The ‘spring vacation’ train ride from the East to the West forever changed my life 52 years ago

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

We had to leave for the train station at eight in the morning on March 6, 1966. I slept like always the night before. My parents probably didn’t get much sleep.

I can’t remember eating breakfast. I probably got really nervous after waking up. It started to set in that I was leaving the country, even though it was just for a vacation, or so I thought. I had barely made it out of Budapest, Hungary since I was born, and now I would go to a foreign country, Vienna, Austria.

I was about to embark on the greatest adventure of my life.

The rest is sort of a blur, from the apartment to the train station. It was jacket weather, maybe in the 40s or so. We walked down American Street, where our apartment was, to catch a cab to the train station.

The railroad cars were clean and shiny. A diesel engine was going to pull them, my father pointed out. They put the best trains on the Western routes, he said. I think they wanted to show those pesky Westerners that they also had some good stuff.

We had compartment seats. The whistle blew. It was time to say goodbye. There was very little talk between my parents, mostly small talk. My mother’s mind seemed preoccupied.

They hugged. My father kissed me, and I kissed him back. I looked at him and smiled. I would be back in a few days. What was the big deal? He hugged my mother. They spoke so I could not hear them.

My father stood below our compartment window. The train started moving, and he walked alongside it for a while. Then he stopped, stood there and waved. I waved back. My mother didn’t wave. I had a smile on my face. My mother did not. I saw him getting smaller and smaller as the train pulled out of the station. We cleared the big roof above. My father was just a little dot, and then he was gone.

They checked our papers before we boarded the train. About a half hour into the trip, a soldier entered the cabin to check them again. He was looking through everything. My mother had it all in a neat package. It was all there, permission slips, visa, passport. He kept looking at them, and asked her why we were traveling to Vienna.

“We’re taking a little vacation. My son has never been out of the country. I want him to learn a little about other places … No, we are not visiting anyone … Yes, we are staying in Vienna for the whole time, planning to sightsee and visit museums … Yes, I am looking forward to returning. I have all my family there, and my job.”

The soldier wrote something down, gave her the papers back and went to the next cabin. He didn’t say anything. My mother’s face was white as snow.

The next stop was at Hegyeshalom-Nickelsdorf. Hegyeshalom was on the Hungarian side of the border, and Nickelsdorf on the Austrian. In between was a netural zone. The train rolled into the station. I’ve never been this far from the city.

Two Hungarian soldiers under our window escorted a passenger they pulled off the train. He stared down and was in handcuffs. The Austrians were a few yards away, but it might as well have been halfway around the world as far as that young man was concerned. Another border guard entered our cabin.

“Papers please,” his voice boomed. He was bigger than the last one. But I was only 10, and to me everyone seemed big at that time. My mother smiled and handed everything over again. He asked her questions while looking over the documents and then turned to me.

“Where are you going? he asked.

“To Vienna,” I replied.

“Why are you going there?”

“We’re going on vacation. I’ve never been there,” I said.

“How long are you staying?” he continued, watching me closely.

“I think two weeks. It’s going to be a lot of fun, but I can’t wait to get back to my friends,” I said.
He went through all the paperwork, and started writing on it. He asked my mother some questions, and she answered them the same way as before. The whistle blew as the guard continued to write. He stamped the passport, and left the cabin.

In a few minutes, the train started moving towards the neutral zone, where the locomotives were changed out. That’s when the Austrian authorities boarded the train and the Hungarians left. The train slowly rolled out of Hungary. All our papers were in order. All our answers were satisfactory.

Then we rolled into neutral territory. We stopped, and there were a few pulls and tugs on the railroad cars. We were now in Austrian hands and were rolling into Nickelsdorf.

We had just escaped from behind the Iron Curtain with forged documents.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, March 6, 1966, 52 years ago today. The smell of freedom was in the air, in more ways than one.