Running to Freedom

Posted on July 6, 2012. Filed under: Running | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In honor of the 4th of July, I’d like to share a story about my dad, who loved America and, consequently, loved the 4th of July.  It’s not a story about running in the literal sense, but it is nevertheless a story about running.

My dad was a Freedom Fighter in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Hungary at the time was Communist; the revolution was designed to overthrow Communism and establish democracy.  Like most revolutions of its kind, it was short lived, lasting only 10 days, and it was led by the country’s youth.  My dad was one of them, barely 16 years old, when the tanks rolled in to Budapest to squelch the uprising. It didn’t take long for the Communist army to put down the revolt.  By the end of it, if you were one of the organizers, one of the fighters, you had a choice:  Spend the rest of your life rotting in a horrible prison (that is, if you weren’t killed) or run.  My dad chose to run.

He left his home—his mother and little sister—in the middle of the night.  He didn’t tell them he was leaving.  He knew his mother would beg him to stay and he’d not be able to resist, so he wrote a letter instead and left it in the mailbox.  He didn’t say where he was going, exactly, partly because he wasn’t quite sure and partly because he realized that the less his mother knew, the better.

He took most of the money he had saved, leaving a good chunk for his mother, and wheeled his bicycle quietly away. His girlfriend, Marika (which is, coincidentally, my sister’s name), who was even younger than him, waited in the shadows outside her own house. They stole through the side streets and alleys, out of the city, and into the open fields in the general direction of a train they hoped would take them to Austria, where they could begin to find freedom.

My dad’s flight out of Hungary was harrowing and with enough drama to fill a book.  In a nutshell, although he made the train, he was forced from it in the middle of nowhere, where his money was stolen and his girlfriend betrayed him.  He was left with virtually nothing, but eventually managed to make his way to Michigan, where he tracked down his father.  My grandfather too had been forced to leave Hungary, right after WWII, and my father hadn’t seen him, his own father, in a decade.

My dad told me his story of escape more than once before he died in 1993.  I think of it often, yet there are two images that stick with me.  When he was forced from the train in the dead of the night, my dad found himself in a field pretty close to the Austrian border.  Hungary at the time had a vested interest in keeping her citizens to herself; the borders were surrounded with armed soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders.

So when my dad left the train and trudged through field after field and finally saw the border, when he knew that if he made it, he’d made it to freedom, he ran.  Of course the soldiers did what they were ordered to do:  They fired.  This is the image I carry with me.  A young boy running across a field as fast as he can, supported by thin, tired legs nearly spent from lack of food and water, but suddenly so wired by adrenalin that they do what human legs are designed to do.  They run.  They carried him away from danger, away from the machine guns exploding around him like a string of firecrackers and toward safety.

Sometimes when I am running, my mind takes me to this place, this field showered by machine gun fire and a boy running for his life, and it leaves me breathless. I am thankful it is I place I can only imagine and not a place I have lived.

The other image I carry with me is this.  My dad lost everything on his journey to America. When he arrived here, all he had was a paper bag containing a tie and 2 oranges.  He was so happy to be here that before he stepped onto American soil he put on his tie and gave away his oranges.  I picture my dad, a gangly pimple-faced kid in crumpled clothes, adjusting his tie, smiling huge at all the strangers passing by.  It makes me smile too.

I am thankful that my dad’s love for America was contagious.  I suppose it is no wonder I would become an English professor who taught American literature.  It is stories, after all, that make us who we are and shape us into what we will become.


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2 Responses to “Running to Freedom”

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Wow, I enjoyed reading this and it left me teary. I can only imagine the fear as he was running across the fields..the heartbreak as he left his mother and sister. And the will and gratitude as he arrived here. This is a remrkable story, many thanks for sharing this.


This beautiful story brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing it!!


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