My path to freedom

March 20, 1966 was not just another Sunday for me as a 10-year-old

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

I wrote in the March 6 issue how I took a train ride to freedom in 1966 with my mother, who risked everything to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

It was a train ride that changed our lives and allowed us subsequently to immigrate to the United States when I was 11 years old.

My mother and I were sponsored by the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit agency based in New York City. In those days, they specialized in helping refugees from the Eastern Bloc resettle in the West.

The train ride took a few hours. To get on the train with the right papers took over a year. It was an elaborate plan with real and forged documents. It was an expensive plan compared to our standard of living, but at the time, just about everything seemed expensive compared to our standard of living.

There were no guarantees that it would work, but our chances were better than the other way – to try to cross the Austrian-Hungarian border somehow by foot. That meant making it past the landmines, border guards with German shepherd dogs and machine guns and a high-voltage electric fence.

Even if we could have made it past all of this, there was a good chance that the Hungarians would have gunned us down in the neutral zone. They did many others. So, that wasn’t an option.

The alternative was to plan: Get the paperwork together and stick to our story.

It could have all fallen apart at anytime during the preparation and the train ride, especially at the border. But my parents thought it was worth a try.

My mother applied for a simple passport for herself and permission to go to Vienna. Her passport was real, but it was altered to include me.

My passport photo was taken in the basement of an apartment building, probably by the guy who also did the alterations. It had to be a perfect job to pass muster at the border. I’m not all that certain how the rest of the documents were obtained, but I was included on all of them.

I remember when, on a cold winter Saturday, the mailman brought the passport. Both of my parents were at work, and I signed for it. Then I threw the envelope on the couch and went to a friend’s house to play.

When I returned, my parents were home and in a state of panic. They asked where I put the envelope.
“I signed for it and brought it in the room,” I said.

Where did you put it, they asked.

On the couch, right there, I told them, where my mother had patched it after my father fell asleep smoking a cigarette and burnt a hole in it.

I pointed to the spot, but there was no envelope. Then I slipped my hands in between the cushions and pulled out the envelope. I saved my parents from a heart attack. At the time, I had no idea that the contents of that envelope would change everything.

A few months later, my mother and I were on that train rolling toward Vienna, Austria and freedom.
My name had to be forged on all the documents because the communists did not grant passports or exit visas usually to families or a mother and child combination because there was a very good chance that they would not return. So, I had to be added to all the documents by someone who knew how to do the forgeries.

Thousands of people behind the Iron Curtain risked their lives to escape to the West in those days. We were just two of them. But there weren’t many mother-child combinations. We were an anomaly, and the IRC did everything it could to help us.

As it turned out, we didn’t really need all that much help on a daily basis, just assistance with the paperwork to apply for immigration to various countries. The first one that said yes would get us, but none of them did for a while. Finally, the U.S. granted us political asylum.

The escape was the hardest part. Once we got to the West, life was easy compared to how we were used to living. My mother was determined to put things in overdrive and make a go of it in a foreign land, where neither of us knew anyone nor the language.

On March 20, 1966, on the day we were scheduled to return to Soviet-occupied Hungary, we had a place to live in Vienna, my mother was employed, and I was in school. The train pulled out of the station without us on that Sunday, 52 years ago today. Our escape was now official.