Shme the Hungarian refugee

18 Nov

I’ve been re-reading my Oma’s story a lot the past couple of days to remind myself who I am and where I come from.  If you think refugees shouldn’t be here, then you think I shouldn’t be here.  Maybe that’s hyperbole.  Maybe it’s not.  I’m a third-generation immigrant–my family (on my dad’s side) hasn’t been here very long.  My family came here in 1951, fleeing from their home after World War II.


So often over the years, I’ve thought to myself…”What could be so bad…so horrifying…that Eric and I (and potentially small children) would leave our home for something completely unknown…for a chance…leaving, of course, meaning that we might potentially not survive…that we were going to brave TERRIBLE circumstances to TRY to get out…but staying where we were was no longer an option…”


I can’t imagine that world.  But I know it exists.  Because that’s my history.  That’s my Oma’s story.  It might be easy to overlook if it’s not close to you–if you don’t know it–if you didn’t grow up hearing the stories.  But I did.  I heard them for as long as I can remember–they started out innocent enough as a little girl, but as I got older they got more complex, more detailed, more harrowing.  And so I’ve been reading and re-reading Oma’s story the past couple of days.  Remembering that my family lived through WWII in Europe, in Hungary.  That they were forced to become SS soldiers, buried themselves in secret floorboards to hide from soldiers on all sides of the war, picked body parts of loved ones up after bombs fell on their town, were persecuted post-war for being “German-nationality Hungarians,” lost EVERYTHING and were being forced to move, left Hungary in the middle of the night to go to a refugee camp in Austria, and luckily found a family to care for them in the US.  A family that set them up to create a better life for their family–for me.


When I read Oma’s words, what strikes me most is that nothing has changed.  We are older and allegedly wiser, but the way we act, the things we say…we are no better.  Who knows? Maybe we’re worse. They say history repeats itself and sometimes I really think that’s true.


I don’t know what the answer is to any of this.  I wish I did.  All I know is the truth in my Oma’s words.  And so I’ll let her speak.  Excerpts from her story, told to my cousin, who transcribed all of it so we’d have a written history and not just her stories (Thanks, Renate!).  It’s long (this is short compared to the 50-some pages that are actually written).  But it’s worth the read (in my obviously biased opinion).



There were many air raids but no one was afraid of them until June 28, 1944. My step dad (Franz) and I were out working in the field getting grass feed for our animals when we heard the planes and then we saw them coming. We watched the planes for a while but kept right on working. This was a group of American planes. Then we watched as they circled our town three times. On the third pass the planes dropped seven bombs over the town.


We ran for home to see if we could help. We could barely see because of all the smoke. We could make out the church steeple. When we got back to town we heard that the bombs hit the convent, the church rectory and the building where I worked. Three people were killed and one died later.


Katharina Tigilman, Kathy’s godmother, was taking some bread dough to the baker to have him bake it when the bomb sirens went off. She sought shelter in the building that was the closest to her. As she ran into the building the bomb hit the building and she was killed. She left behind her two-year old little girl. After the all clear sounded, the soldiers roped off the area and started looking for survivors. By now the families were out looking for their people. Katharina’s family was asking everyone if they had seen her since she did not come home after the bombing. So now they too were looking for her. One soldier said he saw a young women run into the building. Since it was roped off and she was missing they let only the family go into the bombed out building and search for her. When they found her it was just body parts.


After the bombing all the town’s people started to dig shelters. Some were just holes in the ground and others were like a root cellar but not as deep. It was some place to take cover and to be ready for the next air raid and bombings.


Katharina did not like the shelter and she cried every time she had to go into it with us. My dad (Franz) finally said he would say in the house and take care of Kathy while the rest of us went into the shelter for cover. He told us should anything happen to him during the air raid, we would have to look out for ourselves.


We could hear the shooting in the distance and we knew it was coming our way. The next thing we saw was the drummer coming and announcing that the front line is very close, if we want to leave do so now. Then he told us in what direction to go with the wagons. A few families did leave. We decided to stay. All day and all night long we could hear the shooting. The Russians were coming. To save some of our belongings we tried to hide things the best way we knew how. We buried some of our things under the haystack and some in holes in the ground, any place we could think of.


Theresia was home by now and was a big help. We had to take care of the animals before we could leave town. After that was done we went to the shelter to hide. Our grandmother was sick and we had to leave her at home. That night the Russians invaded our town. The German soldiers told such frightening stories of what the Russians would do to us. We were scared when we heard all the bad stories. We knew the Russians were on their way to our town and by night fall we could see the rockets going up in the sky. It was time to go into the shelter. We went to my aunt’s house, Katharina Frey. She had a shelter in her backyard, just a hole in the ground. It was very small and there were six of us that had to fit into the hole. In the shelter we all had to lie on our side very close together. There was no way we could move or stand after we were all in place. We were covered up from the outside by my grandmother Schneider. This is my mother’s mom. We were buried underground, all six of us, my aunt, Katharina Frey, my mother, my sister Theresia, two friends and myself.


The soldiers had reached my aunt’s house and we could hear them knocking on the door. They then entered the house and searched. They were looking for people who might be in the house. Not finding anyone in the house they left. From then on my cousins Emrich and Ferdinand Frey were our look outs. They would let us know when they saw any soldiers coming so we could run and hide. After two days of this hiding my mother had to go check on Grandma Glaub. She also had to feed the animals. This went on for two weeks. Then things settled down. By now we all looked like walking ghosts.


The Russian soldiers did rape and steal but they were not the only ones that stole. Some of our own town’s people did the same. They broke into stores and took what they could carry. I don’t know what makes honest people act like that.



I began working in the hospital which the Russians set up in what used to be our kindergarten building. So many wounded men came through there. It was sickening to watch all the young and old men coming in. They all had such bad wounds. Worse than that was the clean up job. Sometimes I would get sick, but in time even that got better. You can get used to almost anything if you do it long enough. After the soldiers moved on to a different battlefield it was better working in the hospital.


One day some men from far away came and checked out the houses in our area. They wanted to see which ones they would like to have. A week later they brought their family along with all their belongings. They were ready to move into our house.


That day we received notice to move out of our house. They gave us two hours to pack up what we could and move out. It was a good thing that Mathias came home the week before so we had a man around to help us pack up our belongings and leave.


The happiness did not last too long. In February 1948 we heard that the communist government will be picking up the German people and taking them to East Germany. Our name was on that list to be sent to East Germany. We did not want to go to East Germany. East Germany was a communistic country, just as bad as Russia.


Again we sold as much as we could and packed up the rest of our belongings. This time we paid a truck driver to take us to the Austrian border. There was Mathias, the children, my parents, my little sister Rosa, and me, all together seven of us. We were getting out of Hungary to freedom. This move was hard on all of us. The children were young. Kathy was five and Hansi was 6 ½ months old.


We left at night on a national holiday, March 15, 1948, hoping that everyone was busy and they would not miss us until the next day. We asked the nearest neighbor to tell the police that we left, but to wait two days before reporting it to them.


We knew where we wanted to go in Austria. We were finally on our way to Austria to join my aunt and her family. That spring many more families were sent to East Germany. This was our last chance to get to Austria and to freedom.


We had no beds. We were given an area in the room that we could us. There was straw put on the floor and that is what everyone was sleeping on. We were too tired to care. There were some people who pushed and crowded trying to get more space for themselves. We had nothing. We had each other and we were safe. We were happy to be inside a building to sleep.



We were making a new start again. It seemed like that was all we were ever doing. After we were settled in this new place my uncle asked us to take my grandmother Schneider to live with us. He did not want her or have to be responsible for her. Grandma Schneider came to live with us and we loved having her. When I found a job in the lumberyard and saw mill, it was grandma who took care of the children. My grandmother was a petite woman and a very hard worker. Mathias was able to put her on his health insurance.


A few weeks after grandmother moved in with us, uncle and his family applied to go to Germany in the French zone. Their moving did not upset us at all. We were safe and we had jobs. We did not hear from them for a long time and we had no way of knowing how they were doing. With them gone we had more space for ourselves. There were still nine of us in the one room. Now we had money, but we could not buy anything in the stores; too many people and not enough supplies. We were given ration stamps to buy food, but the lines were so long that by the time you got in the store there was no more food. There were times we bought bread on the black market.


My grandmother was always finding things that we could use. She found the square sardine cans, the ones 6 x 6 x 1½. She cleaned and scrubbed the cans until they were shiny. Now we each had a bowl to eat from. She was always looking and always finding things.


In 1950 people started to register to immigrate to Canada, Australia, South America or U.S.A. These countries opened their borders and let some refugees in. We also registered. We did not care which country we would be sent to as long as we were all together. We were always looking to make a better life for ourselves and for our children. It took a long time for them to process our papers. There were so many people before us. Because of this, we could not report to the immigration office until the early part of 1951. They told us we would be going to America.


Our papers were started and we had to go for physicals. We needed so many shots for diseases we never heard of. This was a difficult time for us. So much coming and going; always such a long day for us and the children. It was just the four of us going to America. We were told that our parents and Rosa would follow at a later date. We said goodbye to the family that was left behind and started on our long journey to America. This time the good byes were harder on all of us. Theresia and Stefan were married and would not follow. They will stay in Austria and we might never see them again.



The next morning we received our papers so we could leave the ship and I hope the last time we have to stand in line for anything. We made it to solid ground. We made it to America. We were waiting for someone to tell us what to do next when we heard a lady call out our name. She spoke Hungarian. She gave us $20 and brought some grapes for the children. She took us to a bench and told us to wait. Someone will get back to us. We were supposed to go to Fort Wayne, Indiana, but the farmer in Indiana had taken another family and could not take us. They had to find another place for us to go.


We were hungry and started looking for some place to eat. We found a diner, but we could not speak English. The man must have known we were foreigners. He mentioned sauerkraut and sausage. That was our first meal in America. By the time we got back to the bench they had found a place for us. They told us there were two farmers in Florence, Alabama, and they would take all of us. There were three more families going with us to Florence, Alabama.


We were put on the train. We were now on our way to Florence, Alabama. None of us knew where that was or how much farther we had to go before we would get there. It was a long train ride and none of us could speak English. They said we would have to change trains in Washington, D.C. The conductor was told which train to put us on once we reached D.C.


God selected a good family to take us in and guide us in our new country. Mr. and Mrs. Locker were very nice people and they treated us well. Mrs. Locker welcomed us into their house when we first arrived. She made little appetizers for us; we had no idea what it was. We never had food like that. We did eat the crackers. It was nice of her to think about us and to take the time to make something for us to eat. They were both very friendly people. He had a little house ready for us to move in and it even had some furniture and food. I’m sure it was Mrs. Locker’s doing. We understood each other a little and he was patient with us. The workers were mostly black people and they too were all very nice to us.


It was time to start all over again. But this time we were free and that was a good feeling.




My Oma and Grandpa worked for Mr. and Mrs. Locker on their Alabama farm for 2 years paying off their debt.  The farmer and his wife taught my grandparents some English, gave them a safe place to live and a job, helped my Grandpa get his driver’s license, made sure my aunt went to school, and even paid for their entire trip over.  Years later, a friend told them that they should’ve received a bill from Catholic Charities for their boat trip over–they never did because the Lockers footed that bill for them.  I find myself more and more driven to find the Lockers and thank them for what they did for my family.  To pay it forward.  A major reason why language always fascinated me was growing up hearing German all the time with my grandparents–learning to sing German songs and dancing at the German Club (Club Lorelei in Buffalo).  I knew ESOL would be a good fit for me, but when I look at my little babies, even when they’re driving me crazy, I remember Oma…I remember what my family went through…the least I can do is take care of this next generation of immigrant children.  Give them the chance that my family had.  Help them through such a difficult change.

One of my favorite parts of the whole story is this paragraph:

“In 1956 we became American citizens and we are proud to be Americans. The people were all good to us and helped us on our way. Oh yes, we did have to pay taxes just like all the people. Some people thought immigrants did not pay taxes.”

In Hungary...

In Hungary…



2 Responses to “Shme the Hungarian refugee”


  1. on refugee kids | shmeruns - December 8, 2015

    […] life, but as I’ve written before, it’s not terribly far removed from my family–my Oma is a refugee.  She actually pointed this out at Thanksgiving this year–I’d never actually heard […]

  2. Korima | shmeruns - December 17, 2015

    […] And all of these things are ok.  Because this is not about us.  This is ultimately about humans who need something that we can provide.  It’s about giving someone an opportunity, just like a family gave my grandparents an opportunity 60(ish) years ago. […]

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