Today’s Sunday Snippet is from the MEMOIR/BIOGRAPHY/ROMANCE/TRUE STORY/WWII/HISTORY book called BITTERSWEET FREEDOM by author JUDITH BOGNAR BEAN. It was published in June 2019 and is available as a Softcover (ISBN 9781733179317), Hardcover (ISBN 9781733179300) and epub/Kindle/mobi (ISBN 9781733179324). The publisher is CARPTHIAN VALLEY BOOKS
Synopsis of BITTERSWEET FREEDOM by author JUDITH BOGNAR BEAN
The author recounts the Saga of her 1956 Hungarian Refugee family as a memoir and biography, with a historical perspective.
Judith’s father, a renowned musician and Freedom Fighter, with a death sentence pronounced upon him by the Red (Soviet) Army, makes a treacherous and harrowing escape from Hungary with his wife and two-year-old daughter (the author), one cold November night in 1956, searching for a beacon of hope shrouded amidst swampy marshland – a small, wooden bridge, waiting to lead the family to a Shining place of Freedom – America.
With heart-pounding detail of the cruel atrocities suffered by her parents as children during World War II in Hungary, and the brutality inflicted upon the Hungarian people as the 1956 Revolution shattered their world, Judith chronicles the years between 1933 to 2010.
But in America – the family must fight the most formidable enemies of all – Ethnic persecution, destitution, communal conflict, and the bitter pain of family dissent and adversity.
Pure Love is the only power on earth strong enough to carry them through the turbulent tides ebbing away at the foundation of their lives. But is the family’s love powerful enough, strong enough, to sustain them through the bittersweet journey ahead? Only the torrents of time would tell …
In today’s climate of turbulent world events, Judith’s allegory, with its globally prevalent themes of war, cultural inequity, national rebellion, family discourse, marriage, birth, death, and the magnificent power of Love Everlasting, is timely and inspirational.
The author, born in Budapest Hungary, a former medical transcriptionist of over thirty years, turned writer, lives in North Carolina with her husband and son.
Her passions include perpetuating her Hungarian Heritage, contributing to numerous charitable causes, and being “Patriotically American.” Judith has forever enshrined her family’s valiant legacy within these pages.
Name of chapter: ESCAPE!
The Red Warmongers had succeeded in obliterating the Magyar’s once fruitful homeland and in their victory the “iron hand” of communist oppression clamped its choking hold about Hungary, suffocating the hopes, dreams, and lifeblood from the captives held within its borders.
Thousands had made the difficult decision to leave the country for a wondrous place called “Andau.” Andau -where freedom was real and waiting – waiting for those with the courage and strength to make the perilous journey.
Ferenc had given Jozsef and Erzsebet a crudely-drawn map outlining their route to Andau, Austria, including instructions about the “freedom truck” pickup route run by an underground network to take as many citizens to freedom as was possible. Ferenc looked at his dear cousin, his boyhood friend, and companion. How he would miss him, but on this momentous evening, his mission was to assure safe passage for his beloved friend and his family. As much as Ferenc wished Jozsef could remain he begged him to leave quickly, “Jozsef, there is no time left, you must go. You must leave tonight and very soon!”
The enormity of the situation was incomprehensible. Jozsef and Erzsebet had hoped the United States would come to Hungary’s aid, and now, with Ferenc’s disastrous news, even if help came from the West, it would be too late for them. They had to get out now! Erzsebet’s heart twisted as if massive steel chains were squeezing the blood from its arteries. With tear-filled eyes she pleaded to Jozsef, “I must say goodbye to my family – my mother – my father!” Her face grimaced, its stressed contours reflecting the pain in her soul. “No, no, my love,” Jozsef insisted, “There is no time for goodbye. We can tell no one we are leaving. No one! Once we leave there is no turning back. Someday, somehow, if we survive our escape, we will see our families again. I promise you. We will.” He held Erzsebet close to his chest, stroking her hair, softly whispering in her ear, “It is time now, we must go.” Jozsef knew his political actions had put his family in harm’s way. The secret police would find him and them!
Despite the price they had to pay – to leave their country, their home, Jozsef and Erzsebet would not have done things differently. The Soviet regime had made their lives intolerable and things would not get better.
Jozsef and Erzsebet’s reasons for leaving Hungary were the same as the nearly two hundred thousand people who would make their exodus to borders of freedom. Since the communist party had taken control of Hungary in 1948, and until Stalin died in 1953, the people had lived under a ruthless and harsh dictatorship. Innocent people were falsely accused of “crimes” against the State. Orphaned children were taken to State orphanages to be raised as “Good Communists.” Many of Hungary’s political leaders were put to death. And worst of all, no one could be trusted, not even family. By the early 1950s, most of the domestic products produced by the Hungarian people were confiscated and sent to supply the needs of the Soviet Union. The Hungarian people were producing plenty, but with the current system, they were slowly starving.
Upon Stalin’s death, Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, condemned Stalin’s actions, and there was a slight decline in the cruel and callous treatment of the Hungarian people. But it was not enough. People continued to live in constant fear, for the heartless and vicious acts of the government were still in place.
As Jozsef and Erzsebet speculated on their plan of escape, they thought of their little girl. She was so very small and frail for her age of two-and-a-half, the result of an inadequate diet. And no wonder! With all the rationing in place, a family was fortunate to get a loaf of bread and cooking oil to last them for a week! Both parents shared the same unsaid fear: How was their little girl going to survive the journey? How long would it take them to reach the Austrian border? What if something caused delays and they missed their truck? They had so little food to bring with them! How many belongings could they possibly pack? How were they supposed to carry their small child in the cold inclement weather walking over miles of territory exposed to patrolling Russian troops? How was she going to stay warm? Would they be captured? Would they all die, and how? So many questions invaded their thoughts, but there was no time to ponder over the answers.
Erzsebet’s mind swam in circles as she glanced around their simple apartment. Suddenly, the gray, drab walls glistened as if made of gold. Despite its plainness, it was beautiful, because it was their place. They had worked themselves into utter exhaustion to keep the apartment after Jozsef was sent to the mines. When they left here tonight, what would become of their home? Who would move in? Erzsebet’s eyes glazed with tears, but her thoughts quickly snapped back to the situation at hand, her mind whirring frantically. What would they pack for their journey? They had only two sets of arms, and one set of those arms had to carry the child.
Adrenaline suddenly surged through Erzsebet’s body, quickening her senses, prompting her to dart about the apartment, madly sifting through drawers and cabinets. She gathered bread, a loop of dried sausage (kolbasz), and a small, glass bottle of milk, wrapping each in a thick cloth to protect the precious cargo. There was not much else to pack in the way of foodstuffs. She grabbed personal items: Judit’s coat, hat, gloves, boots, and scarf, and the same for her and Jozsef.
Jozsef collected their identification papers to be shown on their arrival at Andau, secured their professional certificates to prove they were college-educated people and gathered his personal music books and original, handwritten pieces of sheet music. Erzsebet checked the closet. On the floor, wrapped in a thick bundle, were at least one hundred love letters: the sweet moving stanzas of unashamed confessions of love that she and Jozsef had left for each other under their “Special Rock.” But tonight, under their surreal circumstances, the lovely spring night under the Acacia tree seemed to be a dream dreamt an eternity ago. The inviolability of their love existed in those letters and how she cherished them!
In the kitchen, Jozsef was packing his already over-stuffed attaché case with important documents, as well as filling the knapsack with the food Erzsebet had put together. “The accordion player!” shouted Erzsebet. They had almost forgotten their “Royal” Herend treasure. After all they had gone through to obtain “him” the thought of leaving without the player was inconceivable. She gathered a bed sheet and rolled the small statuette in the pale linen.
Erzsebet hurriedly dressed Judit in her winter clothes. After she and Jozsef donned their coats and boots, Jozsef placed the heavily-filled knapsack on Erzsebet’s back and placed the attaché case strap over his shoulder and across his chest.
The love letters! Erzsebet remembered they were not packed! But where was she going to put them all? She had no pockets in her coat and neither did Jozsef. If there had been time, she would have ripped out the lining of their coats and sewed the love letters inside, but there was no time to spare. Jozsef and Erzsebet stood frozen in place, their eyes flashing anguished looks towards one another as to “what must be done.” After taking one last lingering look at the bundle holding dozens of enchanting love poems, intimate sentiments, and beautiful expressions of their undying devotion, they each took turns placing a handful of letters into the fiery belly of the coal stove. With stuttering breath, Erzsebet spoke her thoughts aloud, “If…we cannot take them with us… then…no one else will have them!”
The parchments of love burst into a brilliant red flame, igniting instantly in the fiery furnace, just as their hearts had burned immediately for each other the moment they had met. It only took seconds for their “love” to be obliterated into nothingness as Erzsebet watched on, her slight shoulders shuddering from the cries of regret ripping through her body. How much Erzsebet wanted the luxury of being allowed to have a good, hard cry; and how much she wanted the comfort of collapsing into Jozsef’s strong arms, to hear her husband murmur words of love and support, but there was no time! Jozsef pressingly grasped Erzsebet by her shoulders, “My Edes, listen to me, there will be more letters, I will write you a love letter every day of your life, but right now, please do not cry. I love you, but we must leave now!”
Ferenc was waiting in the hallway outside the apartment to escort the family to a safe area where they were to begin their journey. Jozsef gathered Judit in his right arm. With his left arm around Erzsebet’s waist, they walked out the door of their apartment. Jozsef looked straight ahead, his mind filled with the many things needing to be done in a few hours.
But, upon exiting the apartment door, Erzsebet looked back over her shoulder, wanting one final look at their home. Stinging tears blurred everything into a shapeless, colorless mass. I should never have looked back. It strangles my heart.
Unbeknownst to Erzsebet, Jozsef had conspired with Ferenc to set-up a “Booby-trap” at the door of their apartment. After the family set out on their journey, Ferenc returned to the apartment, setting devices in place that would make sure the Evil Ones would breathe their last when they opened the apartment door.
On the cold, foggy evening of November 16, 1956, the Jozsef and Erzsebet Bognar Family closed the door on their life in Hungary, their birthplace, the land of their ancestors, the place where Jozsef’s music and rhapsodies had taken hold – the Citadel of their Love.
The life they had hoped to build was never to be, at least not on Magyar soil. With heavy hearts, the reluctant fugitives began their trek into the great unknown.
Several families embarking on the same pilgrimage crossed their path, and like Jozsef and Erzsebet, carried all they owned on their backs, in their arms, and in their hearts. To avoid detection by Russian troops, many parents had given their little ones sleeping draughts to suppress their whimpering and cries.
It was a slow, chilly, damp, five-mile walk to the check-point where Ferenc had instructed them to wait for a Russian Army truck (stolen by the Freedom Fighters) to transport the refugees the nearly one hundred miles to Andau – a distance impossible to walk in one night. The truck was their lifeline.
The family and other refugees rode in the back area of the truck for seemingly countless hours, before coming to a stop near a wooded area approximately fifty miles from the Austrian border. Everyone disembarked. The driver gave the group a general heading to follow through a dense set of woods where they would meet up with another truck on a different section of road.
Erzsebet, and Jozsef carrying little Judit, including the two other families, disappeared into the sheltering embrace of a tight cluster of trees.
The cool, foggy night was becoming more frigid, their circumstances made even more dismal by the muddy ground left from a prior rain.
The weather was the best and the worse scenario: the fog made it difficult for them to spot Russian squads making rounds in the area; however, the fog also served as a protective veil to avoid being seen, and that was a miracle considering there was nearly a full moon! After several hours of walking in the black gunk, their feet became numb due to the cold and damp.
Judit started to cry, and no wonder – she was just a little girl who was cold and hungry. How could she possibly understand why she was in a dark forest at nighttime and not in her bed? Jozsef held her close and whispered a Hungarian nursery rhyme to quiet her, “Little squirrel, little squirrel, he climbed up a tree. He fell down … he fell down … and he broke his knee. Oh, oh, oh, oh, nice doctor man, please make the little squirrel well again.”
The family trudged onward, albeit slowly, for the forest floor was sticky and sludge-like, making each step an effort. The black-brown ooze seeped over the cuffs of their ankle-high boots, permeating their socks with the near-frozen mush. Judit tired of being carried fidgeted in her father’s arms, but Jozsef refused to set her down into the cold slush. He pitied her discomfort.
The other passengers who had disembarked from the truck with them must have fallen behind or become lost, for Jozsef and Erzsebet suddenly became acutely aware of no longer being able to see or hear them.
They walked on through the thick trees in the direction pointed out by the driver. It was eerily quiet, not a sound of life stirred about them, except for the sucking sounds made by their feet as they stepped in and out of the sticky mud.
Then… out of nowhere, high-pitched, blood curdling, gut-wrenching screams of men, women and children resounded through the placidity of the imperturbable forest, signaling the angels of retribution to swoop down and carry their torn, broken souls into the chambers of Heaven, to forever leave behind the caustic, razor-sharp echoes of gunfire that had extinguished the final spark of life from their bodies.
Why was it a crime to want to live in Freedom? Why was it an offense to yearn for the clean winds of free air to flow through your lungs?
The Red Tyranny had consumed their homeland of Hungary, the occupiers laying down the law of the land, having determined that any thoughts of freedom, any thoughts of not wanting to live under the Iron Fist of the Soviet Regime, any thought of free enterprise was a travesty unto itself, an abomination so great, so filled with debauchery that one should no longer be allowed to draw another breath. The distant, hellish-red glow of reverberating machine gunfire jarred Jozsef and Erzsebet into a burning, all-consuming, profound panic, for now, the nightmarish demise of their companions would certainly become their reality as the mordant, scathing voices of the patrolling Russian soldiers approached their inept hiding place. There was no way to go back now, no safe way home, and even if they could go back home, there was no home left to go to.
Witnessing the terrifying murder of their countrymen churned Erzsebet’s bowels, and try as she might not to vomit, her plagued mind was in no condition to control her ravaged body, and she relieved her retching gut behind a nearby tree.
This is no time to lose control! Jozsef repeated over and over to himself. But Jozsef’s addled, crestfallen body refused to listen to reason, and then, as he stood immobilized by dread, riveted in place beside his ailing wife, Jozsef’s bruised psyche separated from his deadened bones.
Jozsef found himself swirling above a sanctuary of graceful tall timbers, gratefully reeling, blissfully floating away to a more peaceful place upon the elusive arms of cool, invisible winds. It was all so beautiful, fantastically beautiful, to lose all track of one’s loathsome surroundings; it was so peaceful and beautiful to be able to escape to an enchanting place far from the realities of an ugly world.
Indeed, Jozsef’s alter ego was pridefully working a marvelous illusion of beguiling deceit about him, blanketing his essence under a velvety cloak of fraudulent armor. And, Jozsef exulted in its facade, reveled in its comfort, and basked in its protection until … Until the shrieking wails of little Judit broke the magical mirror of his haven into a thousand pieces – her cries had sealed their death sentence!
Shaken from his self-aggrandizement, Jozsef heaved off his cumbrous mantle of betrayal, berating himself, hating himself, and despising himself – how could he have been so incomprehensibly irresponsible to let his guard down at this, the most critical, the most perilous moment of their lives? If the enemy found them now, it was because of him… and because of his flippancy, an agonizing end awaited those he loved more than anything in the world, more than life itself. The weight of his sin catapulted the piercing weight of a million-ton dagger through his chest, causing his knees to fold beneath him as he bent into the soil of the slimy earth.
No, no, no! We will not end this way! As a last dogged attempt to save his family, Jozsef vaulted into the deranged actions of a madman, grabbing Erzsebet’s arm, viciously tugging and pulling her and little Judit behind a thick stance of timber, a trembling finger placed upon his lips signaling them to be silent.
As she held her bawling baby daughter close to her petrified heart, sickening shudders of an inky-black, faceless, soulless doom clouded Erzsebet’s terrified mind as it unwillingly flashed grotesque images of three, ravaged, bullet-riddled bodies sprawled about the forest floor, the last warm, oozing remains of their valorous blood gathering thickly about their lifeless forms, as the viscera of the earth beneath them inhaled the crimson-colored juice of their trickling souls, the burgundy liquid seeking to nourish the buried seeds of the forest, perhaps to reincarnate into the veins of forest-green seedlings and saplings that would one day live again in the warmth of the sun – for no one would ever find them here, in this thick, muddy muck to give them a decent burial. No one.
Hardly able to take in even a shallow breath, Erzsebet dropped her knees into the slush of the cold, brown ooze, clasping Jozsef and her crying baby daughter close, whispering an anguished prayer of desperation towards the moon-filled sky, “Please God, be merciful – take our souls swiftly and do not let my baby suffer!”
Jozsef was not so quick to give in. Determined to save his family, he drew in a deep breath, as an uncontrolled animal instinct for survival overrode his fear. He snatched Judit to him, and with all his might covered her mouth with both his hands, as he tucked her tiny head under his coat, into the deepest depths of his armpit to muffle her whining.
The vociferate voices in the distance were coming closer and louder. Judit struggled under her father’s coat, but Jozsef gripped her even tighter, burying his daughter’s face deeper under his arm. Then Judit became silent. The family squatted in the cold sludge behind a dense set of brush to avoid detection by the shadowed soldiers who had halted in the opaque, misty darkness, no more than thirty feet from the crouching family.
A few moments, that felt more like hours passed, when at last, the faceless enemy strode in the opposite direction, disappearing into the foggy gray banks of mist. The fading sound of a car engine in the far-off distance confirmed the interceptors had departed, but that meant the road to their truck connection had to be near!
But, Jozsef and Erzsebet could not move, their minds and bodies bereft of strength to rise from their groveled position. After an unknown lapse of time, Jozsef’s consciousness launched him into a morbid reality, nearly strangling the life from his heart, as a sickening revulsion spread throughout his limbs – He had forgotten about Judit!
Jozsef’s bleary eyes nearly blinded him as he moved to gently disengage Judit from his armpit. His little girl’s eyes were closed, and her body hung limp in his arms. He had smothered his daughter! Erzsebet glared upon her baby’s sagging form as Jozsef helplessly held out their child to her. Her lungs ached to scream out the painful denial of her baby’s suffocation, but the prior intense encounter had paralyzed her vocal cords.
Her husband could not have suffocated her baby – he loved her beyond all reason! Her baby cannot be dead! Dear God…no, not my baby…let her live, she must live! With stifled movements of halting uncertainty, Erzsebet rested the flushed cheeks of her wind-chapped face against Judit’s thin chest straining to hear a heartbeat. “Jozsef!” she hoarsely whispered, “Look! See! – Judit’s stomach is going up and down! Our baby is asleep… she is breathing, she is sleeping… she is only sleeping!” Holding their child between them, the exhausted and terrified young family huddled close to one another on the wet, frigid, forest floor. “My baby girl, forgive me for hurting you!” Jozsef’s guilt-ridden figure shook heavily in-between deep groping breaths of remorse and repentance, his hot tears of relief tumbling onto the face of his sleeping daughter.
The young father covered his little girl with a thin blanket pulled from the knapsack, cradling her close to the warmth of his chest. No longer able to hold in the stinging lacerations of her emotions, Erzsebet wept heavily, her expended and rattled body shuddering from the abhorrence of all that had happened in such a short stance of time.
After regaining their fortitude, Jozsef edgily scanned his watch. An hour had gone by! “Hurry Erzsebet, hurry! We must make it in time for the truck!”
The family continued their flight, picking up their pace through the unwelcoming woods, at last coming upon the road leading to their pickup point. One other couple also met them there, informing Jozsef and Erzsebet of a family positioned only about two hundred feet away from their location being captured, forced into a Russian truck, and taken away.
The unmistakable roar of an engine boomed through the deceiving tranquility of the evening signaling the cautious defectors to retreat to the safety of the tree line. The truck appeared to be the same one as before, but was it? Was it supposed to be another type of truck? The vehicle stopped.
The moon was high, and by its light, they could see it was the same man who had transported them earlier. The driver called out from the vehicle to the unnerved group, “Hurry, we do not have much time – get in!” Jozsef was apprehensive. It could be a trap! The driver could have been captured and forced to drive to the pickup point to gather escapees while Russian soldiers hid in the covered back compartment waiting to capture them.
Despite his misgivings, Jozsef knew the remaining distance to Andau was too far to walk in what few hours of darkness remained. Soon, it would be daylight, and the cloak of night was necessary to elude their pursuers. They had to take the chance. Jozsef cautiously pulled aside the canvas covering the back of the truck. It was empty! The reassured refugees clambered inside and within seconds were on their way.
After seemingly endless hours had passed, the vehicle made a hard stop jolting all on board awake. Jozsef rubbed his eyes, “I wonder where we are?” With cold, stiff bodies and throbbing heads, the passengers disembarked from the rear of the truck into the ominous solitude.
The faint light of daybreak barely illuminated the dispiriting landscape. In every direction, there was nothing more than a wide expanse of desolate, marsh-like, swampy land. The driver pointed his finger “Go that way, you will see the bridge.” With those last words, he drove away. The earth was soft and oozing with wetness. The last remnants of a dissipating fog swirled about them, and with each step, their feet sank even more deeply into the gooey soil of the wetlands, but they no longer cared, their emotions too raw, and their bodies too depleted to worry anymore about cold feet or wet clothes.
Erzsebet had fed Judit milk, earlier, so she was pacified and sleeping in Jozsef’s arms. Despite feeling nauseated from all they had gone through, the couple had forced themselves to eat the kolbasz, knowing they needed its sustenance to maintain their energy.
With exhaustion pressing upon every molecule of their being, the family stumbled forward, but then, without warning, Jozsef stopped abruptly in his tracks, his finger pointing to a dreamlike image up ahead, “Look, Erzsebet!” Out of the billowing mist, the ghost-like forms of a few, then several more, and then, even more, sodden men, women, and children, emerged, each making their way towards the promising icon of hope awaiting the spent travelers. The glowing sun rose higher in the early morning sky, spreading its feathery, bright, powdery-pink streaks of a new dawn across the horizon. It must be God sending a ray of light for us to follow, thought Erzsebet. And He did. The Bridge of Andau was directly in front of them!
As the life-giving star spread its first yellow, warming rays upon the icy earth, faintly illuminated forms of fellow Hungarians materialized upon the planks of the small, ramshackle, rickety, wooden bridge spanning the narrow Einser Canal.
Jozsef and Erzsebet hearts fluttered with a rush of eagerness and excitement as a surge of exhilarating energy spread through their expended limbs, urging them to join the hundreds of pairs of shabby, muddy shoes marching upon the beams of hope stretching into the free border of Austria. Jozsef spirited little Judit to his chest. And, holding Erzsebet’s hand in his, they ran on frozen feet toward the narrow stretch of wooden supports.
Then…they were there – standing at the threshold of a New World.
Phewww that was a long read … if you made it this far and would like to find out what happened at the end, please consider supporting the author by buying your own copy of BITTERSWEET FREEDOM by author JUDITH BOGNAR BEAN via your favourite book retailer or using my Amazon affiliate links below