Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Chapter 6, 'To the West, Feb.4, 1957' for the first time


On that wintry day in February an open transport truck carried the 62 refugee-volunteers to the border of Italy and Yugoslavia. The mountain road with its frozen surface seemed treacherous enough, so that it took some time to get on to more stable terrain. Its passengers were still feeling the embraces and well wishes, and a few concerned looks, of their compatriots who remained behind the barbed wired camp in Gerovo.
Did they make the right decision?
By the time the truck had stopped just meters from the border, the guards had to help them off the high truck as most of them were stiff and frozen from the open journey.
After some formalities, at the guards’ encouragement, the group slowly walked towards, first the Yugoslavian barrier that was then raised for them, and then through no-man’s land to the Italian barrier which was raised, also, for them to pass through.
Those 25 meters of no man’s land between the two countries became the group’s most cherished distance ever traveled in their lives!
Every step they took brought them closer to a new life they were soon to begin. The stern warning of the Italian consulate officials that they will have to remain in Italy, the prospect of unemployment did no longer matter to them.
The short road they had to take without their armed guards was the first free steps of these Hungarians since they have arrived in Yugoslavia.
One could imagine the affect of this disheveled, unshaven, pale faced group on the Italian officials waiting for them on the other side! They could still smell the unpleasant fumes of the diesel truck behind them; they could still feel the somber and perhaps envious looks of their guards on their backs as they were crossing over.
But their determined steps attested to their will and desire to accept whatever was to follow, no matter what, there was no returning now.
The emerging light from the fog had shined on a site for the 62 Hungarians that they could not have imagined in the last several weeks. Behind them closely were their former guards and the stark border office that looked more like a fort than an office. But ahead, on the other side stood a long caravan of sedans and ambulances from which white coated doctors and nurses were rushing to meet them, grabbing them by the arms, helping them to the vehicles. Not much was said, but smiles and warmth in their eyes spoke all the more. Soldiers or police were hardly visible, and the few present were helping them to get in the cars, just like the medical people.
Hot chocolate, oranges and cigarettes were offered in the cars. There were Hungarian interpreters among the Italians, who were changing cars from time to time to benefit all the refugees with their translations.
The translators told them that, naturally, they are being transported to a temporary refugee depot and in a short time they will be going to whatever destination they desire and would be available to them, in the West. The warnings by the Italian consulate lasted only so far!
The shabby refugee group found itself within a short time on an entire floor of a luxury hotel in Trieste. Warm baths, barbers at the ready, used but clean clothing was waiting for them and haircuts and shaves later the group would have looked reasonably acceptable on the streets of Trieste.
But most importantly, paper and pens were available so that their families would finally get their quick and enthusiastic letters, postcards, that they were well, in the free West, in Italy. After so many weeks of incertitude this was the biggest gift they could imagine. These letters, postcards were immediately mailed by Italian Red Cross personnel. It was just early afternonoon by the time the group cleaned up and wrote their letters, then met in the lobby of the hotel. They were grateful for this change in their lives and a few had tears in their eyes. The group was escorted to nearby restaurant for their main meal of the day.
They walked to this luxury restaurant in the heart of Trieste, where a whole section was closed off to them. Since not one of them spoke a word of Italian they had let the restaurant serve them at will, and were patiently awaiting their first ever Italian meal, in the free world.
It was only natural that the first course was pasta or a spaghetti in this case. And it was also certain that none of them ever had real spaghetti before, but the exciting aroma and their hunger for tasty food after so many months overcame their suspicions and started as cultured men, with fork and knife to attack the unknown delicacy. Unfortunately, the tiny bits and pieces of spaghetti after their diligent use of the knives and forks had made their task quite difficult, so the first course lasted a very long time. The serving team of the restaurant had been very patient with them and were even attempting to teach a few of the Hungarians the intricate maneuver of eating long pasta with a fork and spoon, of all things, not with knives!
After this abundant meal they were taken by several cars to the Trieste railway station where they boarded a train for Ravenna.
The station was full with crowds of people, most of who came out specifically to greet and glimpse at the Hungarian refugees. They have heard that the group was arriving from Yugoslavia on their way to Ravenna. Trieste was so close to the once, and only, Hungarian seaport Fiume, that many had felt a special kinship with historical Hungary. Fruit baskets and small gifts were handed to all, whose faces were now smiling for the attention and love that surrounded them. Indeed many felt an overwhelming humility and respect for the Italians of Trieste for this manifestation of their care and concern.
Peter, like the others was in a heightened emotional state since their arrival in this wonderful Italian city. But after so many vicissitudes, the absence of his family, the fate of mother and his younger brother who were left in Baja without a man in the house, who now are facing the harsh winter in the poorly heated, old house, weighed on him still.
All this, in a totally new world. And Trieste, with the cavalcade of Vespas and sedans on the roads, the rich store windows, the elegant men and women with their obvious carefree attitude, how different all this was from the sad, and gray Hungarian small towns, with their somber moods. Especially, the openness and unabashed joy on peoples’ faces in Trieste, by contrast, was so striking.
The train was warm and comfortable. Peter leaned out the window and grasped a man’s hand as it was extended to him from below. The couple, speaking Hungarian, came out to the station to meet the group, like the others from Trieste.
“Welcome in Italy, God bless you all, we pray for you, all Hungarians…where are you from?”
“I am from the South, a small town…” said Peter
“Yes, but which one…?”
“I am from Baja…” and the man’s face lit up…
“My mother is from Baja…we are both from Baja…and mother still lives there , today, in that town…maybe you know her…she lives on Budapest Road….the widow of Poth Gotthard?”
“Mrs.Poth? My God, … dear sir, she is our landlady, we have been renting her house for years…every month I take the rent to her, Mrs.Poth…that cannot be true!”
The train was long into the night and Peter was still thinking about the incredible meeting of the Hungarian couple in the station, before departure for Ravenna. His first hours in the West, his first meeting anyone there with whom he can communicate and they turn out to be the son of Mrs.Poth and his wife, from Baja! As they recounted the story, the son was born in Baja and after the war, in 1946 he had gotten out and settled in Trieste, here he opened a pasticeria, a coffee and cake place.
They were on the train the whole night when finally they arrived early morning in Ravenna. The local Red Cross was waiting and had them transported to the nearby Marina di Ravenna, by the Adriatic Sea.
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