The Soviet army had crushed the revolution in a matter of days, causing 200,000 Hungarians to flee the country and 2,500 to die.
The Soviet army had crushed the revolution in a matter of days, causing 200,000 Hungarians to flee the country and 2,500 to die. Helen Szablya, today the honorary Hungarian consul who lives in Kenmore, was among them.
Married to John Szablya, an electrical engineering professor who was one of Hungary’s most prominent scientists, Helen had privileges others didn’t. But in 1956 Budapest, freedom wasn’t among them.
So during the panic after the collapse of the Hungarian Revolution that December, Helen, who had delivered her third child only days earlier, climbed aboard a truck with her husband, their infant son, toddler and 4-year-old daughter, and with 36 other refugees rode through the chilly rain toward the Austrian border.
They were caught and turned back. Later they tried again at night. They were met by a Soviet tank, and all those with children ordered into one room — the only one heated — where, beneath the light of one bare bulb, the story-telling began.
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Some had tried to escape by fording rivers and swamps, holding their children high above their heads. One child made it to Austria and looked back in horror to see his parents had been captured. Over and over Helen, now 73 and a widow, heard how the escapees came “so close” to freedom.
Escaping could bring a two- to three-year sentence of labor in a concentration camp, but once again they were sent home instead.
When they escaped for the third time, they had forged documents authorizing John Szablya to teach in Sopron. It made traveling there possible; an elderly guide then took the family into the hills on a moonless night and pointed toward the border where lights shown in the distance. The youngest two children drugged with sleeping pills and the 4-year-old in tow, the Szablyas ran 2 ½ miles until, exhausted, Helen fell. As she picked herself up, she felt fabric brush her hand; it was the Austrian flag.
The family would emigrate to Canada, and later to the United States. They would have four more children and John Szablya would join the faculty at Washington State University. They eventually became U.S. citizens, ensuring the freedom they struggled for would be theirs for the rest of their lives.