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Published December 21, 2021

CHRISTMAS 1966

Mother, son spend first holiday season away from home, family

By John Toth / The Bulletin

It was Christmas, the first one either of them had spent away from family.

In a strange country, where they spoke a strange language, an 11-year-old boy and his mother were looking for a new home.

They had a place to live; they rented a room from a very nice landlady near the center of Vienna, Austria. She treated them like family.

They needed a new country after escaping from neighboring communist Hungary in March of that year. The mother escaped from an oppressive regime controlled by the Soviet Union, but also from a bad marriage. They were equally important to her, perhaps the marriage being a larger burden on her than the system.

She took her son and left after more than a year of planning and buying forged papers needed for the escape. The communists in Hungary were still harsh in the 1960s. It took them a few more decades to chill out.

It’s not easy to break family ties, not even when you live in poverty and are in a marriage with an alcoholic. But that’s when risking going into the unknown West looks a lot better than staying home; when five years in prison seems worth the risk to try to get away, past the electrified border fence, guard dogs and machine gun towers.

She tried to get away during the 1956 Revolution, but she had a 9-month-old son and was sick. She would have had to walk many miles in the cold and snow to get to the border. Many did it. She and her husband decided that the time wasn’t right, and they stayed.

Ten years later, a lot had changed, and she decided to try it with her son, whom she had forged onto her passport.

When the train pulled away from the Hungarian border, she was visibly relieved. Whatever happened from here on, it didn’t matter. The hardest part of her life was over. She could handle it from here.

The son enrolled in a public school in Vienna and had a pretty good handle on the German language. They worked together to solve problems. They made a good team.

But the Christmas season plays tricks with your emotions in a strange land where they speak a strange language. They made friends easily. But during Christmas, friends celebrate with their own families.

She noticed that the boy was looking at toys in the toy store window as they walked past it each night. He didn’t say anything - just looked and then resumed walking.

“What do you want for Christmas,” the mother asked?

There was a short pause. “Nothing, really.” But that wasn’t true. He wanted the racing car set, the cowboy outfit with the gun belt, toy gun and sheriff’s badge. He wanted the train that went in a circle on its own tracks.

What they both wanted the most was impossible - to spend Christmas 1966 with family. Or was it? There was a knock on the door. “Would you like to join us for Christmas?” asked the landlady.

“Come on,” said the woman to her son as she accepted the landlady’s invitation.

When they entered her living room, the landlady’s family was all smiles. The black-and-white TV set was turned on, and on the program they were singing Christmas songs. The big Christmas tree in the corner was all lit up.

There were all kinds of presents under it. Three of them were for the son - the racing car set, the cowboy outfit and the toy train.

The boy was ecstatic and began hugging everyone in the room. His mother had set it all up. She said later jokingly that it was a lot easier than setting up the escape.

The landlady’s phone rang. She picked it up and waved at the woman and her son to come over to her. The woman's mother was on the other end. “Hi grandma,” the son yelled. They talked for a few minutes before the call ended. The tears continued.

“How did you set this up,” the boy asked.

She didn’t. The landlady’s husband did. It was a gift from them. Christmas then continued with the woman and boy’s temporary family. The boy played until he fell asleep next to the toy train. It turned out to be a great Christmas.

A year later, the boy and his mother celebrated Christmas in their new home in the United States. I’ll tell you that story next Christmas.

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