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Families Before 1956

Andy Alfoldy

We left Hungary in 1945 and wound up in Germany via Austria. My grandfather and father were both medical doctors, My father was a surgeon with the Hungarian Red Cross. In Germany, at the end of the war, he became officially a prisoner of war, though the Americans found his skills and abilities very useful. He spoke fairly adequate English, which he learned at university in Budapest. He was employed in administrative positions at various hospitals as well as tending to his patients, who were mostly wounded Hungarian soldiers. Being a prisoner of war he was paid virtually nothing and we subsisted on care packages. These were extremely lean times. My grandfather, who was nearing seventy by then, spoke no English and never did return to practice. In Hungary he had been a member of the Federal parliament for a quarter century as well as a medical specialist in a number of disciplines. He, in fact, brought in the first X-ray machine to Hungary for use in his practice.

Reflections on the General Blatchford and Crossing the North Atlantic:

It was the last week of October 1950 when I first saw the General Blatchford. She was tied up at dockside in Bremerhaven, Germany. Through my nine-year-old eyes the General was like a huge city topped by the volcano of its gently smoking stack reaching toward the sky. A gangway snaked up her side and a slow moving line of human ants carrying every description of make shift baggage was wending its way aboard. Our little group of five, grandfather, mother, father, sister and I, were in the middle of this steadily ascending chain of displaced souls. It was mid afternoon of a mostly sunny autumn day and the shadows were distinct. I remember certain details of my first impression of this great gray ship: the metronomic pace of the rotating radar antenna; the smell of fresh paint that covered everything, numbly from the texture of the many underlying coats making it like the skin of an elephant; a great circular light with it’s lens shutters, [I later learned it was for sending Morse code]; the life boats row on row and the air scoop funnels everywhere.

Later in the day when the sun was approaching the rooftops of Bremen and everyone was crowded against the railings the crew started to pull the gangway aboard. On the dock a shore gang unbent the ropes from the capstans and they also were drawn aboard. With this the umbilical cord that had tied us to Europe, our homes, and our lives up to this point, was severed. There were surprisingly few people to wave farewell to the three thousand or so of us on board. I’m sure we all had loved ones our hearts ached for who were left behind but each of those is a story unto itself. My grandfather watched the activity misty eyed, knowing that he was unlikely to ever see his home again but excited none the less about what lay ahead. My sister and I, with the exuberance of the young, saw mostly the adventure of it all. We had been given a stick of chewing gum for the voyage by someone. We decided that halving it made for too small a piece each to properly enjoy so instead opted to chew the entire stick each on alternate days. She was happily chewing as I watched a swirl of inky, oily water appear between the side of the ship and the wharf. By sundown we were in the estuary and turning southward into the English Channel. It was a beautiful evening with countless seagulls diving over the glassy water as it reflected a perfect sunset.

We were called below to the mess hall and dined on wieners and cabbage and boiled potatoes. Every bench was packed with hungry people but the food was plentiful and good and we all ate heartily. As a nine year old I was assigned to the women’s quarters with my mother and sister. This was roughly one half of the ship’s hold, one cavernous room with about fifteen hundred occupants. The beds were double wide and double tiered, each unit slept four people. My sister and I had the bottom bed of one unit with our mother sharing the top with a Polish lady whom she didn’t know. We knew on one on board. As I tried to sleep I became aware of a booming noise that would come at intervals. The ship’s motion became more and more noticeable and the booming came more frequently and virtually shook the ship. The motion was relentless and the booming noise, which was actually caused by the prow of the ship striking the waves, made sleep impossible. The hold was like a giant resonator and soon there were the sounds of people in distress. The lady above us started to get sick, then our mother got sick, then vomit dripped into our bed and we got sick. Soon the hold was a Bedlam of vomiting and moaning. I prayed for morning to come. When it came the scene was something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The multi-stalled washroom was even worse.

That first morning at breakfast there was no line up for the food. A few people straggled in and were seated sparsely about. I took a couple of boiled eggs and toast and orange topside and found that once in the fresh air I felt much better and could eat. My mother stayed dreadfully sick for the entire passage and lost a lot of weight, even though she was thin to start with. My grandfather and dad never were sick. My sister and I were sick at times but endured reasonably well. It was the ubiquitous smell of vomit that kept us queasy. I think the majority of the passengers were susceptible for most of the trip.

During the course of that first full day out of port we rounded the southern tip of England and the General’s cold gray nose turned into the cold gray waters of the northern Atlantic. For the next six days we encountered a number of storms, some bringing waves much taller than the ship itself. When she slid to the bottom of the troughs there was a wall of water towering above the sight line in every direction. I always felt anxious at those moments, as I’m sure did many others. On quieter evenings the ship came alive with activity. there was a small room that was opened after dinner and people would line up to be given a couple of chocolate Orio cookies. My sister and I would receive the cookies and line up again while we munched them down. On a good night we might get six or eight cookies. Oh we loved them. After dark, if it was reasonably calm, people would stay on deck as long as possible. Everyone felt healthier in the fresh air and no one was eager to face the horrors of the hold. On one particularly clear night with the stars in the sky by their millions I sneaked past the rope barrier that cordoned off the very front section of the main deck. There were oddly shaped masses of gears and funnels and cable drums but I made my way to the nose of the ship and looked over the rail. The sea swished by below as we sliced through it and parted it to either side. While I watched a school of dolphins swam along with us. It was a magical moment but didn’t last long as the P.A. system announced the end of evening. Very few of us spoke or understood English but the announcements were obeyed instantly. We even had lifeboat drills with a minimum of chaos. I know not how many nationalities were represented on board but definitely many.

One afternoon the sea was quite calm. We had been away from land and all signs of human life, other than that contained on board, for many days when on the very edge of the horizon we saw a puff of smoke. It slowly became the barely discernable stack of a ship. A crew of sailors manned the Morris code light and I saw the brilliant flashes from it as they snapped its shutters open and closed. In due time from the distant ship came replying flashes. They signaled back and forth for quite a while but never did get close to each other before we lost sight. I felt lonely and the vastness of the Atlantic was accentuated by the experience. Another afternoon of a very stormy day the waves built in size and the wind became bitter cold. Eventually the P.A. system asked everyone to go below but my dad, who was born with a strong sense of adventure, sat me down on a bench against the leeward side bulkhead. In the gloomy darkening light with the waves pounding the ship with such fury that they washed over top of her and waters from the wave tops cascaded onto the deck on our side I heard the story of Christopher Columbus and his first crossing of the Atlantic.

It was the afternoon of the seventh day when the General Blatchford steamed into Halifax harbor and was tied up to Pier 21. Standing in line and waiting was a way of life for us by now and it seemed no time at all that we were leaving her ever undulating decks and taking our first step on the terra firma of our new home Canada. It might have been symbolic but everyone’s motion sickness vanished instantly. It was right about here that the gum hit the water, a bit lumpy and sour with every vestige of flavor long gone.

There were large net slings in which our luggage was off loaded. I remember the crane hoisting them ashore. In the sorting/receiving area of Pier 21 we were assigned a spot against one of the walls and reunited with our possessions. Eventually the Customs and Immigration people were done processing us and we were free to leave the area. In a concession within the complex we bought and ate our first meal in our new home. I will never forget it, a glass bottle of milk, a loaf of white Wonder bread in the wax paper package with the big dots on it and a can of Spork. I loved it.

And so we arrived in this wonderful country called Canada. Now of the five of us who the General Blatchford so graciously delivered to these blessed shores only my mother and I are still alive. We all became duly sworn in Canadian citizens and my grandfather, father and sister are buried in Canadian soil. The family has grown and expanded and now this journey of renewal and hope for a better life is fading into the realm of folklore but for me the "General" will always be something special.