A Hungarian Journey to Freedom


Driving past Eva Juhos’ house, I would never have guessed that someone inside had experienced such oppression, persecution, and hard times. She and her husband live in a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood in Portola Valley, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. The house has light brown shingles and lots of windows, a silver Prius parked outside. As I walked to the front door and nervously rang the doorbell, I tried to calm my first-time interview nerves.

A few seconds later, the door opened, and a small woman with gray hair and striking blue eyes appeared.

“Hello there,” she said with a lovely lilting accent. “Please come in.”

The accent was familiar in that it sounded like two of the monks who live and work at my high school, the Woodside Priory. This was not a surprise, as I had learned before the interview that Eva was from Hungary, where the monks are from.

As we settled into two wooden chairs with red pillows, Eva’s husband, also speaking with a Hungarian accent, asked if I would like coffee or tea.

I declined, anxious to start the interview.

She smiled at me and asked about school, college, my future plans. She was happy to tell me about her own grandson, who had been admitted into Wake Forest College on the East Coast, a typical proud grandma.

Finally after a few minutes of chatter, Eva settled down into her chair, looked at me, and smiled lightly, asking, “How about we get down to business?”

I nervously laughed and asked her, “When and why did you leave Hungary?”

“Well,” she started, “it was 1956, on November 10th, that Lazlo and I escaped the Communist regime. We were newly married, and both of our families were being persecuted because we were ex-capitalist intellectuals, a bad combination.”

As her husband walked by the living room, she directed her attention to him.

“Lazlo, would you like to come join in on this conversation?”

He raised his white eyebrows and softly said, “If I can be of any help in this I would like to, but not unless you want me to.”

“Your choice,” Eva stated with a wave of her hand, a wave I could tell she reserved only for her husband of 57 years.

She directed her attention back to me as Lazlo sat down on the couch.

She continued, “Anyways, I knew that there was another way to live outside of Communism. We were a well-to-do middle class family, and my parents used to tell me that there was a world outside of the corrupt Hungary, which was a driving force in my eventual escape.”

Eva folded her hands and continued. “My grandfather had a small business that he started very much American-style, creating laboratory equipment, and he was an intellectual. In 1949 the Communists took his key to his business, and it disappeared from our family forever, but we were persecuted thereafter.

“And so as a result of that, we were on a list, and they came for us a couple times,” she continued, “but my mother managed to send my grandfather to the hospital so when they came looking for us he wasn’t there. But we knew they were going to come back.

“Even before that my father was killed by the Nazis in 1944 because he was a chemist, and my mother was also a chemist.” She frowned and shifted slightly in her chair.

I crinkled my forehead as I realized how horrible it must have been for Eva to always live in fear of being ripped from her home or her remaining family members.

“Was it hard being fearful everyday that they could so easily take away your family or your possessions?” I asked.

“Well, the Communists took away most of our flat, confiscating almost 90% of our apartment,” Eva explained. “We were constantly afraid because my mother was retained at my grandfather’s company. The Communists were in charge, and if anything went wrong they would blame ex-capitalists like my mother. Everything that you did could always be turned against you that you were working against the Communist regime.”

“When someone didn’t come home in time, instead of worrying that they had an accident with the streetcar, you worried that he or she was picked up by the KGB and that is why he or she was not coming home.”

Eva continued to explain to me the difficulties living under a Communist regime, but what brought out the most emotion in her voice was when she said, “Everybody was afraid of everybody.”

During 1945 neighbors would turn in neighbors to the KGB, making it hard to trust anyone but family. Eva had an inherent suspicion of other people because one wrong word could get her taken away from her family forever.

At a pause in the conversation, I decided to move on to my next question.

“How did you travel to America?” I questioned.

“In 1956, on October 23, was the revolution, and I was right in the middle of it,” she exclaimed, smiling at the memory.

“I joined the demonstration,” she explains, “and I didn’t quite know where it was going, but I was so excited that people were friendly and people were smiling.”

“During the revolution the university students had posted ten or twelve points in the same fashion as the 1848 Hungarian revolution, and of course the top points were that the Russians leave and that we have free elections.”

“I saw people standing around the posters, and I went to go read it, but I was scared that people would see me reading an anti-Communist statement. But everyone was doing it so I was excited.

“The Communists wanted to diminish the idea of nationality, and so the Communists put the sickle and-what do they call it, Lazlo?” she asked him.

“The sickle and hammer,” Lazlo answered.

“Yes, the sickle and hammer,” Eva continued. “They put the sickle and hammer on our Hungarian flag, but the demonstrators had cut out the sickle and hammer from each flag, so people were waving around flags with holes in them!” She laughed at the memory.

“But you have to understand the significance of that, that people would even dare to defy them like that,” she stated fiercely.

I nodded and continue scribbling notes as fast as possible, but stopped when she continued on and said, “The most important aspect was that people were human beings again, and all that façade that everybody put on during Communism just disappeared.

“We were waiting for the next speaker to come on the Parliament steps, and a total stranger offered me his jacket to sit on instead of the floor. You know that was just human….” Eva trailed off, clearly moved by this rare display of kindness during these uncertain times.

She cleared her throat and continued on with the story, quickly moving past the moment.

“Anyways, that was the highlight of my life in Hungary.”

“Wow,” I exclaimed. “That must have been such an amazing feeling.”

“Yes,” she smiled. “It was.”

“Were there any repercussions for the uprising?” I asked.

“Well, in the next few weeks we did not take up guns, but we did go to the hospital and were trained in first aid,” she explains. “We went out with the flatbeds to try to bring back the wounded people from the battlefield.

“Originally after the revolution Lazlo and I thought we would stay because we had a free government for five days, and we thought we were going to build a new Hungary. But when the Russians came back, we knew that was it and that we were going to have to leave. Plus we were worried that our neighbors would tell on us because they knew we disappeared in the mornings to work for first aid.”

She continued with her story of the actual escape on November 10th, 1956. Lazlo and Eva were not able to say goodbye to Lazlo’s dad or Eva’s dear aunt who lived across town.

“What happened to the rest of your family?” I questioned.

“When we left we asked my mother and sister if they would like to come with us, but they decided not to come,” she explained. “I borrowed my sister’s hiking boots for the trip.”

“All we had was a fishnet bag, a half a loaf of bread, our wallets with no money, and did we have bacon, Lazlo?” she asked her husband.

“Yes, we did have bacon.” Lazlo nodded and chuckled.

“And a flask!” Eva exclaimed. “A flask of whiskey in case we were injured along the way. Here I will show you!”

Eva nimbly lifted herself from the chair and brought out a worn green box with the label “Hungarian Revolution Memorabilia” written in careful cursive. Inside the box it was like a treasure chest that brought Eva’s story to life. There was the glass flask (no longer filled with whiskey), the tangled green fish net bag, worn leather wallets, and train tickets.

My eyes grew wide as Eva took each item out and showed it to me.

“What were the train tickets for?” I asked as I held two small train tickets in my hands with Hungarian writing.

“Those were for the train we used to escape on,” Eva explained. “It was serendipity, because five minutes after we got to the chaotic station, a train pulled up that was heading to the border. We met three guys who we knew from the hospital, but neither of us said out loud the real story, but we all knew we were trying to cross the border. We were afraid to talk on the train because people could hear it, and if the Russians came on the train we could be turned in by them.

“We got off at another train station and waited for the next train to come that would take us closer to the border. It was hair-raising sitting in the station, because we did not want to leave each other for fear of getting taken away. We sat there playing cards and trying to look very nonchalant,” said Eva as she laughed a big belly laugh.

“Anyway, we got on the second train, and since it was in November it got dark very soon, so in the dark it came through word-of-mouth that we shouldn’t get off on the last station because there were too many Russians,” she explained.

“We got off on the second-to-last station, and there were thirteen of us who got off at this little village. I was the only woman,” she said with a sly smile, “and then someone went to the village to get the person to guide us across the border. We got the guide, and he guided us in the dark. We walked like sixteen or twenty miles all night.”

“How did you feel? Were you scared that the Russians would catch you?” I asked.

“Yes, but we had no control whatsoever. We were going in a single file, and we were told to do exactly what the person in front of us was doing. If they hit the deck, you hit the deck. Sometimes we were going by a country road and the Russian trucks would come by, and we would hit the ground and hide.”

“We did have a couple of funny incidents, like where we were walking by a hedge and everybody was going into the hedge, so I followed too, but it turns out that all the guys were peeing. But there were no questions and no talking, so I couldn’t say anything!” she laughed and smiled.

“Oh my goodness!” I exclaimed, wondering if she found that funny at the time.

“Anyways, we got across the border but not before I picked up a stone, my last piece of Hungary.” As she said this, she took a small brown stone out of the memorabilia box, proof of her hardships.

“We crossed the border into Austria. The Austrian border patrol was wonderful, and they took us into a village where we were offered a room in a house. I collapsed on the bed and was exhausted.”

“Afterwards we went out to hijack a ride to Vienna-” she continued.

“Hijack?” Lazlo laughed, “You mean hitchhiked?”

“Oh yes, hitchhiked,” Eva corrected herself amiably.

“But we hitchhiked to Vienna and managed to get two beds at an old Jewish hospital that was going to be torn down, but was left after the wave of refugees. We sat on our straw mattresses and decided where we wanted to go. We considered America and Switzerland, but we knew that Switzerland could possibly be taken over by the Russians again. We decided that America was our best bet.”

She glanced at Lazlo and continued, “The next day we went to the US Embassy, and it was very elegant. Marines were at the gates, and they were very fancy and wonderful. We got there just before the crowds started to come.”

“Oh!” Eva exclaimed, “I had some cookies that I forgot to offer you!”

She frowned at herself but continued on with the interview.

“We signed up and flew to America, arriving on December 7th, 1956. That day also happened to be our first anniversary. It has become a very unique day for us.

“To arrive to America was beyond dreams,” she explained as her eyes brightened.

“When they opened the airplane, which was a heck of a ride, we arrived at Ellis Island, New Jersey. We each took turns going to the window to look at the American flag. To actually be in the United States, you had to be pinched and some.”

“How did you end up in the Bay Area?” I asked curiously.

“Well,” Eva said, “we were there for two days and we saw a job offering for a young couple to be a maid and butler in the San Francisco area. It turned out to be not San Francisco, but Palo Alto.”

I segued into the next question and asked, “Have you ever gone back? How did that make you feel?”

“Yes, we did go back but as political refugees, we could not go back to Hungary for twelve years,” she explained.

“In 1968 there was a general amnesty, and we were given visas to go back. We had two sons who were seven and ten. Our family was very anxious to see us after twelve years.”

“We flew to Frankfurt in 1968 and traveled with the boys through Germany and Austria. Getting to the Hungarian border was terrible, because it was still under Communist regime, and bars were down in front of and behind our cars, there were machine guns everywhere, and it was pretty nerve-wracking because the border patrol was very unfriendly and sarcastic,” she continued.

“We were there for four weeks and stayed with my mother, and of course everyone was feeding us from day to night to show their affection. We did invite everyone for a big banquet; it must have been sixteen relatives, and it was a very nice dinner with all the drinks and everything else that was available in those days in Hungary.” Eva trailed off and I decided to ask my next question.

“Do you think that the books on the revolution accurately depict the refugee situation?” I asked.

“Well yes, and Lazlo is going to get embarrassed,” she warned, “but the biggest problem that I had as a refugee was hygiene. I got my menstrual period the day we got into Austria.”

“Whoa, that must have been so difficult,” I said sympathetically.

“Yes, and we didn’t have any changes of clothes, any privacy, any place to clean up. So you don’t read that in the novels and the books. But it was unbelievable not only that you didn’t feel clean, but because of the exhaustion it made it even worse. That is something that not a lot of people realize.”

“Even at the Jewish hospital that we stayed at there was a hygiene issue. There was a trough of cold water down the middle, and the men could take off their shirts and wash themselves, but the women could not,” she explained.

“Do you think that women had a worse time as refugees?” I questioned.

“Oh yes, definitely,” Eva said strongly. “There was an absolute lack of privacy.”

We finished up the interview, and I learned that Lazlo had gone to Stanford Medical School to get his Masters Degree and Ph.D. This fact made me smile, because it made me truly realize how resilient this couple must have been to escape from such oppression and make a new and successful life for themselves. I also realized how close to home genocide can be. Hungary is 6,080 miles away, but there are still members of my community who have been affected by the revolution that went on in the 1950s. The world is so interconnected, and I was able to experience the Hungarian genocide through the eyes of Eva Juhos and her husband.

As I thanked Eva for allowing me into her home and gave her the flowers that I brought for her, she hugged me and said, “I hope that this helped your project, and I hope that you learned something from this. I lived through WWII, the Nazis, hiding from the Nazis, starving, the siege of Budapest, Communism, learning what to say and what not to say. So when I came here, even though I was 19, I was still old. When we came to the United States, every year in the first five years I got a little younger.”