Making peace with a family story

By Patricia Keleman Szuhaj '88

In our family, my mother tells the stories. My father, who lives them, is silent. I’m the scribe. From my earliest days, two memories stand out. My father’s sentimental attachment to a purple, blue and pink glass paperweight, a relic from his early life in Hungary, is linked with my mother’s reverential retelling of his escape to the west across the Hungarian border in 1951. Her tales, along with the paperweight’s connection to dad’s “other life,” made an indelible impression on my young mind. It took me years to realize that my mother’s stories were lovingly embellished, and even longer to understand the significance of the glass paperweight in my father’s, and my family’s, history.

For her own reasons, my mother constructed a culture of adoration around my father, portraying him as a wholly fearless, invincible figure against the backdrop of post-World War II Europe. I don’t fault this characterization. But it is a half truth. The other part is more painful, yet richer in its complexity. In addition to being a brave and resourceful survivor, at 21 my dad was a homeless refugee, displaced from his country and disconnected from his family.

At my insistence, over the past few months, my father and I have started talking about the facts of his life, both as a child growing up during World War II and about his later immigration to the United States. Our talks have brought forth quick character studies—images of a man—a well-muscled, tenacious survivor whose exterior gruffness belies a deeply vulnerable interior.

To understand my dad’s dual character, it helps to know when and where he grew up. He was born in 1932 in rural Körmend, Hungary into a poor, but not destitute, farming family. In second grade, he was awarded the glass paperweight in recognition of high academic performance in the village’s parochial school. A gift from his favorite teacher, the paperweight became my father’s dearest possession. It was a small but tangible sign of happiness in an otherwise hard-edged childhood, which was to become even more difficult with the advent of World War II. As a teen-ager in the early to mid-1940s, my father became intimately acquainted with loss, and through it, the often tangled route to survival. His hometown was bombed by Allied fliers for the first time on December 26, 1944, during a dinner hour celebration of St. Stephen’s Day. My father, his parents and three brothers survived, but a close schoolmate died, along with most of his family. My father wryly recalls that the much-anticipated meal was served but not eaten that evening. In the ensuing months, Jewish neighbors, including a family who shared sandwiches with my father in exchange for daily supplies of fresh milk, were segregated, then deported from the town. Loss hit even closer to home when my father’s eldest brother, 21-year-old Ferenc, was killed on the Russian Front. His body was never found, and my father's mother never fully recovered.

The author’s paternal grandmother outside the Kelemen family home in Körmend.

Death, or its threat, became routine, and intermingled with amusement. My father and his friends dismantled Panzer Pfauss anti-tank weapons, tank mines and anti-tank ammunition for fun—and profit. The boys sold metal scraps, brass shell encasings and other marketable items scavenged from military wrecks and abandoned trenches and bunkers. Their “games” took a toll—one youngster lost an arm and another was killed while toying with the weapons. Wartime heightened a sense of opportunism in my father, and over time, he developed the ability to suppress his reactions to trauma. For instance, he watched a German soldier commit suicide rather than risk capture by Russian forces near the war's end. Minutes afterwards, he plucked the young man’s P30 pistol from the body. This gun, which my father hid for years, played a pivotal role in his border crossing.

In spring 1951, my father, a 19-year-old auto mechanic, had just returned to his hometown after a stint of work in Budapest. Facing considerable pressure to join the Hungarian Communist party, and suspecting that his career would dead-end unless he succumbed to these demands, dad considered the possibility of escape. He covertly fished for information about the layout of the border between Hungary and Austria.

Eventually satisfied that a crossing was possible, he and three friends, Mickey, Laszlo and Pista, agreed on an exodus date. In their first try, the young men made it to the border, but realized that they needed tools to scale successfuly the double-barbed wire fences that surrounded a treacherous minefield. The group turned back that night. They made a second attempt in April 1951.

On the surface, my father’s version of the story is matter-of-fact, as carefully thought out as the crossing. Yet underneath, it is littered with intriguing details that betray the unpredictability of the exit. After meeting at an agreed-upon location, the group left late in the evening without a word to anyone. They wore full-length heavy wool coats and thick-soled boots. My father carried a map of Europe, a compass, and his German pistol.

Midway through the trip to the border, dad and his friends tore a plank from a small bridge, which they used to scale the border's barbed wire fence. My father, who held the board for the others, was the last to cross. His hands were cut by the wire.

On the other side, the men were not safe. The ground was plowed to reveal their footsteps; their movements threatened to attract heavily armed border patrols, and floodlights at every 500 meters lit the scene. As a group, they scurried to reach tiny Güssendorf, Austria. Entering the town, they passed a Russian soldier. My father says the man eyed them knowingly and immediately raced to a nearby shack to sound an alarm that alerted the border guards. The group retreated frantically into the surrounding hillside, embarking on a two-day trek. This portion of the journey ended dramatically. With a jeep full of Russian soldiers bearing down on them, my father and his friends pleaded with an Austrian millkeeper to allow them to cross a river close to the British zone of the nearest town. In desperation, my father finally sacrificed his German pistol to the millkeeper, who let them pass. The group ran to a band of British soldiers, who had been shouting encouragement to them from the river’s other side. Once in British hands, my father and his friends gave up their personal possessions and submitted to several hours of questioning. Two days later, after their story was verified, the four men were deposited into an Austrian displaced persons (DP) camp.

This refugee compound would be the first of several my father called home. Young and physically fit, he and his friends were singled out by the locals for service as laborers. My dad’s travels separated him from his friends—he would meet Mickey and Lazslo in Canada nearly 30 years later, but he has not seen Pista since leaving Hungary. Over the next two years, my father wandered through Austria, Belgium, France and Germany, working intermittently as a barracks guard for the French Air Force, then as a lumberjack, coal miner, woodcutter and farm hand. He served two brief jail terms in both Belgium and France for lack of a proper passport. Finally landing in a Nürnberg, Germany DP camp, he joined an amateur boxing club, where he met an American Army recruiter. At the first opportunity, he signed up for duty as a paratrooper, hoping to gain much-coveted U.S. citizenship. He got his wish, plus a new identity, when he willingly anglicized his first name from the Hungarian “Jozsef” to “Joseph.” At the same time, an Army clerk’s error transformed our family name from “Kelemen” to “Keleman.”

Dad’s family changed, too, after his departure. The evening my father left home, my 52-year-old grandfather was taken into custody and interrogated for hours by the ADO, the Hungarian national secret police. They threatened him, asserting that Jozsi, his son, had been captured. then, they claimed, killed. My grandfather said that this shift in their story convinced him that dad and his friends were safe. The next day, the police released my grandfather. Within weeks, following another late night emigration by a second band of young people, the authorities retaliated. Without warning, they rounded up the families of all those who had escaped. To prevent future border crossings, an example would be made of these men, women, and children left behind by the young defectors. My grandfather, grandmother, and three uncles were loaded into trucks and deported to Hortobagy in eastern Hungary. They lost their home and its contents, their farm, livestock and land, and would spend three years in a labor camp before being released by then-Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy. Even then, my grandparents and uncles could not immediately return to Körmend—their house was occupied by a Party member. A year later, after living with my father’s sister in a nearby town, they finally reclaimed their home. Although my father got word of their deportation from others who left his hometown, he did not learn their fate until after his arrival in the United States. Nearly 20 years would pass before he would be face to face with his parents again, and close to three decades would go by until he met two of his three brothers. His quiet, mild-tempered older brother died in the mid-1980s without ever seeing dad again.

Before carting my father’s family away, the ADO gave them 20 minutes to gather their possessions. Stubborn even in the face of utter loss, my grandfather flatly refused to take anything, saying that he wouldn’t need a cow where he was headed. To everyone’s surprise, my stoic grandmother took the offer. She entered the modest but immaculately-kept family home and returned minutes later with one item. Not a photograph of, or letter from, her beloved, now-deceased eldest child, Ferenc. Instead, my grandmother clutched my father’s glass paperweight, wrapped tightly in her handkerchief. Throughout the family’s confinement, my grandmother safeguarded the paperweight. She tended it in the years after her return to Körmend and presented it to my father in person during my grandparents’ one and only visit to Pennsylvania in 1969. She never explained, and my father never questioned, her actions.

My paternal grandmother and grandfather both died during my first year at Bryn Mawr, as did my maternal grandmother. My father, once defined by his physical prowess, now suffers from chronic arthritis pain. He walks warily, often with stabbing discomfort; two knee replacements haven’t helped his mobility. He is often frustrated, cantankerous and sad. My mother doesn’t tell his story anymore—instead, she worries about him and wonders about her future. And I am hearing the paperweight’s story—and my family’s—for the first time. Even as a child, I could sense the special place the paperweight held in my father's life—as an earnest 8-year-old, I gave dad a smaller, “sister” paperweight, in shades of orange and yellow, for Father’s Day. Like bookends denoting two distinct lives, both paperweights now hold a place of honor atop the coffee table in my parents’ pristine, seldom-used living room. Over time, the larger paperweight has become less inscrutable to me—like my father, although scratched and well-worn, it is solidly familiar and oddly comforting. Perhaps this bottom-line dependability, and the satisfying sense of understanding that comes with it, are what bind us steadfastly to our families. In the end, despite any failings, our sojourns with parents, siblings and even distant relatives, are shared. This is the common thread connecting all our family stories.

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