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Families 1956

Janos Maté

From Stalin to Kellogg’s Cornflakes
By: Janos Maté

Had it not been for Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin my older brother Gabor and I may never have had the opportunity to crunch on Kellogg’s Cornflakes in our childhood. Such gratification would most likely have been delayed by some 35 years until the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Bloc in 1989. But then the lives of people are so often shaped and scripted not by their own design but by the consequences of external events, and the convergence of historical processes with the ambitions of the so-called men of history. So it was for our Mid-European Jewish family in nineteenth and twentieth century Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

The lives of our parents and grandparents were, more often than not, a series of adaptations to the shifting sands of history – the ravages of wars, political upheavals, redrawn borders, regime changes and opportunistic swings in governmental policies towards the legal status and civil rights of ethnic minorities, especially those of the Jews.

On November 23, 1956, when the Communist regime in Hungary was still in a state of disarray because of a month old and tenacious armed uprising against Soviet dominance by the population, our family crossed the border between Hungary and Austria. We became refugees. This was not an easy decision for our parents. Father was then 46 years old, and mother 37. With two young sons, a couple of suitcases in hand, and with virtually zero financial resources, they left behind whatever security they had – their apartment, furniture and other worldly possessions, all their friends and few remaining family members, father’s employment. Without any guarantees about the future, they faced the unknown. Up to 150,000 people made the same monumental decision to flee Hungary during that time. The immediate impetus to leave came from relatives in West Germany who phoned to say, "what are you waiting for?", but the actual decision to leave was many years in the making. An added incentive came from the anti-Semitic slogans that began to appear on the walls throughout the city, and an acquaintance saying to father that "while he was a good Jew, other Jews could go to hell."

Leaving Hungary was a constant factor in our parents’ plans following the Second World War and the tragedies that befell our family during the Hungarian Holocaust. However, when the actual opportunity to flee presented itself, despite her abhorrence for Hungarians whom she held responsible for the death of her parents during the war, mother was reluctant to leave. She feared for her family. Father was more determined. They consulted my brother and me. We looked at one another and with boyish exuberance and a sense of excitement at the promise of an adventure and without full comprehension of all the implications; we enthusiastically embraced the idea of emigrating.

Our mother, Judith Lowi, was born in Kassa, Hungary in 1919, into an orthodox yet modern, intellectual, European cultured Jewish upper-middle class family. As a result of the Treaty of Treason at the conclusion of the First World War, the northeastern part of Hungary was ceded to the newly formed state of Czechoslovakia. Consequently, by the time she was two, without ever having moved, our mother was no longer living in Kassa, Hungary, but in the city of Kosicze. She was a Czechoslovak citizen.

When mother was a small child, each year on her birthday thousands of people celebrated on the streets of Kassa. Only when she was a little older did she learn that in reality these parades were in honor of Tomas Masaryk, the beloved President and Founder of the Czechoslovak Republic, whose birthday happened be on the very same day. Following the Munich Pact between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler and the dissection of Czechoslovakia, Kosicze once again reverted to Hungary, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Our father was born in 1910, in Budapest, Hungary, into a poor Yiddish speaking family. His parents migrated to Budapest from a small town in Galicia, Poland, at the turn of the century. They fled Galicia, which at the time was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to overcome severe economic hardships that resulted from formal restrictions on Jews, as well as to escape anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish riots that swept the region in the late 1890s. Though born in Budapest as Andor Meltzer (and as his papers stated, also known as Andor Feldman), our father’s Hungarian citizenship, as well as his family name, remained ambiguous because of the refusal of the Hungarian authorities to recognize the validity of his parents’ marital status. In accordance with Polish custom, his parents only had a Jewish wedding, and therefore had no civil marriage certificate that would be recognized by the Hungarian state. Consequently, our father had to bear both his father’s and mother’s family name.

In 1941, the government of Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, in a move to further appease Adolph Hitler, enacted its third set of anti-Jewish laws that were aimed to progressively strip Jews of their basic civil rights, ownership of property and participation in normal day to day life of the country. Included in the 1941 Jewish laws were measures to deport to Galicia all Jews of Polish decent that could not prove their Hungarian citizenship. Our father fell into this category. To avoid deportation, he went into hiding and, for nearly nine months until his Hungarian citizenship was secured through legal means, he slept each night in different hiking lodges in the nearby mountains of Buda. Most of the 18,000 Jews who were deported to Galicia during that time were massacred by the German SS and their Hungarian and Ukrainian cohorts.

In 1942, along with 60,000 other Jewish men, our father was conscripted into the Forced Labor Battalions of the Hungarian Army. From 1942 till the end of the war in 1945, he dug trenches, built bridges and fortifications and hulled timber throughout the Hungarian countryside. Over 50 percent of the men in the Jewish Forced Labor Battalions perished. Our mother moved to Budapest from Kosicze, in 1942. Our parents got married on March 2, 1943 in the town of Tecso, nearby where father’s labor brigade was temporarily stationed. Father was granted four hours leave by the lieutenant of the brigade to attend his wedding. The lieutenant told him that "Jews don’t need more than half an hour for their wedding ceremony, so that will give you another three and a half hours to be with your bride."

On March 19, 1944, Hitler invaded his ally, Hungary, to prevent the country from switching sides in the war. Within weeks began the full-scale deportation of Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz. The Jews from the provinces, including Slovakia and Kosicze, were taken first. Mother’s parents, Dr. Joseph and Anna Lowi, and her sister Dr. Marta Lowi, were transported on cargo trains to Auschwitz from Kosicze on June 3rd. Her parents were immediately murdered in the gas chambers. Nearly 550,000 Jews were deported from Hungary within a period of a few months, and over 300,000 of them perished in the camps. Another 250,000 died through forced labor, starvation, massacres and death marches. Mother, together with my older brother Gabor, who was then less than a year old, survived those months in the Budapest ghetto and then in a Swiss government-sponsored safe house for Jews.

After the devastation of the war, life resumed. I was born in 1946, and along with the other babies born immediately after the war was considered to be part of a generation of hope and renewal. Father rebuilt his small furniture manufacturing shop which had been bombed during the British and American assaults against the Germans in the city. A few years later the Stalinist Communist government of Matyas Rakosi, in an absurd drive against the so called petit-bourgeoisie, taxed his shop, with its grand workforce of eight people, out of existence. Father went to work for a painting cooperative. One time, with a desire to move the family to the newly formed state of Israel, father went to apply for a passport. The Deputy Minister in charge was a friendly Jewish acquaintance of his from the Jewish Forced Labor Battalion. The Deputy Minister said: "Sorry Andor. I cannot permit you to leave Hungary. We need good people like you to build a new society."

The ideologically driven absurdities of the system abounded. All the news was managed. People learned to read and exist between the lines. But us children, we believed. We believed in the idealism, in the promise. My brother and I attended an all boys’ school. As all other children, we became Young Pioneers, and wore the school uniform of white shirt with a red kerchief. With great enthusiasm, we attended May Day Parades. We learned about the brave Soviet armed forces that liberated Hungary from Nazism and we cheered for them in the movies. We learned about the great accomplishments of Communism, and the decadence of Capitalism and jazz and swing. The newsreels repeatedly heralded the wonderful achievements of the system under wise leadership. Happy peasants working the fields with brand new combines. Smiling young factory workers churning out mountains of goods, well ahead of the 5 Year Plan. And we believed.

One day in school, when I was in grade 2, we were discussing candles. The teacher asked if any of us have ever lit a candle. I offered that we light candles during Chanukah. The next day our parents were gently advised by the principal to tell their children not to talk openly about matters with a religious connotation. The government had cadres of political educators going door to door from neighborhood to neighborhood. One Sunday father opened the door to one such educator who came to tell our parents about the wonders of the system. After a half an hour conversation with father, he began to bare his soul and in the midst of tears shared his litany of complaints against the regime. Father consoled him: "There, there, comrade, things are not all that bad."

On Friday, March 6, 1953 we awoke to funeral music. Funeral music on the radio, blaring out of loud speakers on the streets, continuously playing in the halls of the school. Iosif Vissarionovich Dhugashvili, known to us as Uncle Stalin, had died. That night, after a day of eulogies at school, and more funeral music on the streets, I began to cry. Alarmed, my parents asked "what is the matter, why are you sad," and in between sobs I blurted out, much to my parents’ incredulity, "Because Uncle Stalin has died."

The system and I survived Stalin’s passing. On Wednesday, November 25 of the same year, the legendary Hungarian soccer team made history by defeating England 6-3 at old Wembley Stadium in London, and thus broke England’s 90-year unbeaten streak on home soil. The significance of this occasion rivaled or even surpassed that of Stalin’s death. The entire country stood still as the game was broadcast on the radio in all the halls of government, hospitals, factories and on the streets. The country was united. The victorious team was wildly celebrated. Soccer reigned as the second officially sanctioned religion of the country after Communism.

Our family was not religious. We were Jewish culturally and historically, but with the exception of the High Holidays, rarely did our parents go to synagogue. Nevertheless, we identified ourselves, and we were seen by our neighborhood friends, as Jews. We therefore were different. Hunting for eggs and sprinkling girls with perfume at Easter, as much as I loved the idea, was not part of our culture. Neither was Christmas. We were different, we felt different, and consequently, as a child I sometimes felt ashamed and self-rejecting. Only occasionally did we experience overt anti-Semitism. It took the form of being called a ‘dirty Jew’ and fights after school. On one occasion, in the spring of 1956, my brother and I were ambushed by a group of our neighborhood friends. They spat out racial epithets as they punched us a few times.

On the eve of the revolution, Tuesday, October 23, 1956, my brother and I were playing outside our apartment block. One of the other boys came to us with great excitement to tell us that university students and workers were demonstrating downtown. When we informed our parents about the demonstrations, we asked father if we would have to go to school the next day. "Of course," he replied. Early next morning, father got ready to go to work. As he exited our building, the caretaker said to him, "where are you going?" "Why, to work." "To work" haven’t you heard," said the caretaker, "there is a revolution." We spent the next three weeks mostly indoors. We slept in the inside storage room of the apartment, our parents fearing that stray bullets might hit our windows that faced the street. We saw some men in small bands running with guns. A couple of bullets did hit our building. Mother baked bread.

We weren’t allowed to tell anyone about our plans to emigrate. The night before we left Budapest, we were permitted to say goodbye to our closest friends. That night our parents’ best friends slept over. As my brother and I took a bath in our wood fire heated bathtub, we had some fear of the unknown. We promised each other that no matter what happened, we would stay together.

On the morning of November 23rd, we took a train from Budapest to the border town, Sopron. The train was jammed with would-be refugees, all of whom were pretending to be going on holidays in the countryside. Upon arrival in Sopron, father went searching for a guide who, for a handsome fee, could take us across the border at night. Our guide was a peasant who put us up in his barn for a night and a day along with three other families. The following evening, after dark, we started to cross the border towards Austria. It had been raining for many days and the ground was soggy with ankle deep mud. Our mother, whose walk was hindered by muscular dystrophy, kept falling. Mud had filled her boots and rubbed the skin off the back of her ankles.

The occasional search flares lit up the night. Our greatest concern was being intercepted by Hungarian border patrols. We did encounter one patrol with a German shepherd. Our guide immediately vanished into the dark. Father took off his watch, took out whatever cash he had, and handed it to the two soldiers. They apologetically accepted the bribe, pointed us in the right direction towards Austria, and departed. Immediately afterward, our guide reappeared. We never knew whether or not the whole encounter was a set up. We proceeded into the darkness ahead until the faint beams of several vehicle headlights appeared. The jeeps belonged to the International Red Cross and the Austrian Border Police. We had arrived.

We were immediately taken to a small Austrian town and housed in a school gymnasium. The Red Cross provided us with oranges and chocolate. Oranges were a rare delicacy in Hungary, and receiving them confirmed for my brother and me that it was good to be a refugee. The next two weeks we spent in makeshift shelters in Vienna and Germany, and then proceeded by train to Munich to temporarily stay with our father’s sister’s family. Along the way, at each train station, hundreds of Austrians and Germans greeted us with care packages – clothing, food, and toiletries.

Our parents’ first intention was for us to go to Israel. After many hours of deliberations, the decision was made to apply for visas to Canada. It was thought that, at our parents’ age, it would be easier for them start all over again in Canada than in Israel. The decision was reinforced by the Canadian government’s open door policy towards Hungarian refugees, which included all-expense paid voyages to designated points of destination in Canada. Nearly 40,000 Hungarian refugees came to Canada during the ensuing months.

We boarded the 20,000 ton ocean liner the Arosa Sun in Bremmerhaven on January 24th 1957. The ship picked up more passengers in Le Havre and Southampton and, after a stormy 10-day voyage across the Atlantic, arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax on February 4. Most of us were seasick during the entire passage.

We met other Hungarian Jewish families and their children on the boat. As we settled in Canada, some of them became part of the lasting extended circle of friends for our parents and for my brother and me. For our parents those friendships were crucial as they faced the challenges of survival in the new land.

Fifty years later the Manager of Research at ‘Pier 21 Canada’s Immigration Museum’ was miraculously able to produce the ship’s registry of the Arosa Sun from our voyage. Among the names of all the crew and passengers are the names of my parents and my brother and I. This is the earliest official record of us having immigrated to Canada.

On February 5, we got on a train that was to take us to Vancouver, a city that to our parents seemed like the end of the world. The Canadian government had a policy of populating the West with new immigrants. Our parents knew very little about Vancouver and were much more inclined to settle in Toronto or Montreal. However, since the government insinuated that those who chose not to proceed to Vancouver might not receive any further governmental assistance, the choice of destination was made for us.

As we boarded the train each Hungarian refugee was greeted not only with care packages from the Canadian Red Cross, but also by a representative of the Kellogg’s Cornflakes Company. We were each handed several little boxes of cornflakes. We had never seen cornflakes before. On each box was taped a little note in verse form, written in Hungarian. The note said: "God brought you to Canada" (or "welcome to Canada") "a country of excellent products – we would like to introduce to you one of Canada’s outstanding products Kellogg’s Cornflakes. Over the next couple of days on the train, we made several futile attempts at eating the dry tasteless flakes that crumbled in your mouth. Eventually we learned to add milk and sugar. To this day, fifty years later, many of those refugees, including me, still have an emotional attachment, a product loyalty, to Kellogg’s Cornflakes, their first taste of Canadian culture.

We arrived on the West Coast on February 10 after a six-day train rides across the vast snow laden prairies. We were first housed in a military base in Abbotsford. From the base we could each night see searchlights in the distance. Little did we know that those lights were not for aerial defense, but for a car dealership in Vancouver. After about ten days at the military base, the Hungarian Jewish refugees were bussed to Vancouver and were generously hosted by Jewish families. A well-to-do family that lived in a sprawling house hosted us, overlooking the waterfront, near the campus of the University of British Columbia. Our first impression of life in Canada were thus very favourable.

A few weeks later, we moved into an eastside triplex along with five other Hungarian families. The children from the house attended New Canadian English classes in a nearby school and became forever indebted to our patient and creative New Canadian teacher, Miss. Stanley. Our parents meanwhile did whatever they could to carve out a living. Mother took in boarders, Hungarian single men. Father’s first job was to sweep the elevator shaft of an office building. He then got a job to paint the offices of the same building at night. Near the end of his life, he recalled that he was so proud when, after his first week of work, he could take home $20 to his wife with a feeling of confidence that he would be able to support his family.

In Budapest our parents and their friends always gathered for New Year’s Eve celebrations. In the midst of good food and joviality, they listened to special variety programs on Hungarian State Radio. On New Year’s Eve 1958, our first in Canada, our family got together with some of our Hungarian Jewish friends for a party. When I saw my parents dancing, I cautioned them, "Dancing is OK, but no babies." Nine months later, my mother gave birth to her third son, George. He was the first Canadian citizen in our family. Within our circle of friends, several of the other Hungarian families that arrived to Canada around the same time also had babies. The new arrivals were planting their Canadian roots.

In Hungary we often felt marginalized for being Jewish. In Canada we at times were marginalized for being immigrants. Instead of ‘dirty Jew’, the slur became "you dirty DP" (displaced person). One time I was attacked by a group of Italian kids, who with their Italian accent yelled, "You dirty DP, why you no go back where you come from." There were several other similar incidents resulting in fistfights. Being an adolescent is never easy. However, the normal challenges of adolescence are greatly compounded by the hurdles that immigrants face. For years I felt very self-conscious of my accent. Only when someone said to me "having an accent means that you have a more interesting background" did I begin to accept that it was all right to speak the way I spoke. For years, I felt like a cultural alien.

Our parents worked hard all their lives. They never became wealthy, but they provided for their three sons and took great satisfaction in seeing them live productive lives. Father especially took great pleasure in announcing to the world that all his three sons married ‘Canadian girls.’ And their greatest pleasure was taking delight in their eight grandchildren.

Father and mother never took their Canadian citizenship for granted. Once they became citizens (May 22, 1962) they never missed voting in all elections. From the first day that we arrived in Vancouver father had one mantra, "I have never felt so free in my whole life". He often reminded his sons that he was 52 years old when he had the opportunity to cast his very first free ballot.

Father also had great appreciation for the quality of the drinking water that came out of the tap in Vancouver, and the fresh air. He would ritually hold up a glass of water and gaze at it in wonderment, and then take a deep breath.

I left Europe as János Máté and arrived in Halifax as John Mate. As a 10 year old, I willingly relinquished the name I knew all my life in favor of the promise of easier assimilation. But I was never a ‘John.’ That is a very English name, and it always felt foreign to me. The day after our mother died on November 5, 2001, in the midst of my grief, I let go of my immigrant name, John, and returned to the earliest sounds of my childhood, to the name that mother gave me, Janos. I was no longer an immigrant.

Along with millions of other immigrants to Canada, we brought with us our family’s narrative. The myriads of anecdotes that make up the history of all the immigrant families that came to Canada comprise an essential component of this country’s history. Canada, through its immigrants, has become a major depository of the stories of people from around the world. Thus the story of Canada is intimately entwined with the history of the world over the past two centuries.