Son remembers his father’s, family’s journey

  • Published
  • By Maj. Miklos Kiss
  • 374th Maintenance Operations Squadron
We all carry the baggage and lessons of our ancestors. They shape and mold who we are. I thought it would be fitting on Father’s Day to share my immigrant father’s story with you. His journey inspired my Air Force service, and I hope it will make you proud to be an American, grateful for your freedoms, and consider that immigration and diversity make America stronger. 

My father was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940 into a world engulfed in war. His father Karoly, my grandfather, fought in World War II—on the other side. 

Grandfather Karoly survived a winter on the Russian front fighting alongside the German army and an 800-kilometer march through the Ukraine where one out of three men died. I remember him telling me he too would have died had not a German noncommissioned officer violently kicked him in the behind to rouse him from a roadside nap which would have surely ended in freezing to death. 

Karoly was released from the Army and returned to Budapest in early 1944 only to have his neighborhood bombed by American B-24s. In the summer of 1944, my dad can still remember the day a German officer knocked on the door asking for his father’s and the family’s identity papers to prove they were not Jews. My grandfather could retell the visit like it was yesterday. 

“I’ve never seen such an immaculate uniform in my entire life – pressed black fabric, dual lightening bolts on the collar. The officer was blond with blue eyes. He stood erect and proper. I was quite impressed, and he was rather nice to me,” he would tell me.

Grandfather also nearly wet his pants. Though his family was Catholic, documented and safe, he was hiding a Jewish family in the coal cellar. Punishment for such an act would have probably sent the whole family to Auschwitz. Grandfather had a big heart, but was a good liar; his secret was never discovered. 

The Russians liberated Budapest in winter 1944 after a month-long artillery barrage. When you visit my grandparents’ house in Budapest, you can still see the shrapnel damage. 

Worse wounds were to come. After the war the communists came to power and in 1947 nationalized everything, including Karoly’s restaurant. Karoly's restaurant was his livelihood and passion. The communists summarily took it away, and he was hired as a bartender and maitre' d. I don’t think he ever got over that indignation, but a good father will do anything to provide. 

Life got worse. Karoly’s wife, my grandmother, a beautiful athlete who swam for Hungary in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1948 and died within a year. Grandfather did not have much luck, but he did have a big heart and three kids to care for. My dad was the oldest. 

Life was tough for my dad in post-war Hungary. My dad being the oldest, with his mother dead, was loaded with burdens, the most memorable was carrying the coal up five flights of stairs and riding his bicycle out of the city to bring home milk for his little brother. Despite hardships, dad still found time to play water polo at his city high school and dream of a better life. 

That opportunity came to him and all Hungarians in November 1956. A student uprising grew into popular revolution against the Soviet backed government. Over-taking armories, the revolution was initially successful and the Soviets were ousted from Budapest. For a few glorious days Hungary was free. 

A week later the Soviets came back – with tanks. No matter how fervent the desire to be free is, it means little in the face of a tank battalion. It was under these circumstances my father, then 16 years old, decided to flee with 200,000 of his countrymen to the west. 

On a cold November night my dad told grandfather Karoly he was leaving. He wanted no part of communist Hungary. Grandfather was none too happy about saying goodbye to his oldest son, much less the possibility he might be killed trying to escape. Neither one has ever told me if they argued or fought over it that night, but my dad was determined to leave with or without permission. The Russians were not in control of the entire country yet, and word on the street was the border to Austria was still porous. 

The next morning my father and his buddy Tamas Hefner (yes, a distant relative of Hugh) walked down the apartment stairs to catch a train west to the border. Tamas did not make it past the corner; his father was working outside and sent him back home. My dad made the trip to the border alone. (Forty years later, while working in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, I looked up Tamas Hefner. He is a successful banker and still friends with my dad.) 

You could not just waltz across the border into Austria. The official crossing was closed. Where one could cross via farmland, there were open plains, a freezing stream and Russian patrols. A daytime crossing would result in being shot. The cover of darkness offered the only chance to escape, and thousands did. 

After the sun went down my dad headed toward the Austrian border. Stripping down he waded across an icy stream with his clothes in a bundle held above his head. After crossing, he put his clothes back on. Still reasonably wet he began the final run. During his night dash across the border my father still remembers every fourth bullet out of the machine gun was a tracer. 

My dad still loves Austrian farmers. Once across the border he was literally put up in a barn hayloft. Kind-hearted Austrians repeated similar gestures for weeks along the Hungarian border. The Americans, having somewhat spurred the Hungarian revolution of 1956, set-up refugee camps for the exodus and arranged transportation to the United States. It is here that begins my family’s loyalty to this generous nation. 

My dad took free passage on a U.S. troop ship across the Atlantic in February 1957. He was 16 years old when he steamed past the Statue of Liberty. He remembers arriving in America with only the clothes on his back, $1.17 in his pocket and a bottle of baby shampoo given to him at the refugee camp. He spoke no English, and had no high school diploma. 

The rest of the story offers a glimpse of why America can be a beacon of hope. In a thick Hungarian accent my dad will state: “Anyone who wants to work can make it in America.” Living in an uncle’s basement who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s, my dad took the train from New Jersey to New York every day to work in Manhattan’s kitchens. He worked constantly, took night school, got his General Education Development (GED), and learned English. 

In 1965, he was drafted in the Army and served in the military police in Darmstadt, Germany. He met my mom, another Hungarian, while on leave in the Netherlands. After his two year Army stint, he got married and returned to America where he continued to work long hours in hotel kitchens. 

My dad loved to say, “God helps those who help themselves.” He lived those words, and through hard work, thrift and perseverance he won the American dream. He bought a home in suburban New Jersey, raised two kids with mom, took the family on vacations back to the old country every fourth summer, fixed his own car and sent two kids to college. During the prime of his career my dad was the executive chef of the famous “Window’s on the World” restaurant atop World Trade Center Two in New York City. Pretty good for a guy who showed up here with no English, a $1.17 in his pocket and a bottle of shampoo. He loves to tell some of this story and say “Only in America!” 

I owe America for the opportunity afforded my immigrant family; it is why I joined the Air Force. “America will be viewed as great nation only if she continues to be viewed as good nation,” as President Dwight Eisenhower put it. 

Maxims from an immigrant father: 
1. Hard work overcomes most everything, including poverty. 
2. It is a privilege to be able to work. 
3. God helps those who help themselves. 
4. There is no such thing as demeaning labor if it feeds your family. 
5. It’s better to work with your brain than with your back. 
6. Get an education, it can never be taken from you and it helps with maxim #5. 
7. Don’t ever think things can’t get worse. They can. 
8. Bad times do not last forever. Quitting lasts forever. 
9. Being happy or sad is a choice. Choose to be happy despite the situation. 
10. Love your children more than your own life.