I was born in then communist Hungary.
I spent my formative early years in a small town called Nyíregyháza. In those days Nyíregyháza was the first major town after crossing the border from the Soviet Union into Hungary.
Unfortunately, this meant we had our fair share of Soviet troop movements in the area. Today that border is the Ukraine border, and that’s not the only thing that has changed since those early years!
The family name and a brief family history, as learned from stories told by various family members
Although our original family name was Sander (the family being of ethnic Austrian/German origin on my father’s side dating back to Hungary being part of the Hapsburg Empire), it was explained to me that the name was ‘Hungarianised’ to ‘Sörényi’, a variation on the Hungarian word for the mane of a horse, ‘sörény’, as our family had a long history of keeping a full stable.
As the first-born male of my generation in my family, I was named ‘István’ (Stephen), just like my father and grandfather (and so on) before me in honour of Hungary’s first Catholic king who is credited with creating the Hungarian nation.
My paternal grandfather had defected to the Americans in 1945 at the end of the Second World War, but he was unable to get my grandmother and father out of the country as the Soviets have invaded the capital, Budapest, and closed off all routes of escape.
Another attempt was made by my grandfather in 1956, during the Hungarian counter-revolution, to get them out of the country, but that attempt has also failed. On the bright side, both my grandmother and father survived the Soviet slaughter that followed the Hungarian uprising, which resulted in the torture, imprisonment and death of thousands and the fleeing of over 200,000 Hungarians from the country.
My paternal grandfather lived out his life in the Americas and remarried in the 1960s to a wonderful American woman. They were brought together, partly, by their common love of horses. My grandfather raised and trained horses, while my step-grandmother had an affinity for dressage. They lived happily together for many decades, most recently in South Carolina, until my grandfather’s passing at the age of 98. My step-grandmother, a proud graduate of Wellesley College, still lives in South Carolina at their horse farm.
My Hungarian paternal grandmother was a woman who maintained her dignity through unimaginable hardships. Her family lost everything after the Soviets invaded Hungary and the new communist regime confiscated all their wealth. Following my grandfather’s defection to the Americans in 1945, she was left alone with two small children in a volatile country, hostile to her aristocratic roots.
She never remarried and, despite all the obstacles facing her, she worked hard and both her children grew up to become successful within the confines of a communist dictatorship. I recall fondly my annual visits to her in Budapest during my summer and winter holidays. She introduced me to the opera, ballet, theatre and museums from a very young age and she is responsible for the deep affinity I developed for the arts (and long afternoons at the cafés of Budapest eating wonderful cakes and sipping coffee and tea).
On my mother’s side, my grandparents lived in the small village of Nyírtura, about an hour’s drive from Nyíregyháza. During my childhood I spent many school holidays and weekends at my grandparents’ home.
My grandfather was a school principal and taught history and literature. I recall many wonderful summer afternoons and weekends at my grandparents’ farm talking with my grandfather about history and literature, while eating fresh watermelons, strawberries and raspberries from the garden. My maternal grandfather’s origins, who’s family name was Olah, can be traced back to the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries and a proud gypsy ancestry. Through him I have a wonderful historical connection with the Ottoman Empire, and the deeply maligned and misunderstood traditional gypsy culture.
My grandmother lived the traditional life of a country housewife and I still recall the many wonderful traditional Hungarian meals, cakes and pastries that seem to have been coming out of her kitchen as if a never-ending conveyor belt of culinary treats.
Their historical cottage and farm was a wonderful place for a young child. The attic was filled with treasures of the past and I could spend days up there working my way through towards the back wall, which was almost the equivalent of taking a trip through time – the further back you burrowed, the further back you went in time …
Their place was also a typical working farm, with all sorts of animals, including pigs, goose, ducks, chickens, dogs and cats, and vegetable gardens and fruit orchids. They lived a largely self-sustaining existence and after finishing up teaching for the day, my grandfather would become a farmer, even making his own salami and smoking his own meats. Through my stays there I experienced the best of country life has to offer, which is no doubt the source of my affinity for trips to the countryside even today.
I consider myself very lucky to have had a childhood filled with such wide-ranging cultural influences and experiences.
Developing political and social views
During my formative years I was exposed to as liberal political and social views as imaginable living under a communist dictatorship. I was also encouraged to think critically and to express myself without fear (not necessarily an entirely bright idea in communist Hungary).
My paternal grandmother was, in the privacy of her home, openly hostile towards the communist regime. My maternal grandfather had ideological objections to communism as a governing political and economic system and he spent a lot of time teaching me about history and politics and opened my eyes to the ideas of personal freedom and freedom of speech.
At home, my father, an electrical engineer, and my mother, a kindergarten teacher, encouraged free thought and have always challenged me to educate myself, read widely, question everything and make up my own mind about issues. Sadly my father, although an extremely intelligent man, was abusive and unstable, leading to my parents’ divorce in 1982, but that’s a story for another day.
Elementary and high school years
I was a nerdy, quiet and diligent young child and a straight-A student. My communist career-counsellors had high hopes for me and I was moved to a special teaching elementary school in year 7, in preparation for high school and university studies.
After finishing my elementary studies I entered the Krúdy Gyula Gimnázium (‘Krúdy Gyula’ High School) in 1982.
During my first year of high school studies I became politically active and participated in my first political protest on 15 March 1983, during the commemorations of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against Hapsburg rule. In the 1980s this national holiday had become a hotbed of anti-communist and anti-Soviet sentiments and served as a platform to express anger against oppression, communism, and Soviet occupation.
On this day, dressed up in traditional clothing as the Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi, in an act of defiance I publicly recited an updated version of the famous ’12 Points’, demanding, among other things, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, an end to Soviet occupation and political freedom. Although I was given a serious talking to over the incident, no other action was taken by the authorities at the time.
After the events of that day I was invited to join an underground movement of young political activist who worked to incite and support civil disobedience against Soviet occupation and communist rule.
My first defection
My first attempt to defect from Hungary came just 9 months after my first act of public defiance of the communist rule, in the winter of 1983/84 at the age of 15, in my second year in high school.
In December 1983, I travelled to Vienna, Austria, on the other side of the iron-curtain. I was secretly preparing for this trip for sometime, saving up money and hiding the rolled up bills inside emptied out cigarettes, covering them with some tobacco and resealing the cigarette packs making them look unopened. Even my parents had no idea what I was planning. Presumably, despite their very liberal views, they would have tried to stop me if they suspected what I was planning.
In hindsight, this was a very badly planned defection. I was simply too young, I had no idea what I was doing and it was the middle of winter!
During my first few days in Vienna, while I was trying to work out how to go about applying for political asylum, I slept wherever I could, including railway stations and other public buildings. On one particularly cold night, just a few days before Christmas, I decided to sneak into a bar for a drink to keep warm and there I met a wonderful woman, Elizabeth who, upon realising I was underage and what I was up to, marched me straight down to the nearest police station and helped me to formally seek political asylum.
I was promptly arrested and locked up at the police station overnight. Next morning Elizabeth turned up with her daughter, who was just a couple of years younger than I, and made arrangements for my release into her custody while my asylum application was being processed.
Over the next few months I lived with Elizabeth and her family in Vienna, while a political storm was growing around me. The Austrian government was completely blindsided by a 15 years old Hungarian boy claiming political asylum on his own.
I never knew what happened behind closed doors during this episode, but in March of 1984 Austrian government officials collected me, put me in a minibus and drove me to the Austrian-Hungarian border.
When we got to the Austrian side of the border I was asked to get out of the minibus and walk to the Hungarian side. I still remember those couple of minutes as I was slowly walking from the Austrian side towards the Hungarian border guards. They were pointing their machine guns at me, my legs were shaking (they almost gave out on me about halfway), my heart was pounding in my throat, and I was fully expecting them to open fire and get the whole thing over and done with right there and then.
At about the halfway mark I was tempted to turn around and try to run back to the Austrian side. I looked back. I could see one of the Austrian officials who took me to the border was crying. Strangely, this gave me strength. I turned my head back towards Hungary and kept walking.
The Hungarians were expecting me. I was promptly arrested and handcuffed. The guards were talking to me, calling me a dog, a pig, a traitor and other selected phrases that are unfit for publication, but I could barely hear or understand what they were saying to me. It was as if I left my body and I was watching all this from a distance, happening to somebody else.
Still handcuffed, I was thrown into the back of a blacked out van. We were on the road for quite a while. Then suddenly I could hear gates opening and people talking – the door of the van opened and I was let out. We were in some sort of loading dock. There were a couple of armed guards waiting and they took me to a room without speaking a word to me.
As it turned out, I was taken to Budapest but I never found out exactly where I was kept. They questioned me for what seemed like a few days, but it was hard to tell because I couldn’t see any windows and the lights were always on whether I was in my cell or in the interrogation room. After a while they seemed to grow tired of me, I was put in the back of a van again, driven around for a little while and finally, without saying a word, they simply dumped me near the main railway station.
Panel beating is a living …
After my unceremonious return to Nyíregyháza, I was immediately informed that I was kicked out of high school and the State had no intention wasting money on providing me with any further formal education. I promptly got a job at a local panel beating shop and worked there over the next few months while trying to figure out my future.
My family was trying everything they could to help me out, calling in every favour, talking to every friend they could trust. Eventually in September 1984 I was enrolled to be trained as a chef at the local Vendéglátóipari Szakmunkásképző Iskola (which roughly translates into Hospitality Training School, the equivalent of a specialised TAFE institution in Australia).
The school still exists today as the Sipkay Barna Kereskedelmi, Vendéglátóipari, Idegenforgalmi Középiskola, Szakiskola és Kollégium (‘Sipkay Barna’ Business, Hospitality, Tourism Trade School and College).
The 3-year training program consisted of weekly rotations between school and practical employment. I would spend one week at school attending classes, including general subjects such as mathematics, literature and history, and trade subjects such as food and hospitality theory, and the other week working in the kitchen of a local hotel, the Korona Hotel (Crown Hotel).
During this time, I also successfully represented the school at a number of national literature competitions.
I qualified as a chef in 1987 with the highest qualification and even received the school’s ‘Youth of the Year’ award for my overall achievements over my time at the school.
Night high school
Despite being trained as a chef, I was feeling restless because I realised that unless I completed high school I would never be able to get a higher education. (Yes, after all of the above I refused to give up hope of attending university one day.)
Since I was theoretically considered a ‘worker’, given I was placed at the Korona Hotel as part of my training as a chef, this opened up the way for some ‘creativity’ on my part and I enrolled at the Dolgozók Kossuth Lajos Gimnázium (Workers’ ‘Kossuth Lajos’ High School) to complete my high school education at night, while I was completing my training as a chef during the day. (Ironically, the school was named after one of the heroes of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, ‘Lajos Kossuth’ and, even more ironically, the school today is an evangelical high school.)
I haven’t slept much for the following 3 years (it is a good thing I was a teenager not that big on early nights) and I graduated from high school in the same year I qualified as a chef.
During these years I also continued my association with the underground anti-communist/anti-Soviet youth movement and participated in a range of direct action designed to undermine local communist officials, the communist regime generally and the Soviet occupational forces.
My second, more successful, defection
I received my high school certificate on 9 June and my trade certificate on 17 June 1987. I was due to receive draft papers for my compulsory military service within weeks.
However, I defected for the second, and final, time on the following Saturday, 20 June 1987. As before, I sought political asylum in Austria.
I was admitted to the Traiskirchen Refugee Camp where I was fingerprinted, photographed and processed. New arrivals were ‘quarantined’ until certain checks were completed, including medical checks and an official interview. There were armed guards, and the place could be more aptly described as a prison rather than a refugee camp. There were no phones, newspapers, no TV or access to any mail.
I was given a blanket, a pillow, an army style aluminium dish set and was shown to a bunk bed in a large room within a dormitory type setting, which accommodated about 60 to 80 people. There were more rooms like this opening from a long corridor. The large communal bathrooms were across the corridor, one for the men and another for the women, and contained large communal showers and a few toilet cubicles each.
At meal times we were corralled into lines in a large downstairs room by guards carrying automatic weapons. Holding out our pitiful aluminium plates and mugs the food was splattered onto our plate in what felt like a Dickensian moment each time. We had to eat quickly and quietly, after which we were marched straight back to our dormitories.
Soon we learned that our upcoming ‘first interview’ was a very significant event as based on our answers in that interview a decision would be made whether we are granted political asylum. The waiting time for this first interview was about a week or two.
My interview, although lasted well over an hour, seemed to have gone quickly. I was asked questions about my past and my family, why I left Hungary and what my future intentions were.
The first interview was an important milestone as it also marked a refugee’s release from ‘quarantine’ into the general population of the camp and the issue of a refugee ID card, which enabled a refugee to move freely within Austria. If political asylum was granted, the refugee could also work legally and could even make arrangements for accommodation outside the camp.
I was granted political asylum following my interview and received my refugee ID card on 29 June 1987.
The next step was deciding where I wanted to go. There were generally two options for any refugee who was granted political asylum. The first, to apply to be naturalised in Austria (or another Western European country) if I could show my family came from there within the last couple of generations. The second, to apply to migrate to a country accepting political refugees from Eastern Europe, which at the time were the USA, Canada and Australia.
I made a decision at an early stage to migrate to Australia, although I would have qualified for naturalisation in either Austria or Germany, given my family background. I decided against Canada due to its climate, and against the USA, even though my grandfather lived there, due to its political and social history.
While I was living in Austria I moved to a small village in the Austrian Alps where a small family hotel offered me a job and accommodation while I was waiting to migrate.
Once I applied to migrate to Australia I was interviewed repeatedly by officials from the Australian embassy as part of the screening and approval process. My application was eventually successful and I received my unrestricted Australian visa on 20 May 1988.
After I received my visa it took a few weeks for the Australian embassy to make the travel arrangements and I departed Vienna for Frankfurt on 7 June 1988 where I connected to a Qantas flight to Melbourne, Australia.
I arrived in Melbourne on 10 June 1988, just in time for the Queen’s birthday weekend, and commenced the next, Australian, chapter of my life. In 1990 I was granted Australian citizenship and soon after I legally changed my name back to the old family name.
I lived in Melbourne until 1992, when I moved to Sydney where I still live today.
Given the circumstances of my ‘departure’, there were a few unanswered question marks over my legal status in Hungary, which remained unresolved for close to 30 years. For that reason even though I had traveled to Europe over the years, I never felt comfortable putting Hungary on the itinerary.
Of course, the political landscape had changed in Hungary significantly since then.
After a rigorous administrative process, and with the assistance of the Hungarian Embassy in Canberra, my legal status in Hungary has been clarified and I am now a dual Australian and Hungarian/European Union citizen.