by Adriana Janovich
Helen Szablya’s recent memoir details her escape from Communism in her native Hungary, her time at Washington State University, and then her roles as an Honorary Consul to Hungary.
Szablya and her family fled their home country of Hungary and its Communist regime in a harrowing journey under the cover of night in 1956.
They traveled to Austria, Canada, and then to Pullman, Washington, where Helen received a degree, her husband John was an engineering professor, and they raised their family.
She tells the full story in the second volume of her memoir, From Refugee to Consul. Adriana Janovich, associate editor of Washington State Magazine, talked with her about the amazing journey and her experiences along the way.
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Now just imagine that you have to leave your home and never come back. What would you take with you? Think about who is going to go with you.
Helen Mary Szablya and her family fled their home country of Hungary and its Communist regime in a harrowing journey under the cover of night in 1956. They traveled to Austria, Canada, and then to Pullman, Washington, where Helen received a degree, her husband John was an engineering professor, and they raised their family.
Welcome to Viewscapes: stories from Washington State Magazine, connecting you to Washington State University, the state, and the world.
Helen tells the full story in the second volume of her memoir, From Refugee to Consul. Magazine associate editor Adriana Janovich talked with her about the amazing journey and her experiences along the way.
I am Helen Mary Szablya, the Honorary Consul General emeritus of Hungary in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It was the very first of the consuls, who were honorary consuls on the west coast and the very first woman. Honorary consuls are very different from real consuls, but also very similar to them. The main difference that we do not get paid, so we are allowed to do a lot of work. And that is what I’ve been doing as a consul.
But we escaped from Hungary. And that is the name of my book, From Refugee to Consul: An American Adventure. Now this is the second volume of our memoir, because the first one was called My Only Choice: Hungary 1942-1956. Now in that book, you will figure out why we wanted to escape from Hungary. Extreme left and extreme right are equally horrific. We tried both of them, so we can say from experience. And they are very powerful words when you say, it happened to me, because what can they tell you? It’s not true? Well, it must be true because you lived with it.
What were some of those experiences?
When we were in Hungary, the Germans first ran over Hungary twice, and occupied Hungary. Even though Hungary was fighting on the side of the Germans during the Second World War, they still had to occupy Hungary in order to try to deport the Jews and do all kinds of things that the Nazis wanted. So, I was 10 years old when the siege of Budapest happened, which was 52 days long. And we had no water, no electricity, no telephone, but we had very cold weather. And so we had snow. And that’s very good, because you can eat and drink, you know, and you can wash yourself with snow. You can do lots of things with snow.
The Soviets came in, and the Nazis left, but they left because I don’t think too many of them were left after the procedure was over when the Soviets were taking over. That was in 1948. And then they were trying to do the extreme left between ’45 and ’48. We were really hoping that we are going to have self-determination and we can have free elections. And we did have elections, but the elections were not to the communists’ liking and therefore they took over the government. And they had the Soviet machine guns.
That is why we really understand the Ukrainians and there are lots of Ukrainian refugees in Hungary. The problem is also that part of Ukraine used to be Hungary before and so there are minorities there, then, but not treating the Hungarian minorities very nicely. So there is a lot of controversy about that, but we are very much helping those who are trying to fight for their freedom, because that’s exactly what we were doing in 1956 when communism was so bad that people couldn’t tolerate it anymore.
And what was happening under communism?
Well, one of the things that was happening under communism was that they nationalized businesses, they nationalized the schools. Nobody could trust anyone, everybody was at the mercy of the government. And we have to remember that the more power we give to the government, the more we are going to be at their mercy. And in the end, you become helpless. There is nothing you can do, you have to do what the government wants you to do. In 1951, they started to deport people, just because they were not thinking as the communists and needed. In other words, we were insects, I guess. So we had to figure out something. My father had to escape before that. So he was already in Canada at the time, but we couldn’t go at the time. He still had his passport. We were afraid that we are going to be deported. So my mother and I have figured out what we are going to do. And I was already 16 so I could get married, and I got married, and my sisters got adopted by engineers and medical doctor. So my husband was an engineer. We should just make the family name disappear, because the petition orders would come that, let’s say, my grandfather’s name, and then everybody who lives with him. So in 49 hours, we got married. And three months later, we got engaged. And four months later, we really got married.
So by the time Hungary revolution came about in 1956, I was expecting my third baby, we were at the university, my husband was a professor and I was a student. So we were there when the revolution broke out. We were with a crowd. First, they took the children home from the nursery school, not home, but to my mother’s place. And we went to the Parliament because we wanted to show our solidarity with revolution. It was not a revolution. It was a peaceful protest, to help the Polish workers who are just having a strike. So we were trying to help them. But then when we got to the radio building, and they wanted to read the 16 points that we came up with, then the shooting started.
And what did you do?
How very luckily, just before that started, we went home with the children. That was the last bus that left Budapest to where we lived, we lived about half an hour bus ride away from there. One of our children was born during that revolution. It was a very interesting revolution, because it was the very first one that where people were trying to revolt against the Soviet Union, basically. And then suddenly, they have like, that huge country against them. But the Soviets didn’t really know what in the world to do. At first, we were fighting. And they were constantly saying that they are going to let people go if they just put down their guns. And, of course, we didn’t have any guns. When they started shooting, we were throwing bricks and things like that, because there wasn’t anything else. But then the Army gave us their guns. And really, everybody in Hungary was for the revolution. There was not one person not even that come in. It’s so sad that they did not want it. They wanted the Soviets to leave, and then have fair elections. That was wonderful to have that country. So united. We all know that what happened was that the Soviets came back and crash the revolution after four glorious days of freedom. During those four glorious days are free. We had 28 newspapers come out. We had all the parties that organized, and we went through the city because we wanted to see what’s going on. It was dangerous, but we tried to be careful if there was shooting within go in that street.
So then a baby was born on November 15th. We were trying to escape because by that time, we saw everybody in Hungary that really we can’t do anything about it. So, we didn’t exactly know what to do but my father did send somebody with a truck. That was our first attempt. At that time, the baby was 10 days old. And we had a two-and-a-half-year-old and a four-year-old. And we went towards the border, but we couldn’t reach the border. So they sent us back. So we went down a different route, and ran into a Soviet tank. It took us into a police station, where they had one room that was heated, and that’s where they put all the kids and the people who had kids. After that, they took us back to Budapest. And then we started out again, because we didn’t want to give up because we knew that our background was such that we cannot succeed in that country.
How did your family make it across the border?
We weren’t thinking of what in the world we could do. And finally, we made ourselves papers at the university, my husband was a professor. And he had access to the papers. So he gave himself an order to go to the border. There was a university, a forestry university, that he should take over the department there because people escaped. We didn’t know if that was true. But people who knew said that they will accept you. So we just made it. And I translated that into Russian because by that time, everybody in Hungary had to learn Russian. When I was in high school, they switched to Russian. Expelled all the foreign languages, they switched them to Russian, that time we made but it was a long, long, long trip. Because when we got to the border, we had to wait two and a half days, and keep the baby quiet. And all the other kids quiet because we were staying at the retired railroad people’s place there. Of course, if you had baby cry, then obviously I personally don’t know what person the mother would have noticed.
After two and a half days when our landlord went out to arrange with the guards and how we are going to escape. He came back to get us and we went after him. We would follow him in the forest. It was really scary. Because we didn’t know if we were going to get caught again. We got to the border. When it’s safe to go across the border when the guards are having their change. That’s when you can cross. And we walked and walked and all together, we walked some 10 miles. It was three weeks after the baby was born. And the kids had to be carried, of course. And so we went across. Suddenly, my husband was over there already. And I was just getting after him. And I’ve felt like I was going to throw away my coat. I was hot. I fell a few times. And finally we, well, I was just running the last few steps. And I got over into his arms and our daughter just hugged our knees because she was so happy that well she was so happy because we are crying. So she was crying too, you know, she was just, for it was like heaven, because suddenly we were free. And this is where the first book ends. And this is where the second book starts.
My only choice was God and freedom. Now just imagine that you have to leave your home and never come back. What would you take with you? Think about who is going to go with you. Because you may want to throw away everything that you are carrying, and carry that person.
So when we arrived we had six diapers and three kids. That’s all we had, but we were free. It was a fantastic feeling. It was wonderful. And the Austrians were just great. They were right there and they called us and they gave us food and drink and we were just celebrating because that was the night when 130,000 refugee came across the border. And they were still that enthusiastic that every night. They cooked and baked and did everything to welcome all those people, because they knew what it was like to be under the Soviets. It was just one year before that they were still under the Soviets. And we figured out that, that university, they really needed us because we spoke English, and they didn’t. And they wanted to get settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is obviously English speaking. So they need us to go there.
It was a fantastic experience, of course, and we went through the Atlantic Ocean in a worst storm. It went way above our cruise ship. We arrived in the middle of the strike. And it meant that we had to spend 10 days in the immigration building that is built for two or three people were deported.
What was it like in Canada?
Everything was so very different than we thought it would be. You know, we were thinking about New York, that skyline. And we saw little gingerbread houses because we arrived in St. John, New Brunswick. Everything was frozen. And now Halifax was frozen. And so they just could land us in St. John. And the Canadian hospitality is out of this world. They didn’t expect us and we had everything that they could give us.
It was a difficult thing for us to make people understand that communism is as bad as Nazis, because what they had to realize suddenly that they were fighting on the side of communism. And that was difficult because Stalin was Uncle Joe for them. And in the Faculty Club, we saw Soviet uniforms. It was very frightening. Because it was the army something that came to visit UBC. But it was very frightening for us.
There’s that culture shock, but then there’s also coming to Pullman from British Columbia. And this is really where the kids really grew up. And so it’s a special place, I think, for your family because you lived here a long time. And John worked at WSU and you went back to school at WSU, making lots of friends here and starting to write here.
Yes. I didn’t dare to write until I knew that my sister was safe. My sister escaped through Ethiopia. That’s a different story. But they did make it out. So that’s when I started to write.
We met the head of research, Dr. Greenfield at WSU. In Seattle, there was a conference, and we became very good friends. And we started to talk and that maybe we would like to come to WSU. And then the invitation came. And of course, it was terrible to think about it to leave Vancouver. It was decided in the end. We couldn’t say yes. But we couldn’t say no either.
Because so many opportunities. John was in power engineering. And they were going to build a big lab. And that’s what they were planning, right that they could use the whole power of Grand Coulee. Well, we just couldn’t say no. So we arrived at Pullman. And the university had 8,000 students at that time, but it went up to 16,000. University of Washington was really full. And so they wanted to put more into WSU and all the other universities and make them bigger, and they certainly became bigger.
It was very interesting to come to a little village, practically. But it was a fantastic place it because of the people who lived here. And what was really the culture shock for us whether it was in Vancouver or here, we had to realize what the big differences were with Europe. One of them was that the value of work is much bigger than the value of material in the US and in Canada. The do it yourself, it was just something I wasn’t very happy about, but you know, because we had to, from the very beginning, do it ourselves. I mean, we had to paint our university housing unit that we got, we had to paint it ourselves. We could have paid somebody but we didn’t have any money.
And then what was interesting is how people were self-starters with everything. They wanted a swimming pool, let’s say, then they would get together and do a fundraiser and get a swimming pool. Or they wanted to fix the sidewalks. Well, everybody went out and fix the sidewalks. It wasn’t just that, I’m going to ask the government, I’m going to ask the city, I’m going to ask for money. No, they did it all themselves. And that was very different to and, and wonderful.
And education was different in a way because you memorized everything in Europe, there was a way to educate people. But here it was research, the teachers would go, even in kindergarten, tell the kids that “Well, I don’t know, let’s see how we can find out,” showing them how to do the research to find out for themselves.
We had all those wonderful symphony Orchestras, four or five of them in the region. I don’t know if they still have that. But because of all the faculty spouses, there were so many of us, and we didn’t have any jobs. But we could do a lot of things because we didn’t have any jobs. And that really made life so much better. Actually, we were very busy doing all kinds of wonderful things. A lot of us went back to school to get a diploma. I had a degree in sales and marketing management from the University of British Columbia. But when I saw that the employment, I could get a degree for things that I knew already. But I didn’t have a degree because I grew up as a rich girl who was given lessons in all kinds of languages. And so then I went ahead and went back to WSU, and I got my diploma. The year I became a grandmother: 1976. But I was also senior at the same time with my daughter, Helen Alexandra. And they mixed up our credits. We had to straighten out registration. [laughing]
How was raising kids in Pullman?
It was a wonderful place to bring up all the kids. The neighbors would call you if they were in a place where they were not supposed to be. You know, we were watching out for each other’s yard. And when they were small, we lived in the Statesman Apartments at first. And if one of the kids tried to climb over the fence to the swimming pool, then any parent was authorized to spank them, because it was dangerous for them to get in. Now, after 19 years, there was a big crisis and suddenly professors could retire. And that’s what we did at the time. John was only 58. But he had 19 years at the university so he could retire. That is how we came to Seattle because at the same time, he was invited to be a consultant here. And immediately as he arrived here, the University of Washington asked him to come back and teach. So he did both of them.
Talk about starting to write your memoirs, and when it felt safe, and when you kind of would take time to yourself to put your story down. When the kids were at school and doing writing when you could grab the time.
Yes. Well, I started writing and my first published article was in 1967. And then I didn’t go to school yet. I mean, I was at home with the kids. But whenever I’ve felt really passionate about something, then I would write right away. And a lot of them were articles for Hungary’s freedom, and then also about parenting and about our experiences. And I was pretty successful for being a nobody, nobody and English being my sixth language. So, it was not my sixth, it was the fourth that I started learning. But it was six in a way that I knew the least when we came here, but I already was interpreting and translating them. to but that one was in the Our Sunday Visitor which had, which came out in half a million copies. So, and that was the first so that was very special. I think I ended up with about 700 articles and lots of them got awards. I started to write our story, but I always wanted to do in ’76 when I graduated, and in ’77, I started to write the book. And every morning when the kids went out, I started writing, and then I wrote until they came home. You cannot concentrate on writing to the point where if the doorbell rang, I thought that I was, I didn’t know where I was at first. I have to realize whether I’m not in Hungary right now I’m somewhere else.
It was wonderful. Those hours were just wonderful. At first, I thought maybe four hours a day. But in the end, I ended up writing all the time when the kids were not there. And then when I finished the book, we also went to two sabbaticals. one to Trinidad and one to Germany. And that was a really interesting experience too. And of course, I was writing there too.
Let’s skip ahead a little bit and talk about becoming the consul and some of your most favorite projects that you worked on in that role, or some of the responsibilities or things that you did in that role that you are most proud of.
First of all, Hungary suddenly became free. And it really was kind of sudden. In 1989 we went to a conference in Cleveland, there we found out that Hungary declared that they are not the People’s Republic anymore, but the Republic, and that next March, they had free elections. And we couldn’t go back and didn’t want to go back until then. But then when it was time, then we went back. I mean, I went back, John didn’t have any more holidays. So, I went by myself, because I wanted to know if we can get anything back from our businesses. You know, we had the chain of drugstores and we were manufacturing.
I went back, and it was terrible. It was terrible to see what was going on. Because right after an 1945, Hungary, when it thought that it was going to be free, then they started to work, really, very hard work. Because everybody thought they will have their whatever they are working on. Everything was in shambles. In ’48, Hungary was way ahead of Paris or Vienna. And I know that because we went on a business trip and my parents took me already because I was supposed to take over the business. There were only three girls and I was the oldest. So, I went with them. And it was, well Hungary was the place to be. Now when I went back, after, you know, seeing what is in Western Europe, it was just you could cut the air with a knife, it was black. And it just was like an iron fist around my heart because I just couldn’t imagine how they could ruin that country to the extent they did by not taking care of it, by not maintaining anything. It wasn’t maintained because it was taken over into socialist protection or whatever everybody was supposed to. To take care of it. Yeah. But nobody did because it was nationalized.
It must have been quite a shock.
Oh, it was, yes. And during the whole time while I was there, I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy. Nothing in the shop windows.
But on later trips, after that first trip, and then you came back another time and you came back another time, you watched it change and what was that? Because the first time was pretty shocking. But you watched progress be made.
Yes. And I was a part of that progress, because right away, I wanted to help him do something about it. When I came back next year with my husband, it was 1,000 percent better. Because the Hungarians, they have very good brains, lots of Nobel Prize winners, they just learned very fast what they should do. And they tried to imitate what worked in other places. But every year we went back, it was always better and better and better. Immediately, my husband and I were thinking about what we could do. The first thing I did was I started the newsletter, Hungary International, to explain to American businesspeople how to do business in Hungary.
While we were talking with the embassy officials, and we realized that a consulate would be good. And so we started pushing for it. It has to be approved by the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And first the location and then the person. And that took us two and a half years, but we did it and it was wonderful. And lots of people helped us like Bruce Chapman who was Secretary of State here and Ralph Munro. And you know, all the Secretaries of State were on our committee that Bruce Chapman started the Friends of the Hungarian Consulate. And so they were pushing it through; Slade Gorton was the one who pushed it through the State Department in two and a half weeks. That was a wonderful thing.
First, they had to have a consulate in Los Angeles, a paid one because otherwise they could well, they never had a consulate, paid or non-aid on the west coast. So Los Angeles started in ’92. And we started in ’93. We started first with a chamber of commerce. Seattle and Pécs became sister cities. And then the consulate happened. And of course, the ambassador was here. And so I was the first one. But my twin, Honorary Consul in San Francisco was the next one in 24 hours, and she was a woman. So that means that you are representing the country, from the dinner with the governor to collect cards from jail. If somebody commits suicide, they called the consul, even before they let the family read the letter, the consul has to read it. And then sometimes there are people who would die who, they just figured out that they are Hungarian, or they tried to find their families. That was one who left $2 million to somebody in Hungary. And he was a worker, but he didn’t spend his money. And he was working at I think in Hanford or someplace where they paid them well and so we had to find that, that time, we didn’t have to find the paper, we just had to tell them that they died. So there were some difficult things, but also some glorious things.
We had five world conferences of honorary consuls where they were trying to tell us everything that we should know and where we should go and what we should do and it’s a special place being an honorary consul because you are not paid, first of all. So because you are not paid you can do whatever you want. They tell you that you should be a little ambassador. Therefore if publicity is needed, if they want more tourism, if it’s culture, if it’s a big theatre company that’s coming, you have to do PR for them. You just do everything without any help because there is nobody unless you pay that person. Oh, I had interns, and that was very nice, too. It’s a wonderful feeling. But it’s almost like being the mother of the Hungarian community. Because people are coming with all kinds of things and with photos. What do you think? What kind of a uniform is that? And how could I find out about that grandfather?
You were doing this work all out of your home office? They didn’t give you money or a stipend or an office someplace?
No, no, no, you have to pay your own way. And, and then you had to charge you know, certain fees, but you had to account for it to the consulate. And if there was anything left and you had to send it back.
Was your family ever able to recoup any of their property or money or things that were taken from them when the Soviets came?
No, Hungary decided not to give it back to people, even though the other Eastern European countries, they did give it back to the original owners. And I think it would have been a much better idea for them to do that. They get some compensation. But the compensation was something. You know, we didn’t have any money after they took everything, and connection as well. The connections were deported, they put in jail.
And when you say deported, you mean, like deported to like Siberia, right to a gulag or something, something like that.
It wasn’t Siberia. No, this was different deputation in 1951. They were trying to get rid of all the people who would talk to tourists, or would give information to anybody, or who just were not communist. You know, and so when especially if they wanted a certain apartment, and a person lived in that apartment, and then they would just deport them because they wanted their part.
So where did they send them?
They did send them in cattle cars, you know, just like they did with the Jewish people, and they didn’t know where they are going to take them. And oh, it didn’t matter if you were Jewish or not. If you were Jewish, you were deported just as well.
So where did people get sent?
They got sent to little barriers, and put into houses of rich peasants. Well, rich peasant, it’s 40 acres of land for wheat or 15, for everything. Then they would put it in the most in a most inconvenient place for the peasant, usually not in the middle of his house, but his pigsty. Then they could move around one-and-a-half-mile circle within that, but they couldn’t move out, no matter what happened. It didn’t matter if they were sick or anything. They couldn’t move out of there. They had special camps for people who were very special, like one of our ambassadors, was deported to that camp when he was like four or five years old. They were surrounded by barbed wire and everything. So, those were the worst ones. Now there is a book called Banished Families by Zsuzsa Hantó. In that one, she wrote down the stories, and not just the stories, but also has a CD in it with the names of all the people who were deported from Budapest. And then they were not allowed to ever come back to their home when everything was taken.
It’s amazing to me the story in the book about you getting to be reunited with those paintings.
Yes, we were reunited with a lot of the paintings because our parents came later. Well, my father was already here, but my mother also came and she brought out my grandparents’ paintings. Many other paintings came out with John’s parents who were artists and so they brought a lot of paintings with them, and now they are the connections work because they knew the people who were evaluating the pictures. And so they just said it’s a positive application. That’s how they could bring it out.
You’ve written these very thorough volumes for your kids and your grandkids and your great grandkids but really anybody with an interest at all. What do you hope people remember about your life story or remember from the book?
That freedom is very important, and you have to do everything in order to remain free. Whether it’s extreme right or extreme left, it’s equally horrible. And when they take everything from you, what you have left is love and your knowledge and your memories.