Interview with Helen M. Szablya, honorary consul

Foreword to Helen’s book by Derick Pasternak

“Since Joseph Pulitzer, through Theodore von Kármán to George Szell and others, Hungarian expatriates in America have contributed mightily to the economy, culture, and safety of their adopted country.  Less well known, but also significant were the contributions of John and Helen Mary Szablya, refugees from Communist Hungary of 1956, after the brutal suppression of the popular uprising that year.  Helen Szablya’s new memoir, From Refugee to Consul in Pursuit of Freedom, while a sequel to her colorful description of life under Nazi and Communist tyranny (My Only Choice) presents us with ample evidence that this highly talented couple belongs to the ranks of most influential Hungarian émigrés in America.

Starting with their crossing the Atlantic as refugees, they, especially John, immediately set about benefiting their host country, first Canada, and soon afterwards the United States.  Helen followed suit, bringing to bear her talent for writing and her language skills as well as her burning desire to foster the new Hungarian democracy as soon as that became possible in the early 1990s.  The author’s incredible memory helps her recall not just important events, but identities of all those who wielded influence in her life, and small anecdotes, which enrich the narrative.

There are four themes that are dominant in this book.  First of all it is a love song from Helen to her late husband John.  John is present everywhere, including the pages on which he is not mentioned, as a teacher, a professional, a family man, a lover, a supporter. 

Next Helen’s pride in her widespread and diverse family.  Hers was a family that embraced diversity long before it became popular in our society.  It came naturally to the deeply humanistic couple, the Szablyas.  Their children and following generations are lovingly represented in great detail,

The expression of author’s deep and abiding faith is on par with the two themes already mentioned. Hungary was a predominantly Catholic country before Communism; John and Helen retained their allegiance to the Church; they firmly believed that their good fortune was the product of divine grace.

Over the last twenty years, Helen’s professional life and considerable part of John’s life revolved around the fourth theme: Assisting the reawakened Hungarian Republic.  They fostered cultural exchanges and of course through Helen’s career as Honorary Consul (eventually Honorary Consul General) they became major supporters of American-Hungarian relations.  The Hungarian expatriates of the Pacific Northwest, who were fortunate to benefit from Helen’s activities, are also actors in this phase of the saga.

It gave me great pleasure to read this book of recollections by one of our prominent compatriots.”

The interview

Tell us something about yourself. What brought you to the United States? Since when do you live in the State of Washington? How did you get in contact with the Association?

I gave the answer to that question in 570 pages with my first autobiography, My Only Choice: Hungary 1942-1956, (Vasfüggöny kölnivel: Magyarország 1942-1956) and I am continuing my autobiography in the second volume, From Refugee to Consul: An American Adventure (Szökevényből konzul: óceánon innen, vasfüggönyön túl). The second volume contains the answer to the second half of the questions, including the story of HAAW from the very beginning. Since the Association was registered as non-profit, I was considered a founding member. I was also the founder of the Seattle-Pécs Sister Cities Association. The story of how we established the Honorary Hungarian Consulate and how we could achieve it is interesting. It was not easy. I was Honorary Consul then Hon. Consul General from 1993 until 2016. Of course, this is not a paying position, to the contrary, we even had to pay our own expenses. As a result of this all Hon. Consuls have another occupation too. I was writer and translator, my husband university professor and consulting engineer.

We left Hungary with three small children, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 10-day-old baby in 1956. We were captured three times before we crossed the border. Starting with 1957 we have been living first in Canada, then in the USA, always in the Pacific NW. 

The Canadian Ambassador in Vienna asked us to join the Sopron Forestry University and help them resettle because we both spoke English, while the foresters did not, and my husband was a university professor. We lived in Vancouver for six and a half years. My husband immediately received a job as professor at The University of British Columbia besides helping the Sopron group until the last student had also graduated. In the meantime, we had two more children. I founded a company “Centennial Agencies” and imported goods that the Hungarians needed, but were not available in Canada, e.g. small espresso machines and Hungarian books. In the meantime, I also got a degree in Sales and Marketing Management. 

We came over to Washington State in 1963, when my husband was invited to be a professor at Washington State University.That is how we happened to live in Pullman for 19 years. Here we had two more children and I received my second degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures, the same year, when I became a grandmother. From there we came to Seattle in 1982, when my husband was again invited into a consulting job. He managed to retire from Pullman, but as soon as we arrived in Seattle, he was asked by the UW to teach for them too. 

I believe the Association is working really hard for the young people, for their Hungarian knowledge and for retaining their Hungarian culture. The big difference since the time the Association was founded and now is that at the time, we were all united in having left our native land because of FREEDOM. Now, the younger Hungarians no longer feel, as they cannot feel what it is like to live without freedom, when you are willing to give your life, if necessary, to be free. They had varied reasons to come here: jobs, marriage, business, university, opportunity. They did not have to escape. They did not start their lives here as refugees without any worldly possessions.

– Talk about yourself, your writing, when did you write your first book, how did the inspiration come, what did your writing success mean to you?

I had to write – I had a message for the world. I always wanted to be a writer, but I did not even think about becoming the President of the Washington (State) Press Association, when at the time of our arrival English was my sixth language. I wrote more than 700 articles, many of them won awards. 

My main topic was Freedom. I wrote about extremism, to let the world know: left (Communism) or right (Nazism) were equally horrific. My first article was published in a weekly printed in half a million copies. 

I wrote my first book in English, but I had to translate it into Hungarian with lightning speed, when the American-Hungarian Scouts in Exterris wanted to publish it for the 30th anniversary. Its title was: “Troop 56.” This was used as a textbook for that year’s big Annual Summer Camp. The same book was published by the book publishing arm of Highlights Magazine, but they wanted it written from one point of view and 14-year-old boys, instead of 17-year-olds and five points of views. Peggy King Anderson, my co-author helped me to do this. She was an award-winning children’s author. I did not want to do it because I never talked English with my peers at 14 and I never talked English with my children either. The publisher sent this book, The Fall of the Red Star to the Hungarian Ministry of Education. I was immediately asked to translate it into Hungarian at the Annual Meeting of the Hungarian Reading Association at the Széchenyi Library when they invited me there. They told me how desperately they needed to have this book because they have not learned this and now they had to teach it. I translated it. The title was: “A vörös csillag lehull.” It was published the next year, in 1997 as a book recommended for schools and it has been that ever since. It was exhibited in both languages at the Frankfurt International Book Fair in 1999, when Hungary was the honored guest. The book received first prizes from the Washington Press Association and the National Federation of Press Women. 

In 1986 together with HAAW we finished in one year the oral history drama about 1956, Hungary Remembered. I translated that into Hungarian as well. It was based on 100 interviews we conducted with my daughter-in-law Marcey, we wrote the oral history drama and produced it. We organized a whole month’s worth of programs, 24 lectures, before and after the performances with the cooperation of four universities. We received the George Washington gold medal from the Freedoms Foundation, the Cleveland-based Árpád Academy’s gold medal, and the 1986 memorial medal from the Freedom Fighters Organization. According to Tibor Tollas  who was the great poet of the 1956 Uprising our program was the best for the 30th anniversary because for the first time it was in English. We did not tell our stories to each other, but to Americans. We performed the oral history drama four times at the Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium (500 capacity). The Vancouver Theater in Canada produced it in Hungarian and also brought it down to Seattle. 

My next book was a very  important translation from Hungarian into English: a true story of the psychological manipulations before the show trials in Communist prisons. The book was Ernest Töttösy’s Mind Twisters (Téboly). 

I wrote the first volume of my latest book in two years. This second one took five years, but it described a much longer time period. The most difficult part to write about was my dear husband’s death. 

All my books, except for the Hungarian books can be ordered from Amazon in paperback or in Kindle format. My last book’s title in Hungarian: “Szökevényből konzul: óceánon innen, vasfüggönyön túl” will be available from me, as soon as it will arrive from Hungary. As mentioned before, the last book From Refugee to Consul: An American Adventure includes the history of HAAW from the beginning and the establishment and founding of the Consulate. Many will recognize themselves in the book. Happy reading!

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