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What country is this; what’s my new name?

Updated: May 7

By John Toth

The Bulletin


One of the pitfalls of country hopping as a refugee in the 1960s was that my name changed each time we landed in a new country where they spoke a different language.


This wasn’t such a big deal compared to problems like how were we going to survive in a new country or where would we finally wind up, but it was a problem that I had to deal with on an elementary school level.


My mother didn’t have any problems. Her first name was Gizella, and that sounds good in any language. My first name was the problem.


After escaping from communist Hungary in 1966, my mother and I wound up in the closest country to us, Austria. That wasn’t such a bad place to be. We pulled into the train station in Vienna and started our new lives.


That involved me going to a school where I had no idea what the kids were saying. The official language of Austria is German. I didn’t know a word of German.


Before I could settle into my new, uncomfortable classroom surroundings, we had to visit the school principal and decide on what I should be called.


 My Hungarian first name was János, which sounded awkward in German, so my mother and I decided that we should change it to the German equivalent. But there were two of them - Hanz and Johann. I liked Hanz better. It sounded more friendly. So, I became Hanz.


My last name remained Toth, which presented a problem. Tot in German means dead - not a good coincidence in an elementary school classroom. In Hungary, Toth is one of the most common surnames around. In Austria, elementary school children didn’t know that. They had a feast.


That’s where I started learning how to control my temper and just ignore all that chatter about being already dead. My mother and I decided that there wasn’t a lot we could do about it. We couldn’t change our last names each time we changed countries.


So, I got stuck with the dead-guy title until I learned enough of the language to change my classmates’ behavior. Only once did I change it with a fight. I wound up using the help of a folding metal chair to win it - not pretty, but effective.


That stopped the teasing, probably because the other kids thought that this guy was not only dead, but he was also crazy.


I actually had a good time in Austria and ended up making a lot of friends who didn’t care that I was “dead”. Just when I got all settled in, my mother announced that we would immigrate to the United States, which granted us political asylum.


The first thing I asked was, where is the U.S? The second thing was, do they speak German there?


My mother only knew that it was far away. Then she told me that they speak English.


Great, just great; here we go again, I thought. But at least I’d get rid of the dead jokes.


After we arrived in the U.S., it didn’t take long for me to realize that we jumped from the frying pan into the fire.


It was time for another name change for me. János and Hanz were not good choices, so the nice people at the agency that sponsored us, the International Rescue Committee, decided that the best first name for me would be John.


It made sense, since János and Hanz translate to John in English. Problem solved. My mother again kept her first name, Gizella.


Then I started school here, again not knowing a word of English, or understanding what kids around me were saying. I got used to it by then, and I became good at it.


It didn’t take long for the kids around me to realize that my last name, Toth, could easily be converted to tooth. That was hilarious to a bunch of kids, but I didn’t find it all that funny. I did not resort to chair-throwing this time. I learned my lesson well in Vienna.


Hungary also is very close to sounding like “hungry”. I had to deal with that now. No, I didn’t come here because I was hungry. I stopped by Greece and had some Turkey. I could have done a whole stand-up act around this subject alone. At least Toth doesn’t translate to “dead” in English. That’s a big plus.


Kids will be kids, and soon enough, I was able to chit-chat in English and made some good friends again, as my mother and I embarked on our journey to become Americanized. It has been a great journey,


Thank you to a very nice volunteer at St. Luke’s Health Brazosport Hospital with whom I recently engaged in a brief conversation, and the topic of names and country hopping came up. “You should do a column on this,” he said.

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