Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Chapter 8, Refugee Life in Italy, waiting for a v isa

The advertised hunger strike had quickly faded due to the new group’s obstinacy, when the “Yugo” group appeared for every meal with great anticipation and appetite. Soon they were given their first Western identity document, issued by the Italian Red Cross, stating that bearer is a Hungarian refugee.

Life of the camp on the Adriatic had become routine, but the inhabitants’ thoughts were universally preoccupied with their future. They have already heard in Trieste, which was later confirmed in the Colony as well, that every refugee could settle in any country which would take him or her. All this was happening in the spring of 1957 when in Austria nearly 200,000 Hungarians have been arriving and gaining entry in dozens of Western nations. These countries established certain maximum quotas and these are quickly filled from the Austrian camps. In the meantime the camps in Italy and Yugoslavia were still full of refugees and there remained but two large countries that still had available quotas: Canada and Australia.
Finally, correspondence with the families at home began in earnest, but this proved expensive, as the Red Cross could not finance all the postage. Peter’s father tried desperately with all his friends abroad to help his son an entry into a European country or else get some money for correspondence. It proved to be difficult, except for one willing friend, Gyorgy Urban. He was only a namesake for father and an old friend from before WW2, who had settled in London, eventually finding a job with the BBC. He was answering Peter’s letters and when found out that Peter had expressed eagerness to get to England, perhaps via the BBC in some capacity, he was glad to help.
Gyorgy Urban had arranged for Peter to take an announcer’s voice test and a short entry exam at one of the radio stations in Bologna, possibly leading to a job with the BBC.
Peter was feverishly getting ready for the big day when he could board a train from Ravenna to Bologna, and face his short Western life’s biggest opportunity so far.
At the station in Bologna a very pleasant, young journalist was expecting Peter and drove him immediately to the Bologna radio station. There, after short instructions a Hungarian text was put in his hands and they would record his voice test-presentation that went rather well.
Since the entry exam also called for rudimentary English proficiency, a short English news item was given to Peter to translate into Hungarian, after all the interview and test was for a possible position with the BBC in England.
The sympathetic journalist sat next to Peter and had encouraged him to start the translation, he would help. The first two words to be translated from the English text will be remembered by Peter until his last day on earth. The text had begun: “The government…” But there, in the Italian radio-studio, the 19 year old Hungarian refugee did not know a single word of English! His Italian benefactor tried everything , in Italian, in French to explain, to make Peter understand the meaning of those two first words , perhaps Peter would suddenly understand and write down in Hungarian the meaning…all in vain! And these were only the first two words of the two page translation requirement!
Peter had finally made them understand that it is useless; he does not speak a single word of English. The entry test had to be stopped there.
The empathetic Italian journalist had taken Peter by the arm, sat him in his little Fiat Toppolino and took him home for dinner. There were a number of well dressed gentlemen sitting at the elegant dinner table, and a three course dinner was served by a pleasant woman, who was probably their landlady. The dinner companions were all very polite and have tried to make the guest welcome, but of course Peter’s Italian was only marginally better than his non-existent English, woefully insufficient for any conversation.
In the end, they parted at the railway station and Peter sat in the train with dark and somber thoughts. His mood now reminded him of another “entry test” that took place in Budapest less than year before. In May of 1956 he had tried to realize a long held dream when he had been up for a test at the Film and Theater Arts College. The famous film and theater star of the day, Maria Sulyok had the task of screening some of the hundreds of applicants for a few available places at the school. As with those two English words at the radio station, the minute details of the test in Budapest would never be forgotten:
They called him in from the corridor and Peter entered a simple, little room where sat the star on one chair and a secretary on the other.A small podium in front of them.
“You were supposed to be here yesterday, why didn’t you come then ?”- asked the film star.
“Yes, but I have sent a wire a week ago, that I was in my graduation ceremony yesterday …and I got permission to come today…”
“Graduation ceremony? In what?” –sounded the rather complex question.
Peter’s brain was lightening quick in assessing all the possible answers, including asking for clarification to the “In what”? question. But then he remembered the advice given by professional actors from Kecskemet, with whom he had shared the stage as an extra during their guest appearances in his hometown, that at the entry test one must exhibit spontaneity and quick humor that attests to great fantasy and wit, prerequisites for the performing arts! So, with a great deal of bravado and self confidence, he answered:
“In a dark-blue suit” and was anticipating a rewarding smile.
A numbing silence had fallen. The secretary looked up from her files, and then looked at the star with obvious fright, unable even to guess what the star’s response will be to this obviously impertinent answer!
“In what school you had the graduation ceremony, that is what I wanted…go on, recite something…” snarled the obviously upset prima donna at the scared candidate.
The yearlong preparation consisted of excerpts from the drama Bank Ban and a poem from Arpad Toth that he practiced with his literature teacher even recited to his father several times. There were occasions when he could recite the material to his classmates and on the day of the graduation ceremony, just before this entrance test the recital was done in front of all the graduating classes. All that work and preparation gave him self-confidence, as the delivery was being polished and refined while getting plenty of critical feedback and advice. However, on the critical day, the yearlong preparation was reduced to but a few lines from each work as the slighted diva interrupted him twice, rather abruptly, and said without even looking at Peter, coldly: “We’ll notify you…”
It was not necessary.
The same feelings came back to him in the train to Ravenna, as a year before when Maria Sulyok sent him on his way, and he walked out to the banks of the river Danube.
There, sitting on the stones, in the splendid May afternoon, he was waiting for his evening train back to Baja. All his dreams seemed to have been lost then, as now on the train for Ravenna, everything hopeless. Too many young people at the start of life, do not realize that every experience, every emotion, good or bad, joy, pain, achievement or failure, shame, success come and go on, because that is life. And real unhappiness is when one fights such unavoidable fluctuations in life…
Indeed, the disappointment about the BBC test in Bologna really lasted only a few days, as the young men of the Colony were now excited about new hopes. The news came that US Army recruiters would be passing through camp in a few days, and any young volunteer, by signing up for 5 years, would be immediately transported to the USA. There would be language school while getting the army training, then American citizenship, even opportunities for attending university afterward with generous bursaries.
Almost all young people, then, were dreaming of immigrating to America and this new chance to get there was hope for some. The recruiters arrived promptly in their enormous station wagon, a kind of vehicle not seen before by most refugees. Questionnaires had to be filled out, interviews started with the help of interpreters, followed by medical exams conducted by medical officers. These exams were not particularly detailed, they wanted to visibly check the applicants’ physical shape. When Peter’s turn came he had been casually asked about the long scar on his right side which was obviously the result of a surgical operation.
„I had an operation in March of 1955, when I was seventeen, they took my right kidney out. The kidney had tuberculosis, it had to be removed, but I have been healthy since!” translated the interpreter Peter’s explanation.
The army doctor waited until Peter had dressed and then sat down next to him on the bench. His expression seemed sincere and a bit sad, too, when he had told him that unfortunately Peter cannot join the US Army with one kidney.
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