station, and there were thirteen of us who got off at this little village. I was the only woman,” she said with a sly smile, “and then someone went to the village to get the person to guide us across the border. We got the guide, and he guided us in the dark. We walked like sixteen or twenty miles all night.”

“How did you feel? Were you scared that the Russians would catch you?” I asked.

“Yes, but we had no control whatsoever. We were going in a single file, and we were told to do exactly what the person in front of us was doing. If they hit the deck, you hit the deck. Sometimes we were going by a country road and the Russian trucks would come by, and we would hit the ground and hide.”

“We did have a couple of funny incidents, like where we were walking by a hedge and everybody was going into the hedge, so I followed too, but it turns out that all the guys were peeing. But there were no questions and no talking, so I couldn’t say anything!” she laughed and smiled.

“Oh my goodness!” I exclaimed, wondering if she found that funny at the time.

“Anyways, we got across the border but not before I picked up a stone, my last piece of Hungary.” As she said this, she took a small brown stone out of the memorabilia box, proof of her hardships.

“We crossed the border into Austria. The Austrian border patrol was wonderful, and they took us into a village where we were offered a room in a house. I collapsed on the bed and was exhausted.”

“Afterwards we went out to hijack a ride to Vienna-” she continued.

“Hijack?” Lazlo laughed, “You mean hitchhiked?”

“Oh yes, hitchhiked,” Eva corrected herself amiably.

“But we hitchhiked to Vienna and managed to get two beds at an old Jewish hospital that was going to be torn down, but was left after the wave of refugees. We sat on our straw mattresses and decided where we wanted to go. We considered America and Switzerland, but we knew that Switzerland could possibly be taken over by the Russians again. We decided that America was our best bet.”

She glanced at Lazlo and continued, “The next day we went to the US Embassy, and it was very elegant. Marines were at the gates, and they were very fancy and wonderful. We got there just before the crowds started to come.”

“Oh!” Eva exclaimed, “I had some cookies that I forgot to offer you!”

She frowned at herself but continued on with the interview.

“We signed up and flew to America, arriving on December 7th, 1956. That day also happened to be our first anniversary. It has become a very unique day for us.

“To arrive to America was beyond dreams,” she explained as her eyes brightened.

“When they opened the airplane, which was a heck of a ride, we arrived at Ellis Island, New Jersey. We each took turns going to the window to look at the American flag. To actually be in the United States, you had to be pinched and some.”

“How did you end up in the Bay Area?” I asked curiously.

“Well,” Eva said, “we were there for two days and we saw a job offering for a young couple to be a maid and butler in the San Francisco area. It turned out to be not San Francisco, but Palo Alto.”

I segued into the next question and asked, “Have you ever gone back? How did that make you feel?”

“Yes, we did go back but as political refugees, we could not go back to Hungary for twelve years,” she explained.

“In 1968 there was a general amnesty, and we were given visas to go back. We had two sons who were seven and ten. Our family was very anxious to see us after twelve years.”

“We flew to Frankfurt in 1968 and traveled with the boys through Germany and Austria. Getting to the Hungarian border was terrible, because it was still under Communist regime, and bars were down in front of and behind our cars, there were machine guns everywhere, and it was pretty nerve-wracking because the border patrol was very unfriendly and sarcastic,” she continued.

“We were there for four weeks and stayed with my mother, and of course everyone was feeding us from day to night to show their affection. We did invite everyone for a big banquet; it must have been sixteen relatives, and it was a very nice dinner with all the drinks and everything else that was available in those days in Hungary.” Eva trailed off and I decided to ask my next question.

“Do you think that the books on the revolution accurately depict the refugee situation?” I asked.

“Well yes, and Lazlo is going to get embarrassed,” she warned, “but the biggest problem that I had as a refugee was hygiene. I got my menstrual period the day we got into Austria.”

“Whoa, that must have been so difficult,” I said sympathetically.

“Yes, and we didn’t have any changes of clothes, any privacy, any place to clean up. So you don’t read that in the novels and the books. But it was unbelievable not only that you didn’t feel clean, but because of the exhaustion it made it even worse. That is something that not a lot of people realize.”

“Even at the Jewish hospital that we stayed at there was a hygiene issue. There was a trough of cold water down the middle, and the men could take off their shirts and wash themselves, but the women could not,” she explained.

“Do you think that women had a worse time as refugees?” I questioned.

“Oh yes, definitely,” Eva said strongly. “There was an absolute lack of privacy.”

We finished up the interview, and I learned that Lazlo had gone to Stanford Medical School to get his Masters Degree and Ph.D. This fact made me smile, because it made me truly realize how resilient this couple must have been to escape from such oppression and make a new and successful life for themselves. I also realized how close to home genocide can be. Hungary is 6,080 miles away, but there are still members of my community who have been affected by the revolution that went on in the 1950s. The world is so interconnected, and I was able to experience the Hungarian genocide through the eyes of Eva Juhos and her husband.

As I thanked Eva for allowing me into her home and gave her the flowers that I brought for her, she hugged me and said, “I hope that this helped your project, and I hope that you learned something from this. I lived through WWII, the Nazis, hiding from the Nazis, starving, the siege of Budapest, Communism, learning what to say and what not to say. So when I came here, even though I was 19, I was still old. When we came to the United States, every year in the first five years I got a little younger.”