For two families, 1956 crises led to a secure life in America


BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The first came to America with parents, delivered via U.S. Army transport plane. The other arrived alone, six months later, aboard an ocean liner.

My mother and father were refugees from different lands. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the simultaneous Cold War events that spurred their journey to freedom.

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October 1956: The Hungarian Revolution. The Suez Canal Crisis.

“It was the most crucial month of the most crucial year, the most dramatic time in the entire history of the Cold War,” historian John Lukacs wrote a decade later in “A New History of the Cold War.”

As the world confronts a nuclear North Korea and nuclear-aspiring Iran, the 50-year anniversary reminds us of the world’s first nuclear showdown. Coming at the height of the nuclear-arms race, the Hungary-Suez entanglement sparked the first Soviet threat to attack the West with what Nikita Khrushchev called “rocket weapons.”

The American reluctance to intervene in Hungary — after encouraging Hungarians to rise up against their Stalinist oppressors — also was a turning point in U.S.-USSR relations, signaling to the Soviets that their grip on half of Europe would go unchallenged.

Meanwhile, the British-French maneuver against Soviet-friendly Egypt to reclaim the Suez Canal — in concert with Israel, but without U.S. support — almost shattered the NATO military alliance. With London and Paris ultimately forced to climb down, the Suez adventure drove the final nail in the British imperial coffin.

For me, October 1956 was a pivotal time in my parents’ teenage lives — though they would actually meet only a decade later, as newly minted U.S. citizens in Philadelphia.

Dad was born and raised in Budapest; Mom in Alexandria, Egypt. Growing up, I delighted in telling classmates I was half-Hungarian and half-Egyptian — emphasizing it with an awkward, Steve Martin-esque King Tut wobble.

Only later did I realize that my mother’s family held Egyptian citizenship but weren’t “Egyptian Jews” — that is, indigenous to the ancient Jewish community there. No, mine were Ashkenazim who had migrated southward from pogrom-afflicted Odessa, in Ukraine.

Yet in exploring how my parents landed on these shores, I now appreciate that theirs is not just a story of the 20th century. It’s a classically Jewish story: persecution, trauma, flight — and, ultimately, survival. The trials of both families also open a window into two unusual Diaspora communities.

Curiously, I don’t recall any of my four grandparents regaling me with tales of the Old Country. Nor did my parents speak to me or my sister in their mother tongues.

Dad’s family Americanized their names: Grandma Lenke became Linda; my father, Ferenc, switched to Frank; and his brother, Endre Istvan — known as “Pityu” — was reinvented as Andrew Stephen.

They were grateful to the United States for taking them in, and they embraced assimilation and hoped to raise full-fledged Americans, unsaddled with the baggage of the past.

Still, a certain Hungarian-ness hung in the air: My father, uncle and grandparents would chat in Hungarian, reminiscing about the Jordan family flour mill, bequeathed to grandpa Geza and his seven siblings. About the cafe downstairs from Dad’s childhood apartment in Budapest, where they could only afford the second espresso press of coffee grinds. Or about my father’s favorite treat: goose liver in its own fat, smeared on thick bread, topped by slices of onion and sweet yellow paprika.

By contrast, Mom’s family, dominated by her mother, was more tight-lipped.

“I remember she would always say, ‘Qui se rappelle? — Who remembers?’ She just didn’t dwell on the past,” Mom told me recently about my grandmother. “Maybe she didn’t remember, or didn’t want to remember. Of course, a lot of things from her past were painful.”

Only as a young adult would I begin to comprehend what befell both families.

My education began when I moved to Hungary in 1993. I was motivated by the journalistic challenge, only secondarily by my roots there.

Talk of the Holocaust had been suppressed under communism, but the system’s collapse tore the lid off ugly truths. The genocide came to life as I tracked efforts across Eastern Europe to recover stolen assets and hunt Nazis. Observing elderly Hungarians on the street, I found myself wondering, “What did you do during the war?”

My own family lived on Hungarian territory for at least 200 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Hungary’s emancipated Jews enjoyed a golden era as an integral part of the country’s economic, cultural and intellectual life.

My grandfather, Geza, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, but was also the family’s black sheep: While the family mill flourished in the provincial town of Mezokovesd, he struck out for Budapest.

Though he struggled in business, that decision would spare his family’s life. Not long after the Germans entered Hungary on March 19, 1944, the Hungarians collaborated to rapidly cleanse the countryside of Jews. I located the names of two of Geza’s brothers, Viktor and Jeno, inscribed in the Hungarian exhibit at Auschwitz. At some point Geza escaped from forced labor and returned to Budapest, only to learn that his wife and countless more Jewish women had been collected at a brick factory north of the city. He tracked Lenke down and somehow sprang her free. The other women were deported to concentration camps.

Later, my grandparents, father — 3 years old at the time — and Pityu, 8, were admitted to a nearby Swiss-protected house, a block from the Danube River. Jews slept 30 to a room on mattresses spread across the floor.

One day, according to family lore, a stray bullet whizzed past my father’s head, killing a woman in the room as she napped. But he survived.

“Which is why,” Dad explains, “when all this dirt came out about Swiss banks having stolen Jewish accounts, remember I told you, ‘Well, they certainly saved us.’ “

The extended family had no such luck. Roughly 560,000 of 825,000 Hungarian Jews perished, and my family reflected the toll: Of eight siblings, only Geza and one sister survived. Lenke and a brother remained, but lost three siblings, a stepsister and their mother, the latter two to the gas chambers. Including spouses and children, some three dozen close relatives were killed.

Nevertheless, my quartet stayed in Hungary. Why, I’ve wondered.

“My parents had fear of the unknown,” Dad says. “Plus, they couldn’t even fathom how incredibly repressive the regime would become.”

As the Iron Curtain encircled Eastern Europe, the Jews of Egypt had their own troubles.

My maternal grandparents had already experienced upheaval. My grandfather, Shaya David Schechter, was born in a heavily Jewish Odessa that was wracked by recurring pogroms.

Zayda was abandoned by his father as a boy; his mother and grandmother later moved him to British-controlled Egypt, perhaps because they had a relative there. As a young adult — now renamed “Charles” in mostly French-speaking Alexandria — he pursued work and education in France with his mother and grandmother. He mastered stenography and shorthand and dreamed of law school, but couldn’t afford it.

In the mid-1920s, as Zayda noted in “The Stowaway,” the autobiography he wrote for the family, he was caught en route to Palestine and stayed in bustling Beirut for two years. From there he returned to his family in Alexandria and married my grandmother, Fanny, in 1930.

Fanny Weinstein — Bubba to us — tasted refugeehood at a young age.

Her family had roots in Odessa’s environs. Fleeing the forced military conscription required of Jewish men, they decamped some time in the 19th century for Smyrna, today the Turkish coastal city of Izmir. They were a family of hat makers.

When Greek forces seized control of Smyrna in 1919, Bubba was probably 9. On Sept. 9, 1922, Turkish troops recaptured the city.

Four days later, flames engulfed Smyrna. The events of 1922 — coupled with worries that the Turks would draft two of Bubba’s older brothers — drove out her family of nine, including seven children.

They went to Alexandria. Egypt then was a safe haven for Jews fleeing communities around the Mediterranean rim, and one of Bubba’s brothers had already settled there.

A thriving port city, Alexandria was an eclectic mix of nationalities, especially European. My grandparents were conversant in French, English, Yiddish, Arabic, Greek, Italian and Russian — and possibly Turkish and Hebrew.

Most Jews lived a comfortable life in Alexandria and figured prominently in business, including the leading export, cotton. My family, though, gave up hats to become glaziers.

Charles and Fanny had two children, David and Myriam, and their third, Rosy — my mother — was in utero when Nazi Gen. Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Corps advanced across North Africa in 1941.

His forces bombarded Alexandria, once marching within 30 miles of the city. My family would close the shutters and head for the shelter beneath their apartment building.

Rommel’s forces were finally defeated in November 1942 at the Battle of El Alamein by joint Australian, British, New Zealander and South African troops.

For my family, it was a close call.

“The Germans were so close that they were broadcasting to the Egyptian population, offering them liberation from British rule and asking for their help in identifying the residences of prominent Jews … promising them Jewish property would be theirs for the picking once the German army was in charge,” Egyptian-born researcher Racheline Barda wrote. “The Jewish population was panicking.”

By war’s end, my uncle, David, was coming of age. He became radicalized by the ideas of Zionism, communism and rebellion. He joined a local cell of the leftist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair and recalls that they sometimes secretly trained in the desert, using sticks.

In 1946, at age 15, David was admitted to King Farouk University, and soon participated in a student uprising against British rule. He also was angered that the British were turning away ships carrying Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine.

David and Myriam disagree on whether their parents knew of his troublemaking, but concerned by his disrupted schooling, they wanted him out of Egypt. To them, education and languages were paramount, because they were portable assets in turbulent times.

Zayda had a cousin in Philadelphia, but he opted to work his business connection with the Cincinnati-based William S. Merrell pharmaceutical company, for whom Zayda imported products to Egypt. In 1947, my grandparents bid David farewell, sending him to the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy. It would be a decade before they saw him again.

But it also was the crucial first step of my grandparents’ long-term plan: Have David get U.S. citizenship, then bring the rest of the family over.

Meanwhile, the situation grew worse for the 80,000 or so Jews in Egypt. As the Arab world went to war to annihilate the new State of Israel, state-controlled Arab media branded all Jews Zionists and sympathizers a virtual fifth column, and the government imposed new restrictions on Jews.

Once again, my family closed the shutters and cowered. Many Egyptian Jews fled, with most going to Israel.

My family members in Egypt learned to keep their heads down. In Hungary, my family did the same.

The early 1950s were the height of the Communist terror, with mass arrests, executions and show trials of Hungarians deemed enemies of the regime. Stalin also unfurled an anti-Zionist campaign across the region, tarring all Jews.

“It’s hard to believe how mean-spirited the Communist regime was,” Dad says. “The only difference between them and the Nazis was they didn’t systematically kill people, or in as great numbers.”

Stalin’s death in 1953 spawned modest reform of Moscow’s iron-fisted ways, but also impatient calls for more reform. In Budapest, the pressure cooker burst on Oct. 23, 1956. Protests in front of Hungary’s state-run radio turned bloody, quickly evolving into a national uprising, the first in the Eastern Bloc against Soviet rule.

Moscow’s patience didn’t last long. Soviet tanks let loose Nov. 4 and didn’t stop until the revolt was extinguished three days later. All told, an estimated 2,600 Hungarians were killed, with another 200 later executed for their role in the uprising.

To ease tension, Hungary opened its heavily guarded, land-mined Western border. Offered a second chance to flee, my family mobilized. Some 200,000 Hungarians streamed across the border, including an estimated 20,000 Jews.

On Dec. 2, Geza escorted Pityu, 20, by train to the border several hours away. They also decided that the rest of the family would try to make it to Vienna, then try to get a visa for my grandmother.

On Dec. 4, my father, who was 15, and my grandfather, then 59, rode to within 10 miles of the border. There, they and several others paid a local farmer to show them the way across between foreboding watchtowers. On a soggy, star-lit night, they trekked five hours.

“It was muddy as hell,” Dad recalls. “Can you imagine walking 10 miles in mud? My heels were bloody from my shoes slipping on and off.”

The final leg was a narrow, frigid river; Austrian border guards helped them across, one by one, in a dinghy.

But their bet paid off: Six months later, Lenke reunited with them in Vienna. A week after that, the U.S. Army airlifted them and other Hungarian refugees to the United States.

A form dug out for me by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped them settle in, documents the trio’s arrival on May 22, 1957.

For my mother’s family in Egypt, though, it was a waiting game.

My grandparents, anxious about Myriam as a fair-skinned young Jew in a country now inflamed with Arab nationalism, turned to a proven method: a student visa.

In September 1955, the family walked down to the harbor, and Charles and Fanny waved goodbye to a second child: David, by now in Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, would be joined by Myriam at the city’s Albert Einstein School of Nursing.

By 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser proved shrewd at playing America and the Soviets against each other. An Egyptian arms deal with Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia infuriated Washington, which backed out of an agreement to build the Aswan High Dam.

Nasser retaliated by nationalizing the Suez Canal, a key waterway to the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. At the same time, Cairo was supporting terrorist attacks against Israel emanating from Egyptian-controlled Gaza.

Israel, Britain and France joined forces against Nasser — with Israel launching the campaign Oct. 29, while the events in Hungary mesmerized the world.

The ensuing Suez crisis had severe repercussions for Egyptian Jews: As retribution for Israel’s role, Egypt expelled as many as 25,000 Jews and seized their property, and arrested another 1,000 Jews.

Still my family stuck to its plan, despite increasing restrictions on Jewish businesses, including the small import operation Zayda ran out of their apartment.

Within months, the plan bore fruit: David received U.S. citizenship, allowing him to bring family over.

The hitch was that the visa gave preference to spouses, children or parents, but not siblings. So what to do about my mother, who was only 15?

In February 1957 the family set sail, with a stop in France to drop off Rosy. For a third time, my grandparents separated from one of their children. With heavy hearts, they continued their oceanic journey to America, planning to send for Rosy later.

A HIAS record notes the Shechters’ arrival on March 7, two months before the Jordans.

My mother had an uncle in Paris, but he said his apartment was too cramped for his family of seven and had no room for her. A Jewish orphanage took her in.

Mom doesn’t have particularly bad memories of this period of her life; in fact, she has few memories at all — a possible result of the trauma inflicted.

“I’m sure it was an emotional time, us leaving each other, and they were upset by that — as any parent would be,” says my mother, who was reluctant to discuss it with me. “I’m sure they must have questioned whether it was the only course of action.”

The uncertainty of when she’d be reunited with her parents gnawed at her.

“The longer it took, the more concerned I was it may not happen,” she says, “or that it might take years.”

The green light came that winter. After eight months in the orphanage, Mom crossed the Atlantic alone. A third HIAS document lists her arrival in Philadelphia on Nov. 20, 1957.

Frank and Rosy would meet in March 1965, fixed up on a double date. They married later that year, and today have four grandchildren.

And here I am, half a century after their uprooting — remarkably, a member of the first generation in the family that was never forced to flee.

“So far,” my father notes, “and I hope you never have to.”

Thanks to my Hungarian wife, our two young sons have the security of holding both U.S. and Hungarian passports — the latter now good for the entire European Union.

Meanwhile, my grandmother’s words ring in my ears: “Who remembers?”

I do, Bubba. And I’ll see that my children and grandchildren do as well.