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A mother’s story – escaping communism to give her children freedom

Writer’s note: KIRO Radio begins a special series of reports this week honoring moms. One of the traits we often associate with motherhood is self-sacrifice. Most moms will do anything for their children.

The woman you’ll meet in this story is a courageous example of a mother who fought to give her children a gift that some of us in the United States take for granted.

“My kids keep thanking us that we brought them to freedom,” says Helen Szablya, the honorary head of the Hungarian Consulate in Seattle.

She was a 22-year-old college student, and mother of children who were two and four years old, when she was part of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

A scratchy BBC recording takes us back to that year with this appeal for help, “This is Hungary calling. This is Hungary calling. Early this morning the Soviet troops launched a general attack on Hungary.”

“The Nazis and the Soviets were fighting right in the middle of Hungary. In Budapest,” Szablya recalls.

“The Hungarian people defend every last street corner, but rifles are no match for tanks,” says a BBC announcer in an archive tape. “Why have the people of Hungary taken to the streets? What was it that they were prepared to die for?”

Szablya answers those questions with one word.


“What we wanted was everything that is in the Bill of Rights – freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion,” she says. “We wanted to have freedom by then. Everybody wanted freedom.”

She was nine months pregnant when she was a part of the Hungarian uprising in the winter of 1956.

“Around midnight my water broke and there was a curfew until seven in the morning,” she says. “We couldn’t get out, they would have shot us.”

By morning, Helen and her husband John made it to the hospital – its windows blown out by machine gun fire – and delivered her baby boy. When he was only 10 days old, the young family decided to leave their homeland.

Even though John Szablya was one of the promising young scientists who had every allowable privilege under the Soviet system, it seemed that if they wanted to raise their children with freedom and in the Catholic faith, they would have to leave.

They suffered a series of setbacks for the next several weeks. They’d find themselves close to freedom, only to be sent back to Budapest where there were 20,000 fresh graves and more added every day.

Finally, the Szablya family was within 12 miles of the Austrian border.

“We started walking those 12 miles,” she says. “The 4 year old walked almost all the way. And the 2 and a half year old, after a while he got tired and then we put him in my husband’s nap sack. The baby was in the basket and John was carrying the baby too. I was carrying myself. I was happy to be able to walk just three weeks after giving birth.”

The border between Austria and Hungary was heavily guarded. The kids had to remain quiet, otherwise the family and people they were trying to escape with would have been instantly detected.

Szablya had taught her children how to cry silently.

“What we did was hold their nose and their mouth after they take a big breath,” she says covering her own mouth and nose for a moment. “Then you let the breath out slowly, and you talk to them saying, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry. Don’t make any noise because everybody is here and we are fine.’ You know you talk to them nicely.”

On December 6, 1956 the family temporarily split up as they reached the border. Two men the family did not know picked up the Szablya children and carried them to safety. He crossed the border before she did.

“John was over there and he said that he doesn’t remember if it was one second, several minutes or a day, but finally I arrived,” she says. “We were just hugging each other and in that minute the flares went up.”

That meant that it was exactly 6:15 on a star-filled, moonless evening, when the changing of the guard was completed.
“We just made it,” Szablya says. “Our four year old hugged our knees and started crying. She didn’t know why she was crying, but she felt it.”

Helen and John ended up having seven children when they moved to British Columbia, and then the United States, settling first in Spokane where he was an engineer and professor at Washington State University.

He died a few years ago, but on Mother’s Day and so many other days throughout the year the Szablya children thank Helen for the sacrifices that led to their freedom.

“We didn’t want to bring up our kids in a dictatorship, but in freedom,” she says. “We wanted them to learn about freedom and democracy and about God because they wouldn’t have had a chance there.”


There is much more to Helen’s story. She’s just published the book My Only Choice: Hungary 1942-1956.

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