Merry CHRISTmas (with a true tale from the land of Hungary)

Some of my absolute favorite Christmas stories interestingly enough involve escape from communism. I thought I would share another one by way of Happy Holidays to you. May you be blessed this Christmas and always.

From Catholic Digest Christmas Book Edited By: Father Kenneth Ryan Published in the Year Of Our Lord 1977.

Page 155

silentroses etsy small gold cross

THE ANGEL SONG

my little cross on a chain was the most valid of my passports

By: Janos Varkonyi

In December. 1956, I, like the other Budapest University students, was on the job clearing the streets of the rubble left by the October revolution.

Many of the students I had led in the fight on the rooftops already had escaped across the border. But some of us ignored the danger and stayed. We still expected UN intervention. Why else would the communists want the district to look orderly? If Dag Hammerskjold should come, he would need witnesses for the Hungarians.

Dag Hammarskjold the Swede

Dag Hammarskjold the Swede

We worked so slowly that two days before Christmas ample evidence of the paving-block barricades remained. The buildings still spilled their ruins through gutted walls onto the sidewalks.

Around 3:00 P.M. a tough-looking student came by motorcycle to the area where I worked. “Varkonyi, they’ve been to the college looking for you. You’re on the list.”

So here it was: my final choice–death or Siberia. I’d get my submachine gun–Russky guitar, we called it–and mow down as many as I could when they came to get me. My friend must have read my thoughts.

“Take my motorcycle and get to the border before the list does. The holidays will slow things,” he said.

I stood there debating.

“Under the seat is a gun.” He handed me a Red Cross arm band, a stamped identification paper, and a gas ration card. “Fill in your name. Head for the border, and don’t go to the college.”

He hesitated a moment, then he pushed back the neck of his sweater and unfastened a gold chain and cross. I looked away, embarrassed for him and astonished that a person who looked so tough could still be religious. I had discarded my cross shortly after my mother died and the communists took charge of me.

“Take this memento.” He thrust it into my hand. “I know you are not religious.”

“I was once,” I muttered. I shoved the cross deep into my pocket, and started the motorcycle.

Just outside Budapest on the road to Gyor a Russian tank, its gun turned toward the traffic, blocked my way. I stopped. The guard, bundled in a dirty gray coat, slung his submachine gun over his shoulder and asked for my papers. He pretended to read the identification although I doubted he knew Hungarian. He studied my arm band, then returned all my papers, and waved me on.

1956 The Streets of Budapest, Hungary after the October Uprising by Budapest University students (among others), Soviet soldier and tank

1956 The Streets of Budapest, Hungary after the October Uprising by Budapest University students (among others), Soviet soldier and tank

Getting past the Russian tank gave me little assurance that I could escape across the border. The tight squeeze would be slipping through the twenty-five mile border zone.

By sundown the fallen snow began to freeze, and the cold wind whipped through my jacket. To keep my hands from freezing I rode with one in my pocket. Even then, my fingers were almost too cold to hold the handlebars.

I concentrated on the houses along the road. The windows poured beacons of light into the darkness. I thought of that last Christmas with my family before the communists came. I could almost hear the fire crackle warmly while I waited for the angel to come.

In Hungary, it was not Santa but the angel who came. Children lighted candles in the window and waited for the bells to chime out. Then they sang:

“From Heaven the angel descended

To bring you the news.”

I used to rush out into the snow, barefoot and in my bed clothes, I was so excited. But the angel no longer came to Hungary. Few people still dared to light candles in the windows on what was now Pine Celebration day. I hummed the song and felt strangely warmer.

U.S.S.R. territories iron curtain of oppression

U.S.S.R. territories iron curtain of oppression

europe_map Hungary hotelonlinehungary com

Notice Austria (“Aust.” to the left of Hungary) was not labelled in the above map. It was free after World War II, not enslaved to Stalin’s brutality or failed communist policies.

Gyor Hungary Central Europe Map chrisinbrnocr blogspot com

When I stopped for gas in Gyor, the man wiped his greasy hand on his overalls and reached toward me. “Your gas ticket,” he demanded gruffly.

I pulled the ticket from my pocket, horrified to find the chain tangled around it. The man watched intently while I freed the card.

“Keep your ticket. How many liters do you want?” The unexpected kindness in his voice encouraged me to ask for more help.

“Five please. How far to the border zone?”

“Twelve kilometers past Gyor. But only people who live there or have special permits can enter,” he warned. I had no future in going back, nothing further to risk by going on. I shrugged and started the motor.

Note Gyor's proximity to Sopron. Sopron is the border zone city that is important in a moment...read on

Note Gyor’s proximity to Sopron. Sopron is the border zone city that is important in a moment…read on

“Isten vele,” he said. His soft “God be with you” took some of the chill from the night.

At the border zone I saw the flashlight but did not stop until it waved violently and moved in front of me. “Trying to run the border zone!” the burly guard shouted while the other one pointed his Russky guitar at me.

The sight of the green Hungarian uniform fired my imagination. “I didn’t know this was the border zone.”

“State your business.”

“The Soviet commander of Buda, Tovarish Umersky, is ill and wants his old friend Dr. Forr from Sopon to operate. I am to bring the doctor.” I handed him my Red Cross identification, amazed my hand was so steady.

“No border zone permit?”

“There was no time.” I stuffed my hand into my pocket.

“You speak Russian?”

I answered in Russian.

They conferred for a eternity. I could easily have shot them, but the fingers which should have reached for my gun was holding the cross. Finally one spoke. “We do not believe your story, but the police at the border will stop you if you try to escape.”

I needed no urging, and left, oddly exhilarated. The border police, I knew had orders to capture or kill anyone trying to escape. Yet I felt no fear of death. I had seen too many die. But as I came closer to the Austrian border, the desire to live became more compelling. Beyond the border was freedom, and life might take on meaning.

Sopron, Hungary main square planetware com

In Sopron, the deserted streets warned me that it was past curfew and dangerous to ride through the city. Then I heard a vehicle behind me. I turned into a side street, expecting to hear shots any moment. I left the motorcycle on the sidewalk and raced up some wide steps toward the nearest building. Not until I saw the dim light glowing and then the altar did I realize I was in a church.

Although I had not been in a church for years, I instinctively blessed myself. I knelt and tried to say the Rosary on my fingers. My mind would not furnish the words. Embarrassed, I gave up.

My eyes, now accustomed to the dim light, made out the creche. The Christmas my father went to war, my mother and I lighted our candles at the Nativity scene in church, then knelt and prayed that he would return to us alive. My father never came back, and my mother died , too. Prayers seemed to me wasted efforts. I closed my eyes and fell into a exhausted sleep.

I awoke at dawn. Again, I knelt and tried to pray. The words would not come. I escaped into the foggy morning.

I found my motorcycle where I had deserted it and rode to the nearest gas station.

The man’s mustache stood out straight. “You need gas?”

“No, information,” I said, “in exchange for my motorcycle.”

“You trying to get across?”

I nodded, taking the gun from under the seat and stuffing it in my belt.

“The fog will help,” he assured me. “Go through the fields instead of the woods. If you hear many dogs, that is a Austrian village. If you hear one dog, that’s the patrol. There is some barbed wire and maybe some mines.” He handed me pliers. “Avoid the watch towers. The walk takes two to two and a half hours.”

I hurried toward the border. Only once did I stop and look back at Hungary, wrapped in fog and communism. My throat tightened. I could hardly swallow the tears. I took one final look at my country and walked on. Very soon I would know if I would escape or die.

For the next two hours, I moved steadily westward, where I heard shooting and dogs. Then suddenly the dogs seemed to bark behind me. I was moving in the wrong direction! I altered my course and kept changing it, trying to put the barks ahead of me. Eventually I lost all sense of direction in the thickening fog.

The dog leaped on me and knocked me down in the snow. He held me there until two figures emerged form the fog. They ordered the dog back and pointed two machine guns at my stomach. “Stand up.”

I stood up. One held the gun while the other took my possessions and stuffed them in the big pockets of his coat. The cross seemed to cling to his rough hand.

“Take him to the guard station,” the one with the gun ordered. “I’ll go back to the watch tower.”

Klingenbach, Austria border town with Sopron, Hungary from baks449 blogspot com

Border town Kligenbach, Austria in winter

Through patches of clearing fog, I could see the border I would never cross. Freedom was only a few feet away.

My guard nudged me in the back with his gun. “Move!” We walked along until until we reached a spot where the fog was very heavy. “Stop!” He dangled the cross close to my face. “Take it!”

He wanted to taunt me with the cross. I took it.

“Remember the song the little ones sing to the angel when the bells chime?” He chanted the song in a off-key fashion. “Sing it.”

When we finished he seemed to be listening for something. “Each Christmas Eve, I think I hear the bells chime and the laughter of children. I tell nobody, but you can understand.”

“In a minute, I shoot in the air. You run fast,” he directed. “Help little ones to sing the ‘Angel Song.'”

The gun exploded behind me. I ran as I had never run in my life. The cold air knifed through my lungs, and the cross cut into my hand. I did not stop until I was safely in Austria, alive and free. I fastened the chain around my neck and fell on my knees. Prayers I had not used in years found my lips. It was as if I had been born again.

The years stretch out since that eventful Christmas Eve, but I will not forget or cease to hope. Each Christmas I pray that my friend in the border police may again hear children sing the “Angel Song.”

If you enjoyed this, I highly recommend one of my favorite books, Reader’s Digest’s True Stories of Great Escapes. I loved it as a kid and to this day I think it is one of the best books on the indomitable human spirit ever published. Very exhilarating, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny, all awesomeness.

To all a holy, silent, good night.

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