by Sophia Tellen
It was 1956, she was out of boarding school—forever. Sixteen, and free, prepared for everything but life.
“The Hungarian immigrants to South Africa will be arriving in Vanderbijlpark next week. The Red Cross needs a volunteer to distribute clothes. Would the job interest you?” the Roman Catholic priest asked, all in a kafuffle. He knew my parents spoke several languages, among them Hungarian, and no doubt he hoped I did, too.
The prospect delighted me. I had just passed my Matriculation exams and life held limitless possibilities. I even had a new bicycle! Distances were considerable and buses few. My father needed the car to get to work, and most of the time we walked. Thus I became the proud owner of a high-gloss black enamel Raleigh Roadster, “The All Steel Bicycle” with a front mirror, and a strong rear carrier. It was a serious vehicle, made of the best British steel: solid and dependable and built to last 100 years.
For four and a half decades Hungary had been a closed country. Then the revolt broke out. On 23rd October 1956 a crowd of 23,000 mostly unarmed students took to the streets of Budapest, in spirited but peaceful protest against the government. For 18 days, millions of men, women and children participated, demanding more freedom—of speech, trade unions and self-management of the workplace, as well as the release of political prisoners.
We, too, had been immigrants and until recently, had been living in Cape Town. By 1956 we had been in South Africa for eight years. Just two years previously my father, a mechanical engineer, had obtained a position in Vanderbijlpark, designing mine winders to meet South Africa’s deep level mining requirements. It was a cordial workplace, with kind people. The Managing Director of the engineering company was an Afrikaner whose ancestors had been in South Africa for centuries and whose wife was the most hospitable and courteous lady I had ever met. My father’s immediate superior was German; his draughtsman, British. In this environment my father was appreciated, and so were we.
It was here that we became members of a community; indeed, we became citizens. My father maintained lifelong gratitude to South Africa. “This country took us in, and gave me work. It enabled us to start a new life. Now it is my country.”
We had heard the disappointing news that the Hungarian Revolution had failed and mass exodus had begun. Over 200,000 Hungarians had fled to Austria. The number of refugees became almost unmanageable. The Austrian Minister of the Interior had to ask for international help. It had become urgent for the refugees to move on.
There was a world-wide response. On 10th October 2006 the UNHCR news reported: “The relief and resettlement operations that followed were quite extraordinary—100,000 people were resettled out of Austria in the first 10 weeks alone. In all, 37 countries spanning five continents took in resettled Hungarians in an unprecedented wave of international solidarity on behalf of refugees.”
The largest numbers emigrated to the United States and Canada. Israel was prepared to admit every Hungarian Jewish refugee in Austria.
South Africa offered to accept 1,000 refugees, 500 carefully picked artisans and families, and 500 dependants on humanitarian grounds. The first contingent of 75 (which included selected workers, their wives and children, and 8 men to be trained as miners) arrived on the 18th December 1956; the second party (among them 23 children, the youngest being six months old) was due on the 21st; the third batch on Christmas Eve, the fourth group were expected on January 2nd. They had lost their homes and some of them nearly their lives. They arrived very tired, but free. Only three of the first group spoke English. But the gratitude of the immigrants lay in their eyes: “Thank You, South Africa.” Through Mr. J. Jankovics, a Hungarian who had been in S.A. for some time, and who acted as their liaison officer they promised, “We’ll prove worthy of your trust.” (The Star, 22.12.1956).
Many Hungarians were at the airport to welcome and cheer their fellow countrymen, as the first group came off the Skymaster of the Flying Tiger Line and got into the bus for Vanderbijlpark.
Vanderbijlpark (VDBP) was a small new industrial town about 39 miles south of Johannesburg. It had only actually been proclaimed a town in 1949 and attained municipal status in 1952. Now it was able to provide two modern well-designed and comfortable workers’ hostels, which were turned into a temporary reception center for the refugees.
One evening, with mischief in his eyes, my otherwise very serious father said,
“I will teach you the Hungarian alphabet.” And began right away.
But my attempts at pronunciation only brought forth peals of laughter and finally had him in stitches. Hard as I tried to imitate the sounds he made, it was difficult to get my tongue around them. The double consonants did nothing to make the situation easier. My father did his best to encourage me.
“Once you know the Hungarian alphabet,” my father assured me, “you can also read.”
I learned the basic vocabulary: Hello or good day (jó napot kívánok); yes (igen); no (nem); thank you (kösnönöm szépen); and the words for individual items of clothing. So by the time things got under way, I had learned the essential words, among them munka, the word for work.
At the Hostel, the Hungarian’s first stop was at the Red Cross space. Whenever a woman came, I would show her the different items, and invite her to rummage among the piles.
But I was better equipped for the men.
“Nadrág?” I’d call out with a huge smile. And in no time at all a young man would try the proffered two-legged item.
“Csipö?”—pointing to three rows of shoes. (Cs pronounced like the Ts in Tsetse)
There were enough clothes for all, and a lot to spare.
Shirt-Sweater? That was all the vocabulary I needed. A grateful Hungarian elder would thank us the old-fashioned way, by kissing one’s hand.
There was something I heard people say about me all the time.
“Csinos lány!”(Chinosh lahny – with ny as in Nyet!) I heard them call out, almost every day. “Csinos lány!”
“Papa,” I finally brought myself to ask, “what does csinos lány mean?”
A moment of cold silence, while my father searched my face.
“And who’s been calling you that?” he growled.
“Oh! They all do!” I replied blithely, forgetting to mention that it was the young men who did.
“It won’t do you any good to know,” he retorted.
So I assumed it must be something bad.
I was sixteen and out of a boarding-school, forever! Sixteen, prepared for anything, but Life!
In fact, it meant I was a quite-something girl!
I loved this, my first growing-up job. Here I was treated as a responsible adult. How different from the heavy “do-as-you’re-told” atmosphere there had been at school.
Many of the donated clothes were brand new. One day my supervisor, Mrs. Van der Merwe, said, “As you are not being paid, I suggest you help yourself to some clothes. I myself am not in need of anything.”
But I was! It takes a long time for immigrant families to catch up. I found a pale blue cotton dress that made me feel a million dollars.
People from all over South Africa sent Christmas gifts and gifts of clothing. 300 resident Hungarians from Johannesburg and the Reef (many of whom had escaped after WWII and sought refuge in South Africa) came to give the refugees a good Christmas feast, with turkey. And it was they who received their stories of horror. Afterwards they all sang the Hungarian national anthem, and a Hungarian carol. But the Hungarians were also happy for another reason—all were smartly turned out. “Gone were the old tattered clothes they had worn when they crossed the frontier into Austria. The women wore summer dresses given by the Vanderbijlpark people and by the Red Cross in Johannesburg.” The Star reported: “Despite memories of terror, they had a merry Christmas.” (26 December 1956)
One day I got a call to go to a certain men’s outfitters. The proprietor, who spoke little English, told me he had a job for a man named Zsidó (Zs as in azure). I was to find him, and to bring him to the shop.
Enthusiastically I set about this new task, cycled to the reception center and found the Hungarians assembled in the large hall, sitting on the floor after a meeting: quiet, forlorn, homesick, and uncertain about the future.
“Mr. Zsidó? I called out. “Is there a Mr. Zsidó here? Munka! Work!
A wave of discomfort rustled through the group. Shoulders drooped, eyes were lowered: a hushed silence, broken only by an awkward cough.
“Mr. Zsidó?” I called out again, never doubting that I had got it right.
Hesitantly a tall man rose.
Follow me, I beckoned, and led him to my sturdy black Raleigh bicycle; solid and dependable. “Sit here,” I said, pointing to the strong rear carrier.
Taller by far, and much heavier than I, the man looked at me with the utmost concern.
“Munka!” I repeated reassuringly. “You, me, work!”
Petrified, the once brave and freedom-loving man straddled my bicycle carrier, doubtful as to whether this was any safer than the Hungary from which he had just escaped. He clasped me tightly, holding on for dear life as I wobbled away, his enormous weight behind me. From time to time a little groan escaped him. Slowly I got into my stride, and pedalled hard along the veldt for the next ten minutes. Puffing and panting, then flying down an innocent hill (while my terrified rider tightened his embrace) I reached the outfitters and screeched to a halt. A pale and unhappy man slid off the carrier and unfurled to his full height. A beaming proprietor awaited us in front of his shop.
“I found Mr. Zsidó!” I called out triumphantly.
In an exuberant burst of smiles, gesticulations and rapid Hungarian, he embraced his countryman.
Overwhelmed by such a welcome, together with the security of a new job, Mr. Zsidó turned to me with a gentle smile and said, “My name is Tibor Lakatos.”
“You’re not Mr. Zsidó? I stuttered, completely taken aback.
“No,” he replied, “but I am, indeed, a Zsidó—a Jew!”