Many Hungarian refugees came to Youngstown because work was plentiful in the 1950s.
By REBECCA SLOAN
It was a cold November day in 1956 when 18-year-old Frank Szalay and his sweetheart, Helen, fled their small Hungarian village with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their love for each other.
Their flight was both urgent and treacherous.
After a brief uprising during which the Hungarian people had attempted to form an independent government and break free from Soviet oppression, the Russian Army had reoccupied Budapest and crushed the resistance.
Now citizens were being arrested, imprisoned and killed in the name of communism.
To escape the turmoil, thousands were fleeing to Austria, a neighboring nation that welcomed refugees.
After saying goodbye to their families, Frank and Helen boarded a train crowded with about 400 other refugees. The train ride was followed by a nighttime walk over muddy terrain toward the Austrian border.
During the final leg of the journey, the refugees evaded Russian patrols and carefully navigated a strip of land mines.
In the darkest hours just before dawn, they slipped across the border and embraced their liberty.
Although it has been 50 years since that pivotal night, the piercing memories still make Helen weep.
"When we crossed the border, it was freedom," she said, blinking back fresh tears. "We all stood there -- the big group of us -- and sang the Hungarian national anthem. ... Freedom is something you can't live without. You can go hungry or half-naked, but you just can't go without freedom. It is a God-given right."
The Szalays, of Poland, are just two of many former Hungarian refugees who reside in the Mahoning Valley and, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, are sharing their poignant stories. The revolution began 50 years ago today.
Frank, now 68 and president of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters of Youngstown, said he persuaded Helen, also 68, to leave Hungary with him after he faced imprisonment for breaking a curfew.
"People got thrown into jail [unjustly] for all kinds of small things," he explained. "I knew I was going to jail if I didn't leave Hungary, so I said to her, 'If you love me, you'll come with me.'"
And so Helen went.
"I decided in a split second to go," she said.
"There was no future for us there. Because my family was on an anti-communist list, Russian police had ransacked the house I lived in with my mother. Running to Austria was dangerous -- we could have been killed -- but your adrenaline kicks in, and you just go."
After escaping Hungary, the two were married in Austria, where they spent four months in a refugee camp. They settled in Youngstown with the help of a local Hungarian church.
"Many of the local Hungarian churches helped refugees get settled here," explained Frank Schauer, 69, another former Hungarian refugee who lives in Columbiana and is president of the local Hungarian Federation of Churches and Societies.
"Refugees fled to other European countries and to other places in America and Canada, but a large population came to Youngstown. They came here because many Hungarians were trained as machinists, and in the 1950s, Youngstown was booming with mill and factory work."
FRANK SCHAUER'S STORY
Like the Szalays, Frank Schauer was a teen-ager when he fled the land of his birth.
"I left Hungary in 1956 at age 19," he said. "My mother wanted me to go to America and find a better life, but my father wasn't happy about me wanting to leave. He thought it was dangerous. He also relied on me to help provide for my younger siblings."
Since poverty was so prevalent, older siblings often served as additional breadwinners, especially in large families with many mouths to feed.
"I had several younger siblings, and my family lived in a small village where living conditions were very hard," Frank Schauer explained. "I rode a train to work in the morning, and I would see mothers walking along the tracks at 4 a.m. taking their babies to day care because they had to start work at 6 a.m. They were too poor not to work. I told myself I didn't want to live that, and there must be a better life in the USA."
Unlike the Szalays, Schauer had relatives in America, and when the uprising was crushed, he wrote down the address of his uncle, who lived in Youngstown, and prepared to flee.
After going to a friend's house and listening to Radio Free Europe -- a forbidden communication that informed Hungarians if the borders were safe -- he boarded a train headed for Austria.
"But the train only went so far, then you had to walk the rest of the way," he said. "I traveled with a friend to the border. My brother and his wife were going to come, too, but my brother's wife got scared, and they got off the train just before it started moving."
As Schauer and his friend got close to the border, they saw remnants of the former Iron Curtain -- a tall, snarled wall of barbed wire -- and heard machine-gun fire, but they made it through unharmed.
After crossing safely into Austria, they sat down and had a snack -- an orange and a chocolate bar.
"It was the first orange I ever ate," he said.
Many more firsts were to come.
After arriving in the United States -- thanks to a sponsorship from his uncle -- he talked on a telephone for the first time and rode in a car for the first time.
"They knew it was my first time in a car because when the car stopped and it was time to get out, I got out backwards," he said with a laugh.
In 1965, after a few years in the U.S. military, Schauer met and married Maria Aczel, another Hungarian refugee whose family had also settled in Youngstown.
MARIA ACZEL SCHAUER'S STORY
Maria fled Hungary at age 14 with her parents and older brother, and she remembers vividly the night her family decided to leave.
"We were gathered around the government-issued brown box-type radio, listening to the foreboding news that the uprising in Budapest had been crushed," she said. "During the uprising, political prisoners had been released, but now they would have to go back to prison. My father had been in prison for six years working in a coal mine, and my brother had been in prison for four years. They had just come home, and now they would have to go back to prison!"
Rather than accept such a terrible fate, the Aczel family abandoned their small village without even saying goodbye to relatives and friends.
"The full impact of that decision didn't hit me until years later when we were reunited with our relatives and friends. They were doubly hurt. ... It was like we [had] died and disappeared forever," she said.
As the family hurried along, Maria remembers wondering, "Would we be captured and thrown into prison? Would we be shot?"
During their flight, the Aczel family made perilous crossings over wide, icy rivers, evaded Russian border patrols and navigated safely through minefields along the old Iron Curtain.
"The Iron Curtain was a tall, barbed-wire fence that was ripped and cut open so people could get through it," she recalled. "We'd heard there were land mines around it, but there were some young men traveling with us, and they threw all caution to the wind and ran straight across the border despite the danger of land mines!"
After spending time in an Austrian refugee camp, the Aczel family eventually arrived in Youngstown.
"My father had known of a Hungarian priest who had come to Youngstown before the Revolution," Maria explained, "So he had some connections here."
Although grateful to be in America, Maria sorely missed her grandmother, who had stayed in Hungary, and she struggled with being a young foreigner.
"I was pitiful and lost," she said, shaking her head at the memory. "I didn't speak any English, and there I was at Holy Name School on the West Side with all these American girls."
After about a year, she started to feel more settled in.
"My English improved, and my father went into business for himself and opened a produce market," she said.
Although America is home now, the Schauers still love Hungary and have been back to visit their mother country three times.
"After the borders opened in 1964, lots of people went back to Hungary to see relatives," Maria said. "It was good to go back, but there were sad memories, too. So many people were killed during the revolution."
LESLIE POLGAR'S STORY
Poland resident Leslie Polgar, 74, who left Hungary at age 24 with his girlfriend, Irma (who is now his wife), remembers seeing three people shot during a demonstration.
"I participated in protests [against communist rule] with other young people," he said. "I had never seen anyone get shot before that."
When Leslie and Irma fled to the Austrian border, they traveled with a group of other refugees that included a 3-month-old baby.
"The parents of the baby gave it a sleeping pill to guarantee it would be quiet when we had to pass by the Russian patrols," Leslie recalled.
Leslie said most of the refugees were young people seeking a fresh start in a new land.
"Some were single, but some were young families with small children," he said. "Everyone wanted a better life."
KALMAN MOLNAR'S STORY
But not all parents who fled Hungary were able to bring their small children with them.
When Kalman Molnar, 77, of Lowellville, fled Hungary with his wife, the couple left their 3-year-old daughter behind with her maternal grandmother because they thought she would be safer there.
Of course, this does not mean children were exempt from the turmoil of the uprising.
Kalman, who was living in Budapest during the 1956 revolt, recalls seeing older children fighting right alongside adults.
"Kids would hide in basements and stretch ropes across the streets to try and [interfere] with the Russian tanks [that were coming down the street]," he said.
Many young boys also toted rifles and hurled Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks.
"They fought like grown men," Kalman said.
It would be four years before Kalman would be reunited with his own small daughter.
"The Red Cross found her, and we got her back three years after leaving Hungary," Kalman said. "She was 7 at the time."
Kalman fled Hungary at age 27 and first settled first in Canada. He later came to Youngstown.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Although the former refugees are proud of their Hungarian roots, none regret leaving their homeland. Most who settled in the Mahoning Valley attained decent jobs, took advantage of the higher standards of American living and built successful lives for themselves.
The Szalays, for example, opened their own tool and die shop, and one of their sons, Tom, became a chiropractor.
"We all became citizens of the United States, and we've all lived the true American Dream," Helen said. "America truly is the greatest country in the world. Communism looks good on paper, but in reality, it is a horrible ism."
The brutal memories of communism still haunt many former refugees, and Maria Aczel said things that might seem ordinary to everyone else can evoke powerful emotions in the heart of a person who has lived under the terrible shadow of communist rule.
Services in memory of the Hungarian Freedom Fight of 1956 will take place at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Franciscan Friary at 714 S. Belle Vista Ave. in Youngstown. Refreshments will follow the service. For more information, call (330) 549-2935 or (330) 549-9353.