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Published June 16, 2020


Teenage soldier

War destroyed my father’s youth, almost destroyed him

By John Toth / The Bulletin

His picture speaks a thousand words.

I was never close to my father. The last time I saw him, he was waving at my mother and I as the train pulled out of the station.

We wound up on the other side of the world. My father got remarried and had a new family. The few childhood memories I have of him were mixed at best. He had a drinking problem. I didn’t see him all that much. My mother escaped from Hungary with me in 1966 to get away from communism, she told me after we left and waited in Vienna to immigrate to a country. But it became obvious over time that she also escaped from her domestic situation.

I grew up in the land of opportunity, busy with school, college, friends, girls, girlfriends. I became Americanized quickly. I absorbed the music, sports, and lifestyle. Even though I grew up poor, I never felt poor, compared to what I left behind.

And then I found the picture.

It was in a box of pictures in a corner of one of my closets. It moved with us several times. I never opened it, then completely forgot about it. I originally found it in my mother’s apartment. It was among her belongings I had shipped to Texas after she died.

It is an ID photo of a young soldier. His cap and uniform appear a little large for his thin frame. He may have been 16 or 17. He is my dad, Toth János.

WWII broke out when he was 14 and ended when he was 18. He became a soldier in the Hungarian military - a teenage soldier, unlikely to be able to deal with what he was about to see and experience.

He looks to the side in the photo. To me, he looks frightened. I would have been also. At that age, I was busy worrying about my social situation, friends and how I was going to spend my summer. He may have been worried about something else, something much worse.

I don’t remember him ever talking about his war experiences, but then he seldom was around to talk about anything.

From what my mother told me, tbough, I am lucky to be here.

My father and his friend were on leave. He invited his friend to come home with him for some home cooking. They were sitting on a bench on my grandmother’s porch when the area started getting shelled. Before they could flee to safety, a shrapnel struck his friend in the neck, exited and became embedded in my father’s right shoulder.

The friend died instantly. Had my father sat where his friend was, it would have been him being struck in the neck. It was a matter of luck.

Within a few days, my father developed a severe infection that was killing him. My grandmother’s homemade concoction and nursing kept him alive. Most of the fragments emerged from his shoulder. Some remained until the day he died. The wound healed, but he could never raise his right hand above his shoulder after that.

The Hungarians were stuck between a rock and a hard place during WWII. Hitler gave orders to hold the country at all costs. The Russians were fighting in Budapest on the streets and house to house. The allies were bombing the city from the air.

And a teenage soldier was trying to outlast the horrors of war.

I don’t know what else he saw or did. He didn’t talk about it to his family or even his wife. But whatever it was, it changed his life. The teen soldier in the ill-fitting uniform was running scared, and kept running.
Alcohol helped with the memories, perhaps. It didn’t do much good for the marriage, though.

I stared at the photo for a long time. The outlines of his face remind me of my older son when he was a teenager. This one photo explains a lot. It puts some things into a better perspective.

WWII took away his teenage years. That’s not how it was supposed to happen. But he survived, got married and had a son. And that son had two more sons and a daughter. It almost didn’t happen, but it did. One decision where to sit could have wiped it all away. But it didn’t.

The picture brought us closer together, although too late. My father died in 1986. I can’t change the past, but I now understand it better.

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)