A culture resplendent with musicians, poets, and delicious cuisine captured our hearts in the seventeen years our family resided in Budapest. Imagine living amidst the music of Liszt, the poetry of Petöfi, and the cuisine of paprika!
Yet, this marvelous nation and her people embody a history of deep suffering — October 23rd marks the 62nd anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This bloody uprising against Soviet troops led to the flight of thousands of citizens to nations beyond her borders.
With love and appreciation, I offer here the true story of my friend and her family. The account is told in first person, the voice being that the author’s mother. The little three year old girl is my beloved colleague, Eva.
From Hungary to America; a Tribute to My Mom
Insights into the life of a refugee, written by Eva Mergl, as told by her mother
The October 1956 Revolution had scared everyone; the Second World War had just ended and this was like the beginnings of another.
Oh please, no!
Everything was crazy… People were taken off and shot in the streets. Traitors were hung in the public square. There were rumors of Russians coming to squelch the uprising. “If we are going to leave, we better do it soon,” I said to my husband.
For me, leaving Hungary was the big adventure of finally moving out of the small town where everyone knew everything about everyone. At last, I would get to see the world! My husband though was much more practical, thinking about how we would make a living, and how he didn’t speak any other languages. Could we do it alone without support of family, friends and familiar surroundings?
It was evening, almost time to leave. We had paid the guide and packed the most essential things in a small suitcase. My husband insisted we take a few links of kolbász (sausage) for the road. Who knew when we would eat again? Our two girls were bundled up against the harsh November weather; we would be taking a long walk over the open fields very soon and I didn’t want them to catch a cold.
There were so many stories of young children like them not making it. Well-meaning parents would give their babies sleeping pills in an effort to keep them quiet while passing through no man’s land, where mines were hidden and soldiers walked with guns cocked, ready to shoot at anything that moved… but many of those children never woke again… so none of that for my girls… but what if… I won’t think about that now.
I tucked her shirt into the pants of the three-year-old and smoothed the hair of the one-year-old. “Tomorrow we will be in another land, starting a new and exciting life!” I whispered in their ears.
We said tearful goodbyes to my mother, father and 11-year-old brother. We would see them again… after all, we were just going a few hours away! But Mother didn’t want to let go of the three-year-old, kind of like she knew what was ahead. She gave her one final squeeze.
“Gosh, where is that shoe for the little one? We have to go… it will just have to stay here…”
It was dark now, so off we went to the bus stop and boarded, just like the border-guard-turned-border-guide told us. The bus was crowded with workers heading home, haggard and tired from a long day’s labor. We stood out like bulls in a china shop. We heard the whispers… “There goes another family! Wonder if they will make it? Fools for taking such young children on a dangerous trip like this… what are they thinking?”
I just held on to the children’s hands and looked to my husband, and to my best friend who was accompanying us, for confirmation and courage. My best friend was going to retrieve her teenage sister, who had taken off across the border after her boyfriend. They just wanted her safe and sound, back with the family. Little did we know that the borders would be slammed down tight and the wall would go up the very next day!
It was time to get off the bus. We were on the edge of a small village near the [Hungarian-Austrian] border. Our guide was on the bus, but we did not even hint we knew who he was. After the other passengers dissipated, we were left alone in the dark with him. He took us to a small shed and asked us to wait inside until he came back. The moments passed slowly, the kids were sleepy. At about 11 pm, he invited us to his home for some warm tea and a sandwich. My husband gave him the sausage as a token of appreciation, and then off we went.
My heart was filled with anticipation at the adventure of a new life ahead. The [upcoming] walk across the minefield did not scare me at all, because the guard knew exactly where the mines were and when the [hostile] border guards would be coming through that section.
I must admit, it was a little rougher than I anticipated – walking the plowed fields with the kids and our parcels. The older girl started complaining about stumbling in the dark. My best friend took the suitcase from my husband’s hand, and he picked her up to calm her. We kept moving forward.
In the middle of “no man’s land,” the guide announced he had to go back. My husband raised his eyebrows.
“Just keep walking straight ahead, and you’ll be fine,” the guide said calmly.
If the guide said that’s what we needed to do, that’s what we would do. So I shifted my younger daughter to the other side, and on we walked.
Suddenly bright lights blinded us… my heart skipped a beat… seconds seemed like hours…
Then from the distance, “Hier kommt anderer.” (“Here come some more.”)
It was the Austrians. We had made it across!!!
We were warmly welcomed and given sleeping quarters for the night. Next day, my best friend headed off to Germany, and we headed to Vienna. I had an aunt and uncle we could stay with there. After a few days the aunt began complaining incessantly about the children and the amount of food we were eating, so my husband went off to the train station with some friends to find out where else we could go.
“To the refugee camp in northern Germany, that is our best bet to get to America,” he blurted out when he rushed back in. “The train leaves in 20 minutes!”
“America? What do you mean America? I thought we were staying in Europe! Wait a minute, when will we see our family again? That’s across the ocean!”
I couldn’t quite get my head around this new development, as I grabbed our things and stuffed them into our two suitcases.
The refugee camp [in Germany] was awful. Crowded with many unhappy, frustrated people, seeking a way to find comfort in their misery, and a way out of the camp to get to the dream they had high hopes for when they had left home a few weeks earlier. Would it ever happen? No one knew.
Countries were no longer very open to receiving us. The first wave had found great sympathy and lots of help, but here we were now among the stragglers on the tail-end of the refugee crisis. Countries were getting tired of more foreigners to take care of.
So, we were on our own to find a way out. We were lucky. I had another aunt and uncle who agreed to provide housing for us right there in Germany. This put us near the top of the exit list, so by Christmas we were living in their converted attic. Gosh, it was great to have a roof over our heads again and our own food to eat! I think that was one of our best Christmases ever!
Shortly after, my husband found a job in an architecture firm, even though he spoke no German. He worked hard to learn and improve and was soon promoted. We were doing well enough by then to move out and rent our own place. Life was good. The oldest girl started attending kindergarten and everything seemed to be falling in place. But then we got word that Germany would not grant us asylum.
Friends invited us to come to South Africa, as well as Australia, but my husband would not give up on the American dream. So I read and researched and contacted people about how we might get to the US.
Finally, a church relief organization opened the door. A pastor with a Hungarian congregation in Pittsburgh said the church would sponsor us, as they had done with so many other families before us.
So one-and-a-half years after that midnight crossing, we arrived in America. We dove into learning yet another language and culture.
That was more than 60 years ago.
It has not always been easy to adjust to life in another land, but it has brought many good things along the way. We are grateful to God for the privilege of all that He has given us.
My daughter would say that a refugee never forgets that they are from a country different from the one they call their own now.
But it does become home, sweet home.
So from one refugee to another… welcome home!
-This article was written for inclusion in a flyer handed out to refugees.-
Meet the little girl in this story.
My dear friend Eva loves to laugh and rejoice in the discovery of bits of nature, both small and great, because they reflect the glory and humor of God. For example, most owls have fuzzy feet! Her favorite saying: “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Eva has served with Cru since graduation from college, initially in Southern California.Then in 1988—imagine this—she joined the ministry in Hungary, and returned as a missionary to the land of her birth. This time she did not dodge a minefield to cross the border.
Once residing in Hungary, she served in a variety of capacities with Cru, beginning with campus. Later, she held a strategic role in Eastern Europe Area Media & Communications. In 2016, she returned to the U.S. Currently, Eva leads a dual role serving on the Communications Team in Eastern Europe, and also on the Women’s Resources team in Orlando.
Today, Eva remembers:
I think the exodus of people in ’56 affected probably every family in Hungary. I know our family always honored the Revolution of October 23rd by listening to broadcasts out of Cleveland, Ohio. Among other things, they replayed the original radio call pleading for help from free nations in the west as the Russian tanks were moving in on Budapest. This remained quite sobering for us, because we got out the night before The Iron Curtain went up.
I do remember the walk across the field, and more vividly, how hard it became to live among people I could not communicate with because of language, especially going to kindergarten in German and then first grade in English. Life as a refugee has its challenges no matter how old you are! But there were many good things, too. There were lots of very helpful people to befriend and guide us in new language and cultural settings—support of family and friends even though far away; provision for housing and food and clothing, even toys, just when we needed them; and so very much more. God was present and He provided for each of us all along the way. It has been an amazing adventure so far… I am sure there is more to come!
When asked if she ever saw her grandmother again, she replied:
Yes, I did see my grandma. When I went back to Hungary to serve as a missionary for nearly 30 years, I got to see my grandma almost every weekend while she was alive. What a blessing that was!—as well as being with cousins, aunts and uncles for those years. I really, really miss them now that I am living in the U.S. again.
Living With Eternal Intentionality™
If you could sit down with my friend Eva, what would you like to ask her?