As the child of parents who escaped the Russian occupation of Hungary, the terrible events in Ukraine hit very close to home. I grew up hearing stories about the Hungarian Uprising and how my family fled. One that haunts me: my maternal grandmother crawled under a hail of bullets and lost her slippers in the middle of a farmer’s field. When she turned back to retrieve them, a man next to her called her foolish and crawled ahead. After finding her slippers, my grandmother realized that same man had been shot in the head.
My grandmother’s stories gave me nightmares as a kid, but it was the way she made me feel like I was right there, experiencing it alongside her, that made me want to become a storyteller. Stories about hiding in haystacks from the Russians, running at night/ sleeping during the day, sharing food with other refugees — all of those details helped me better understand the horrors that the people of Ukraine must be going through today.
However my mother, who was a teenager when her family escaped, never talked about it – until 2009.
That year, my 10-year-old son asked his grandfather if he would speak to his class about his experiences during a Heritage Day celebration (he had done something similar for my daughter’s girl scout troop). This time, he’d be speaking to a much larger group of kids (two 4th grade classes combined) so my mother agreed to tag along for moral support.
My son introduced his grandparents: “This is my Mama and Papa [his names for his grandparents] and they escaped Hungary in 1956 and they’re gonna talk to you about immigration.”
His classmates had questions:
“What was the scariest thing that happened to you?”
My father had a colorful way of manipulating the English language and was very rarely known to be at a loss for words.
“Vell…you zee…vhut you keeds don’t know iz…I mean…eeet iz harrrd forrr me…forrr us…”
His eyes began to glaze over, as he tried to speak, but I could see that he was getting all choked up and having trouble finding “the right words” and a few of the children giggled as he visibly began to shake.
“What Mr. K. means is,” my Mom clarified, “staying alive was scary.”
I almost didn’t recognize my mother’s voice. As the Ying to my father’s Yang for nearly 46 years of marriage, she was usually comfortable with quietly observing from the back. But not that day.
My mother continued. “I was only 14 and can still remember the sound of the tanks rolling into town, late that night.”
She paused, realizing the classroom had gone dead silent.
I interjected from the back of the classroom, trying to change the tone “How many of you have ever gone hiking?”
A couple of kids jumped — I guess they didn’t see me quietly standing in the back, as I began to ask questions — and then many of them quickly raised their hands.
“How many of you go hiking in a forest?”
A couple of hands go up.
“Without a flashlight.”
One hand, raised. Seriously, this one kid had to be related to Survivorman.
“Okay, how many of you guys have gone hiking, in a forest, at night, without a flashlight, no coat, barefoot, in December?”
This time, even Survivorman’s son had to put his hand down and, now that I had their attention — I shared my grandmother’s story about the shoes.
“Did you have a machine gun?”
It’s when Survivorman’s son eagerly asked his question when I started to think that perhaps this wasn’t such a great idea, after all.
“No, I didn’t, but the Freedom Fighters did and all we wanted to do was get to the Austrian border where it was safe.”
My mother needed a moment, so I passed around my father’s immigration papers issued in Salzburg (many mentions of the Sound of Music made, here) which gained him admittance into the U.S.
“Why did you pick America?”
My father said that it was because he loved going to the theater and watching American movies, old westerns about cowboys in particular — how they roamed the wide-open ranges, free and without any borders, or papers.
For my mom?
“Because it was far away from Russia.”
Then, the bell rang.
“Would your parents mind moving over to our classroom and staying a little longer?” asked my son’s teacher
And with that, the teacher canceled the rest of her lesson plans for the day. Another hour later, my parents were exhausted, but in a therapeutic sort of way, even if the kids didn’t “get” most of what was being said.
Well, that’s what we thought, until my parents received this note from my son’s classmate:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Katkics,
Thank you for coming and telling us how hard immigration was because I thought it was easy to go through. I liked the pictures you showed us because they were old, nice and interesting.
They received an entire pile of “Thank You” notes, including this one:
Thank you for coming and explaining how difficult your journey was when you came here. I hope the rest of your lives aren’t difficult like the old days. Stay out of trouble.
Yeah, I think they got it.
My mother, who had never talked to me about leaving Hungary, opened up in front of a classroom of kids in a way they could understand. She helped them see why they should care about other people. So I’m handing down my family stories to my kids and grandkids, in order to foster empathy and understanding, to make younger generations understand that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as our own.