Salzburg, Austria in March 1957
Melbourne on 6 April 1957
Bonegilla for three months
Fletcher Street, Auburn, Melbourne
Apprentice fitter & turner, South Melbourne
Draftsperson; engineer; motel owner and operator
My story starts in Hungary where I was born on 11 July 1941, during World War Two (WW2). I lived with my parents and an older brother and sister. My father worked for the local council in Nadudvar and our family held some land and an established home.
A few months before the end of WW2 our family moved to Austria because my parents feared we would be persecuted under the new Communist regime. Soon after we settled in Austria, my father was called back to Hungary because my grandfather became very ill. We decided to return to Hungary as my father had been promised we would not be persecuted under the new government.
My grandfather passed away shortly after our return to Hungary. The persecution began immediately, our land and home were taken from us. My father was not allowed to hold a job of responsibility anymore.
We lived with my grandmother. There was not enough room for all our family, so my father and brother had to sleep in the stables, my mother and I in the kitchen and my sister lived with my aunt and uncle. When I was about eight years of age we were able to relocate near Budapest with the help of family members.
I attended school in Hungary and I remember when I was 9 or 10 years old we were celebrating Stalin’s birthday at school. Our teacher asked the class, “Who likes Stalin?” One of my classmates said that she and her parents didn’t. That night, in the early hours of the morning, her family was taken by force and deported to Siberia. I never saw her again.
My childhood was a very difficult time, we struggled to feed ourselves, and there was hardly any money to heat the home. I used to go out with my mother to forage for firewood in the forest during the cold winters, sometimes as cold as -30°C. We lived with starvation and misery [in] constant fear.
Even though I was a very good student and had the marks to study, we had difficulty getting into schooling. We were no longer in the right class and not eligible for further education, especially university. I was only allowed to enter a turning and fitting course at a technical college. I started this in September 1956.
The wooden set square is one of the few items I have from Hungary from my schooling days. It is a reminder of my education, but also of the education I was unable to attain at this time, although I had the ability.
After Stalin passed away, things started to relax a little. People were very upset with our living standards and the constant persecution. It was now over ten years since the war had ended and our circumstances had not improved.
A revolution began on 23 October 1956. Hungary was promised some assistance by the West, and people began to rally together. The Russian troops were heading towards Egypt [for the Suez Crisis] to face British and French troops, but at the last minute the British and French troops retreated. The Russian army then diverted its troops to Hungary and within a short few weeks squashed the Revolution.
I participated in the Hungarian Revolution. I was a young man boarding at the technical college in Budapest and our classes were suspended. When the Revolution broke out, my classmates and I wanted to assist. Together with the rest of the boys, we were 15 or 16 years of age, very foolish and feeling invincible, we dropped kerosene bombs on the Russian troops from high-rise buildings and fought in the street.
Initially it was very joyous because we felt we had got rid of the Russians. The Hungarian army and some factions of the Russian army based in Hungary supported our revolt, but when the Russian troops invaded, numbering hundreds of thousands of soldiers, we had little chance. They squashed the Revolution very effectively and quickly.
Afterwards I couldn’t believe what I’d done, how stupid! But I was very young and felt I could live forever. I only participated in the fighting for one day and that was enough. Some of my friends and classmates continued to fight and [some] die[d].
We realised there was not a good future for us in our country; we decided to head for the West. Our family, especially my sister, planned our escape. We made some contacts at the border and for a fee it was organised that we would travel down by train to a border town near Austria and pretend to go to a friend’s party, who was the [escape] organiser. My sister, her husband and I decided to take our chance. The organisers stipulated no children, babies or older people were allowed.
We arrived at the party. The organiser of the group had decided to leave Hungary too; things were getting too hard and this was the last round of people he was taking over the border and would not return. We were advised to leave all documentation behind, no large sums of money, no belongings; we had to make things look like it was all innocent.
Late that evening, we took off on foot. It was very cold, it had snowed and we had to walk five to seven kilometres to reach the border. We walked along the railway line and as we approached the checkpoint at the border, where the trains stopped, the organiser told us to lie down in the snow and mud.
Next minute we heard dogs barking, the Russian soldiers manning the checkpoint came outside and machine gun fired for about five to ten minutes to scare off any potential escapers. This continued every half an hour or so. They also used large spotlights up and down the checkpoint area [and] finally sometime after midnight they stopped. We crawled past the remains of the border fence that had been broken in the Revolution; on our hands and knees we made it into Austria.
The local residents there put us up in a big hall and fed us lovely food. It was very welcoming. From here we were taken to another holding area called Wopfing. We stayed there two to three days until we were identified and moved onto Salzburg [where] we stayed from the end of November until March 1957.
We migrated in a WW2 carrier plane from Salzburg. We had decided in Hungary that we wanted to get as far away from Europe as possible. We had listened to Radio Free Europe and were informed about Australia. We felt there were greater opportunities in Australia and liked the idea of a warmer climate. We did think about America and Canada, but it was Australia that we decided upon.
Our flight seemed to stop everywhere: from Salzburg to Rome to Athens to Beirut to Karachi to Bombay and to Calcutta. Half an hour before we landed in Calcutta, one of the engines caught on fire. It was all very frightening but we landed successfully. We were stranded in Calcutta for two weeks until the next planeload of refugees were coming through and we took their plane.
Finally we landed in Melbourne on 6 April 1957. We were taken by train up to Bonegilla and stayed for about three months. I thoroughly enjoyed Bonegilla; I did a lot of fishing, went to dances. It was a lot of fun for me, I was 16 years old and really enjoyed my time. The food was good and our accommodation was reasonable; I lived with my sister and brother in-law in one of the small huts.
When my brother-in-law got a job in Melbourne we all moved there and rented a small apartment. Two years later we brought out our mother and father. I remember thinking everybody was free here, you were treated with respect and the neighbours did not look at you and watch what you were doing. The outdoor lifestyle, the beautiful weather, I walked around in short sleeve shirts for three years before I felt the winters.
Our neighbour helped me get a five year apprenticeship in fitting and turning [at] a small company in South Melbourne. Half a day each week was spent in training plus night school for my English. I won awards as the best apprentice of the year and my sister strongly encouraged me to keep studying.
The English was difficult, especially the Australian sense of humour. It took a long time for us to be completely accepted. It was not just the locals, it was us too; we were cautious. It took us some time to get used to Australian ways; a lot of people helped us, especially our neighbours. We shared our traditions and food, we would invite friends to our parties and they would invite us to theirs.
Once my English started to improve I was able to do more technical subjects and prepare myself for an engineering degree. Initially I became a draftsperson and continued to work for the same company in South Melbourne but now working in the office. It took me all up about 10 years to complete my degree as I studied and worked at the same time. Eventually I obtained my degree in mechanical engineering, something I would never have accomplished in Hungary.
The slide ruler I purchased in Melbourne for my studies is a keepsake from my training. We did not have much money at the time so I had to save up to purchase the slide ruler. I’ve kept it all these years.
Romance entered my life when I met Jean at the age of 21 at a monthly Hungarian dance on a blind date. We just clicked from that first meeting and married some time after.
We had three children, Theresa, Shane and Jonathan, and we now have three grandchildren. We have lived in Albury for many years, owning and operating a small motel. I value education and all three children have attended university. Although I will always miss my homeland sometimes I wonder what opportunities myself and my children would have had if we had stayed in Hungary.