The evening air was cool. It was a relatively clear night. Istvan could see the half-moon through thin clouds. That was a bad thing. If he could see the moon, the moon might help the guards see him and his friends.
Istvan crouched with his friends near the fence. The wooded terrain was rough and muddy. He nodded silently at Anton. No words were necessary. He wasn’t sure if he’d be able to form them. Fear, anxiety, and hope made it feel like his heart would leap out of his throat. He rubbed his hands together. His palms were sweaty, despite the cool night air. In a matter of hours, he might taste freedom for the first time in many years. In a matter of minutes, if Anton was wrong, he’d be dying in the mud with a bullet in his back.
Istvan watched Anton run his hands along the fence. It wasn’t much of a barrier. It was 1955. The Iron Curtain had quite a few tears and worn spots, especially in this secluded region near the Austria-Hungary border. Anton’s hand stopped. Anton looked at his watch, and then peered at the distant guard tower. Anton nodded, and peeled back the broken stretch of chain-link fencing. Istvan went through, followed by Adam, and then Anton.
Istvan and Adam looked apprehensively at Anton. Anton tried to flash a quick smile to soothe their nerves. It didn’t work. The time for smiling would be on the other side of the border. The Austrian side. The side without Communism. The side without oppression.
Anton slapped Istvan on the leg. “Follow me,” he whispered. Anton shuffled at a crouch, then ran low and hard into the darkness. Istvan followed, with Adam behind him. Istvan could feel his lungs burning. He waited for the flash of floodlights on the treeless clearing. He waited for the sound of the rifles. The hairs on the back of his neck rose, waiting for the bullets that would follow the sound. Their entire plan was dependent on this moment. Anton claimed to know when the guards changed shifts. At the shift change, the guards’ attention would be on reports and forms, not on the clearing below them. If Istvan and his friends were to escape Hungary, they had less than 90 seconds before the guards’ eyes would be back on the border.
Where they’d see three scared men running for their lives.
Istvan saw a cluster of bushes at the edge of the clearing. He saw Anton through the thin shrubbery, motioning for them to join him on the other side. Istvan slid past the bushes and shuffled to join Anton in a crouched position behind the largest of the shrubs. He heard Adam clumsily bust through the bushes behind him.
“Quiet down, you oaf,” Istvan whispered fiercely.
“Sorry,” replied Adam, gasping for air.
Istvan felt sweat trickle down his forehead. Floodlights didn’t illuminate the area. The guard towers were silent. They made it to their first waypoint. Istvan looked eagerly at Anton. Beyond Anton, he saw a rough wooden sign with warnings written in both German and Hungarian.
The skull and crossbones and exclamation marks accentuated the point. Just ahead of them, death lurked once more. An explosion would certainly attract the attention of the guards, and likely take a few limbs from Istvan and his friends. The pain would be temporary, because they would be shot.
Istvan shuddered. Maybe not. A Hungarian without a leg wasn’t a threat; he was a source of information. Death might be preferable at that point. If he was captured, he would be tortured. He thought of Edna, his sister, sitting at the dinner table back home. She would never leave Hungary, even while it was ruled by an oppressive Communist dictatorship. But if Istvan were captured, the police would come for Edna. They’d torture her, just for sport. Istvan gritted his teeth. He couldn’t let that happen.
Anton removed a small piece of paper from his pocket. Istvan peered over his shoulder at it. He expected to see a map. Anton promised a map. Instead he saw a few scribbled words.
Clusters in center. Heavy clusters on right. Keep left. Left mostly clear.
“What the hell is that?” whispered Istvan fiercely. “You said you knew where the mines were!”
Anton shrugged and tried another smile. “This tells us where the mines are. Let’s keep to the left and watch our step, eh?”
Anton slapped Istvan on the leg and moved forward at a quick shuffle, crouching low to avoid drawing attention to their position. Although they were out of immediate danger, a guard with a keen eye would still be able to spot movement from the tower.
Istvan grunted and followed closely behind Anton. From what their sources told them, the mines in this field were likely inept. The few that were present had been there for years and were cheaply made at the end of World War II. That thought was of little consolation to Istvan. A cheap landmine could still blow off his foot. He kept his eyes on the ground in front of him, looking for any wires or metal, jutting up from the soil below. After what seemed like hours, he reached the edge of a concrete embankment. Below them was murky sludge and muddy water. It was a poor man’s moat, designed to serve as a barrier to American and British tanks.
Past the moat was Austria. There was no fence on that side of the border. They had no reason to keep people trapped in the country like animals.
Anton smiled at Istvan. “See, I told you. Left was good.”
“Yeah, yeah, left was good. Let’s get the hell out of here,” he replied.
“Right,” said Adam behind him. “On with it, Anton. You first.”
Anton hopped down. The water and mud came up to his waist. “Come on in, guys, the water’s fine!” he said.
“Shut up,” replied Istvan, sliding into the water. Water was a euphemism. This stuff was semi-solid and smelled like shit. He came to the sickening realization that it was likely the run-off trench for all the sewage coming from the guard post.
“Oh, God!” whispered Adam, making his way through the muck. “Who shit their pants?”
“Will both of you shut the hell up?” grumbled Istvan, doing his best to breathe out of his mouth. It didn’t help. Smelling it was preferable to tasting it. He strode purposefully through the sludge. He could see the tree line in the distance. Austria was within sight.
After ten grueling minutes, the trio reached the other side. Istvan reached up and grabbed Anton’s hand. Anton pulled him up out of the concrete trench. Istvan helped Adam do the same.
They made it. They were in Austria.
Istvan could see the first glimmers of daylight emerging from the east. He was exhausted and smelled terrible. He glanced at his wristwatch, a gift from his deceased father. After 6AM.
They’d emerged from the forest after several hours, and were following a rough road, hoping to find civilization.
Hoping to find freedom.
Istvan patted the plastic bag in his pocket, containing his identification papers and a letter requesting asylum. He hoped it would be enough. Even after crossing the border, they were still not out of danger. If they ran into a Communist sympathizer, they might get pointed back to the border instead of the asylum office. If the asylum office turned them down, they’d get shipped on the next train back to Hungary.
Istvan shuddered at that thought. What if this were all for nothing?
Anton patted him on the back. Istvan nodded and put his hands in his pockets. Anton was good at reading emotions. He could tell that Istvan was anxious. Anton was probably anxious as well. He was just better than Istvan at hiding it.
Istvan saw the shadows of buildings ahead. He clenched the plastic bag in his pocket. This was the moment. In the far distance, he saw the umbrellas and picnic tables of a beer garden. His stomach rumbled. What he wouldn’t give for a sandwich and a beer right now!
A middle-aged man emerged from a side street and looked at the three men skeptically. He scratched his beard. Istvan waited for him to break the silence. He could feel his palms beginning to sweat again.
“Ungarn?” asked the man curiously, pointing the three of them. He pointed past them, toward the southeast. “Ungarn, ja?” he repeated.
“Ja,” said Istvan, recognizing the German word for Hungary. Istvan pointed at his compatriots. “Wir…Ungarn….” he said, doing his best to keep calm.
Istvan tried a smile. He waited eagerly.
“Gut!” said the stranger. He waved them onward. “Komm mit mir!” The stranger pointed at the beer garden. “Frühstück!” he said.
Istvan patted his stomach. “Ja, Frühstück!” he said.
Istvan and his friends followed the stranger to the beer garden. Their first taste of freedom would be breakfast at an Austrian beer garden.
The Problem with “Waiting in Line”
My grandfather was one of the bravest and most decent men I ever knew. He was also an illegal immigrant. He didn’t wait in line or apply for a visa. For my grandpa and others who believed in liberty and democracy in mid-1950s Hungary, that wasn’t a real option. Applying for a visa meant exposing his family to danger. The countries that bordered the Iron Curtain, such as West Germany and Austria, recognized the resource of asylum-seekers like my grandpa, and did their best to help them. Talent and Youth were escaping Communist countries, and it was the duty of democracies to bring them in and light their path. The losses of Hungary, Poland, and East Germany were victories for the West.
After his escape from Hungary, my grandfather built a life. He served in the military, training service dogs near Freiburg, Germany. He eventually found his way to Canada, where he raised a family and had a prosperous career selling appliances. His friends on that treacherous night created lives for themselves in Arizona, and their children and grandchildren are prosperous and productive American citizens.
My grandfather died a few years ago, surrounded by friends and family. His life was a testament to the man he was, and his legacy lives on in each of the lives he touched. As I said at his funeral service, his life was a triumph of the human spirit. I do my best in my own life to honor his memory, treat people with kindness, and pass on the lessons he taught me.
Here in the United States in 2018, we face a crisis of identity. Are we the beacon of hope that lit the path for my grandfather’s escape to freedom? Or are we a country that separates asylum-seekers from their children? Are we a country that creates “tender age” detention centers, where babies and toddlers scream for their mothers? Are we a nation that abandons its position and leadership role on the UN Human Rights Council, just as we’re committing human rights violations? Are we a nation that turns away battered mothers and their children from entering the country as asylum-seekers, along with victims of gang violence? Are we a nation that invokes Scripture as rationale for building de facto internment camps for modern poor and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free?
It is very easy to sit on our sofas and callously demand folks to wait in line and apply for visas. It gives us the emotional rationale to shift the blame from our government to the asylum-seekers for the separation and internment of children and babies.
That rationale is flawed. I think about my grandfather and wonder about the humanity in making such a demand. Would a police officer in Mexico who refused to accept a cartel bribe in Mexico have the luxury of waiting in line when he was threatened with torture and death? Should a journalist in El Salvador be told to apply through the proper channels and wait 18 months after he publishes an article exposing government corruption? What about an informant whose testimony led to the arrest of a cartel member, who discovers that his entire family is now on a hit list?
Defending this separation policy is callous and inhumane. We can treat people with dignity during the asylum process and keep them together during the duration of that process. The President can end this brutality with an executive order and a phone call. Instead he’s content to use thousands of children as a bargaining chip for his immigration policy goals, which include a border wall.
This shouldn’t be who we are as a nation. We shouldn’t cheer the President when he uses the brutality of Mexican cartels and MS-13 as a political punchline, and then hands a death sentence to those fleeing that exact brutality in Mexico and Central America. We are a nation of immigrants and can enforce our laws with a measure of humanity. I wouldn’t exist today if my grandfather and his friends found a 30-foot concrete wall on the other side of that muddy moat on the Austrian border. The correct response to tyranny and brutality is to stand as a beacon of liberty and strength, providing those escaping oppression a pathway to become the next generation of Americans. It certainly isn’t callousness, inaction, internment camps, and ripping children from their mothers’ arms.
We can enforce the law. We can continue to deny entrance and deny asylum to those with criminal records. We cannot continue to claim to be the leader of the free world when we abandon our history and march down the path of authoritarianism, blindly parroting the positions of the President and vigorously defending everything he does, even when his Administration defies our foundational principles.
Modern versions of my grandfather are making their own journeys to freedom right now. They should be given breakfast instead of bondage when they arrive at the asylum office.
Dr. Rudolph Lurz holds a doctorate in Administration & Policy Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Virginia with his wife and cat.