March 15, 1999. I drove my father to the airport to catch his flight to Los Angeles. He had spent the weekend with us, the first time his four grandchildren had seen him in six years. He is seventy-seven years old now, a diabetic for the last thirty. His eyes have deteriorated. He has lost some of his toes, and he has a silver dollar size hole on the sole of his right foot that will never heal. He walks slowly in oversized shoes, shuffles really. He takes naps when possible, and sleeps well at night. He is becoming a bit forgetful.
But he is alive and free.
This is no small feat for a man born in 1922, right after an awful war, in the heart of Europe. Things were hard. His father, an active participant in the1919 Communist revolution, was being hounded by the Fascists then ruling. By the time my father reached his teens the depression hit hard, followed by the second part of the thirty years’ war. World wars are unpleasant for small countries surrounded by large and ambitious ones. Hungary was no exception.
They were forced to take a side. Not much choice, given the options. So they were on the side of Germany, all the while hoping for (what they called) the West, to win. My father was placed in the air artillery. He liked it there because they could pretend to try to shoot down American planes, all the while knowing that the B-17s were flying too high for their guns. They couldn’t hurt the good guys, yet they did their duty. That’s as good as life got, in those days. Besides, the Americans usually just flew over western Hungary, on their way to Germany. They rarely dropped their bombs in Hungary.
The only thing worth bombing in Gyor (a city of about 100,000, just east of Austria, on the road to Budapest) was a factory that had been converted to build Messerschmitt planes. It employed about ten thousand people, by then, my father among them. When the Americans decided to bomb the plant–in 1944, I think–they first dropped thousands of leaflets informing people not to go to work that day because they were going to level the plant, and they didn’t want people to get hurt. They said the bombing would begin at noon.
My father believed the Americans. He didn’t go into the factory. The Germans insisted that everyone go into the factory and start production. They rounded people up at bayonet point. My father was among them. The Nazis explained that those who wouldn’t go in would be lined up and shot. Everyone but about a dozen people went in. The recalcitrant dozen were lined up against a factory wall. The Germans prepared a firing squad. As they were about to commence their grisly work, the American bombs started to fall. It rained fire and steel. Everyone ran away from the factory grounds, including the German soldiers lined up as a firing squad. Almost no one survived who had gone in. The dozen, my father among them, survived. It was noon.
The war was hard on everyone. The war’s end, however, brought little relief. When the Communists took control of the country in 1949 my parents’ little textile shop (about half the size of my living room) was taken from them, and everything that was in it. They were the "bourgeiosie", and therefore dangerous to this new kind of tyranny now in control.
My father was in prison for a year for "rumor mongering" (someone claimed he called a Communist a tyrant, which he did). He got out, washed windows for a while, made illegal whiskey. He lived, and his family survived.
When the opportunity presented itself in 1956, he got out. In the middle of the Hungarian revolution (the phrase "freedom fighter" was coined there) he decided to leave. He gathered my sister, me, and my mother up, and, in the middle of the night, we walked to Austria. I was not yet ten years old. When I asked him where we were going, he said: "We are going to America." I asked "why to America?" He said the following: "We were born Americans, but in the wrong place." It took me a while to understand what that meant. It took a lot of study of some great philosophers, of the American Founders, of Lincoln. I received four degrees for the effort and I slowly came to understand. My father always understood.
He recently went back to Hungary to try to get his textile shop back, the one that was stolen from him by the Communists. He couldn’t do it. I asked him why they wouldn’t give back to him what was rightly his. The bureaucracy was impossible. After two years of trying they finally said that “It was too complicated, sorry.”
As he was getting on the plane he said to me: "Son, you have to remember, where there is bureaucracy, there is no freedom." Some things in Europe never change.
I said goodbye to him as he shuffled off toward the plane, much smaller in size than I remembered him. But his back was ramrod straight as he waived his last. Even the twentieth century had not bent his back. My American father is alive and free.