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Our great escape to the West: Why March 20, 1966, turned out to be such an important date in my life

I looked up on the Internet machine what big things happened on Sunday, March 20, 1966. Maybe I didn’t dig deep enough, but I couldn’t come up with anything.

It seemed to be a pretty uneventful Sunday. But something very important happened in my life, that day. Actually, it was something that didn’t happen.

I woke up in our little subleased room in Vienna, Austria, that morning, knowing that it was the last day of our tourist visa to Austria. We were supposed to be getting ready to board a train back to Hungary.

The visa, along with most of the other papers, including our passport, was professionally forged to include me, which is how my mother got me out of the Iron Curtain and into the West.

Many attempted to escape from Hungary, part of the Soviet bloc back then and a communist dictatorship, by trying to sneak across the border. Some made it, many failed, and some died trying.

My mother, Gizella Toth, decided that was too risky.

Instead, she worked within the system to be allowed to visit Austria on a tourist visa, and after all the paperwork was in order, she had my information forged on the documents and bought us a couple of round-trip train tickets for March 6, 1966.

I was only 10 years old, but she empowered me to make the final decision on whether we should get on that train on March 20, 1966. She probably reasoned that if I could not handle the challenges of transitioning to a western country, where they spoke a strange language, where we just had each other, and where there was only a slim chance of remaining permanently, then she would be better off returning to Hungary and continuing with her life where she left off.

She didn’t want to do that, but it would have been better than struggling with a child who wanted to return home to friends and family.

I would not have minded returning to some of my friends and family. But, after two weeks, my mind was pretty well made up. It was probably made up a few days after my mother pulled off this incredible escape using the Hungarian government’s own system and then tweaking it a little.

I have written about different parts of our experiences before, and each time I do, the words take me back to those hectic days - to the train station in Budapest, waving goodbye, pulling into the station in Vienna and then realizing that we had no plan past the escape. We’d have to play the rest of it by ear.

We played it well. A few days after we landed in Vienna, the Austrian government granted us temporary visas - the real ones this time. My mother was employed in her field of expertise, and I was waiting for Spring Break to end so that I could go into a classroom full of kids I didn’t know, who spoke a language I didn’t understand. Boy, was that going to be fun.

We subleased a room from a woman whose granddaughter was my age, half Hungarian and spoke the language well enough so that I could understand her. We already became good friends, and she started to teach me German, the language spoken in Austria.

I think we set a record for starting all over. We didn’t realize it at the time. We just solved problems as they came up. The people we met were very generous. They didn’t look at us as migrants passing through. They welcomed us and helped as much as they could.

Technically, we were undocumented immigrants in Austria, which became sort of like a clearing house for people who managed to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. We all made the best of it and waited to see which western country would take us in. Our goal was the same: Get away from oppressive communism and start new lives in the West.

I woke up a little earlier than usual on that sunny, brisk morning on March 20, 1966. I turned on a small transistor radio we bought and tuned it to a classical music station on the AM dial. That’s the only dial the radio had.

The tinny sound filled the small room with music. (I still like listening to classical music on a transistor radio.) My mother woke up and made herself a cup of coffee with the same portable coffee maker she used on the train. We didn’t have any plans for the day, unless I decided that I wanted to go “home.”

The landlady and her granddaughter came up to see us mid-morning, and we decided to cook chicken paprikas for lunch. We crowded into the small room, and the feast preparation began. A couple of our neighbors also stopped by with food. We asked them to stay.

The room started to feel very small, but we started to feel very welcomed.

At two o’clock, the landlady asked for silence. She hugged my mother and me, and said: “Willkommen in Österreich” (Welcome to Austria). The train to Hungary just left the station.”

Our new lives officially began.

We didn’t know where we would end up or when, but we were alright for now. The great escape came to an end, and a new adventure lay ahead.


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