Escape

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Robert Weisz


My parents told me on the evening of December 5, 1956, that we needed to leave, and we weren’t coming back. I knew enough at age nine to take one last good look at my toys and books because I would not see them again. It was that kind of upbringing. It was that kind of an era. I even went as far as writing the date on my little toy wheelbarrow which served as my toy box. I used a grease pencil. My parents were horrified, but they didn’t erase the date, just shook their heads and stuffed the toy deep into the cabinet where it was kept.

I was awakened very early the next morning. It was completely dark. We got dressed in the dark. There still was the occasional gunfire in the distance, but it was much quieter than it had been a few days and weeks earlier. The Revolution had pretty much been quashed and the remaining resistance was very small.

We left the apartment, each carrying one small satchel. Clean shirts, some food, a bottle of vodka, some of my father’s watchmaking tools, and some valuables. The super of the building had to let us out with a key because the front door of the building was locked. My father told him that we were going to stay with relatives in the country. I’m sure he surmised that this was to be a permanent leave-taking. We hoped that my uncle would get to our abandoned belongings before this person did. But, there was nothing to be done about that.

There was no transportation in Budapest, so we planned to walk to the train station. Just the three of us on the black street. Two blocks from the building, a truck backed out of a driveway in front of us. Police? Russians? We had nowhere to hide. The driver asked if we needed a ride somewhere. Hungarian. Probably a fruit vendor or a shopkeeper. We asked for a ride to the train station and he obliged. Luck.

The train station had masses of people. Everyone “happened to have” families they were going to visit in western Hungary. The train was only going a part of the way toward Austria. But, that was enough. My father went off to make a deal somehow for tickets. I think he traded a gold chain for them, but I’m not sure. Slow train ride. Not much talking. The train came to the new end of the line even before we thought it would.

We get off. My father asks around if there is a way to get to the border. No more real secrets or pretense here any more! Somehow, we find a farmer to take us in for the night. We are fed, and we go to bed under a warm feather comforter in a huge bed with a wooden frame. But, we don’t sleep through the night. There’s a loud anti-Semitic conversation in the other room. We’re afraid that these people know that we are Jews. We get dressed in the dark and climb out the window. We walk to the next town west. Around the few streetlights, there are halos of falling snow. It’s pretty enough to almost forget why we are here. There are dogs barking, and we’re lost.

By morning, we’re in the next town. Whispered questions. The day goes. Toward evening, my father makes a contact. We’re taken to a room lit by a single bare bulb. There are several men there. The place smells like the tavern across the street from the apartment house so far behind us now. My father offers them cash and some gold. They agree to take us to near the border.

We join up with a woman and her adult son. We don’t know who these people are, but our guide isn’t giving us a choice about traveling with these people. The first part of the trek is through a coal mine to get closer to the border. They say it’s safe to travel in the depths of the mine; there are no Russian patrols down there. We walk for a long time among the men, stepping over tracks, around coal cars. It’s dark, wet, coal dust with every breath.

Emerging from the mine, we are put into a truck. It’s filled with boxes and covered with a tarp. The boxes are moved and we sit with our backs propped against the driver’s cab. The boxes are replaced. We say nothing to the strangers. They say nothing to us. They must not trust us either. Good. The ride is bumpy. We know we must be silent. Then, voices, the truck comes to a stop. I can’t tell if it’s Hungarian or Russian being spoken. We hear the driver get out and slam the truck door; we take it as a warning, but there’s not much to be done. The back flap of the truck is thrown open. All I can really see is light from a flashlight slashing through the spaces between the boxes. It sweeps several times from side to side. I hold my breath. More talking and then the tarp is pulled back down. We roll on. Tentative breaths.

Not long after, the zing of bullets ricocheting off the truck roof. Not many, just two maybe. We don’t slow down, but shortly afterwards we stop. The driver opens the flap and whispers loudly for us to get out. Boxes are moved, and we scramble out. We’re in a snow-covered forest, no road, only trees and darkness. The driver points and whispers that the border is a hundred meters that way and that he must go. We try to protest, but he’s already hopping into the truck and driving away without lights.

No choices. We walk. Perhaps we hear noises and voices in the distance, but we’re not sure. Should we try to join them if they are more sure of the way, or are they border guards or something worse? We walk.

The woman travel companion is unhappy because my mother is wearing a light beige coat. The woman whispers that she needs to take it off, that we’re easy targets. My mother refuses. The woman says that they are leaving us then. Fine. Good luck. They walk off in a different direction. We never see them again.

We walk most of the night. We find a dirt road, but nothing that looks like a border. We walk on the road for quite a while thinking there might be some indication of where we are, but there are no signs, no markers. Finally, on one side of the road, we find a tiny village. Just a few houses, all dark. We’re afraid to knock. Are we in Hungary or Austria? We find a lean-to with some hay and sit to ponder for a while. “There’s nothing to lose,” my father says, so we walk around the village. We see a guard tower and my father in a foolish daring moment shines a flashlight up the tower. The tower is abandoned, but the framework for the machine gun is still visible. We choose a farmhouse and pound on the door. Desperation.

The door opens. There’s a man standing in the light of the doorway. He’s tall. Behind him hanging on the wall is a holstered pistol. In the one-room house there are about seven children sleeping. In whispers he asks what we want. My father tells him that we want to cross the border. Where are we? He says that we’re a few hundred meters still inside Hungary, but he’ll take us, for a price. He’s a border guard, he says, but he has a family to feed. My father gives him everything we have left, a fistful of nearly worthless Hungarian currency, a half bottle of vodka, something small and gold. The man puts on a coat, straps the sidearm on, shuts the light off, and comes out closing the door quietly behind him. If the wife is there, I never see her. He says to follow him, but do so very quietly. The guards are everywhere, and there is no schedule. He crouches and walks fast, nearly at a run, back toward the road we’ve been walking on. Just before reaching it, he jumps into the ditch next to the road and flattens himself. The three of us do the same. He whispers that this is the border. This is the border? And this is where we were strolling a while ago? He says that it’s heavily mined, to follow his path across the road exactly, otherwise… He runs in a straight line just to one side of some kind of marker, then my mother, then me, then my father. Cold sweat from fear mixes with warm sweat from the effort. The woods are silent. In the ditch on the other side, he says he cannot go any further, we are in Austria, he must go back to his family. Without waiting for an answer, he crouch-runs across the road and disappears.

Where are we now? Have we been duped again, this time for our very last bribing items? Nothing to do but walk away, keeping the dangerous road behind us. There is a hint of dawn. One way or another, we will be in daylight soon and either in grave danger or safe. We walk through the snow and dense forest. Then, my father says he recognizes the place, he thinks we’ve been walking in circles. We’re not sure. He thinks he sees some woodcutters in the distance through the forest and wants to head toward “them” and ask where we are, but the direction is back toward the dreaded road. Maybe they’re not woodcutters working a seesaw, but only trees in the wind. We have no binoculars, no compass. We walk on, still away from the road, we think. Then, a clearing. New territory. The rising sun is behind us; we seem to be walking west…the direction is right, but where are we? There is a forest on our right, and it runs straight into the distance as if cut like that on purpose…maybe a windbreak. A large expanse of an open field is in front of us. We walk in the open through the snow and the dead stalks of summer corn leftovers. I realize that this is dangerous, we’re easy targets from the forest, we should be walking near the tree line not in the open. I mention this and my father can’t take it any more. He sits down in the snow, and he cries. He cannot continue, he says. We have no food, we’re lost, we’re cold, someone will come and find us, and then we’ll know our fate. I can’t have this! I left all my toys and my friends behind. I yell, but in a whisper, “After all you’ve been through in your life, you can’t quit now. If you sit in the snow, I’m sitting with you, but I can’t. We have to keep going into the fate that awaits us.”

Mother and I pull him off the snow and we trudge on. At mid-morning, there’s something in the distance that looks like a thatched roof, a building, perhaps the farmhouse, not sure. As we get closer, the side of the building becomes visible…there’s a huge red cross painted on it, obviously hand drawn, crooked like a big red plus sign drawn by a child, but what a happy sight!! We finally reach the building. There are others there, mostly Hungarian-speaking, but there are volunteers, too. It’s a barn made into an emergency shelter, but this is Austria! There are cockroaches everywhere, but we get some coffee and bread. We flop down on the stinking hay-beds on the dirt floor. I try to sleep, but it’s not easy; it’s cold.

Later, we will try to find out where we go from here and how. But, for now, it’s enough that this Austrian hay, cold, and bread all taste of freedom.

pencil

Robert has been writing occasionally for 40 years. He says, “Being retired is a gift of writing time.” He has published a humorous essay in a soccer refs’ book. “Escape” is fictionalized autobiography. Robert can be reached at Socref419[at]aol.com.

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