Thanksgiving has always been my very favorite holiday …. and also my saddest one. Thanksgiving, 1994 was the day before my father died, unexpectedly, during emergency heart bypass surgery.
As difficult as it is to lose a loved one during a holiday, it seemed fitting to me that he died during this one. He was a man who embraced life and was grateful for family and for freedom, to enjoy the daily joys and sorrows of life. You see, he lived through a terrible part of history, WWII, with eyes wide open and yet able to be grateful despite all that he saw and experienced.
His childhood and young adulthood were completely defined by the two World Wars, as he lived in the midst of war ravaged Europe. He was raised by his grandmother in a small rural village in eastern Hungary, while his mother served as a nurse on the Front during World War I. His father disappeared in Siberia.
Food was scarce, school very limited.
As a young man he became an officer in the Hungarian Army and carried out many daring missions in Russia during the early part of World War II. The 70 man special forces ski unit that he led returned with only 13 survivors. He fought along the Don River in one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. Again he was one of 3 out of a company of 100 men who survived not just the fighting but also the brutal Russian winter. I remember he once said that there were many situations from which he walked away in which he had no right to be alive.
I think he had extremely busy guardian angels!
Later, as the Nazis took over Hungary, he risked his life countless times to deliver food, medicine and clothing to the Jewish “Safe Houses”. Later, when there were no more safe places for Jews, he forged fake birth certificates for them, hid families and smuggled people along a network of hiding places into Allied territory.
Among his papers I found letters of gratitude and commendation from Czech and Polish families and organizations, along with recognitions for bravery and valor from the military. When the Communists took over Hungary, the Nazi reign of terror ended, but was replaced by a different kind of oppression.
Rather than take an oath of allegiance to the Communist Party after the 1956 Uprising, my father risked life and material security to flee to the west. By then he and my mother were married and I was a toddler, my mother pregnant with my little sister.
My parents left behind family and all their worldly possessions and fled into the unknown.
Part of the journey took place in the belly of a milk truck, part by train and the rest on foot, across a heavily patrolled field of barbed wire, through a freezing river, in early November. We arrived at a Red Cross refugee camp in Austria, exhausted. After spending a few months in Austria my family came to the United States, the only destination where my father felt safe. I remember him saying that he wanted an ocean between our family and the unstable politics of Europe.
Throughout those very difficult early years of life in the US, my parents expre