DURING the last two weeks of October, the Ujvagi brothers and sisters went on a fantastic, most unbelievable journey. For the first time in more than 40 years, since our family escaped from Hungary after the 1956 revolution, we returned home together. There were five of us - two older brothers, two younger sisters, and myself.
In the Hungarian language “home” is said two ways: “ithon” and “othon” - roughly translated as “here at home” and “there at home.” When I am here in America and I say home, I say othon and mean Hungary. When I am in Hungary and I say home, I say ithon, and refer to America.
We went back home to pay our respects to our parents, who passed away during the last few years. We wanted to pay respect to their courage, fortitude, faith, and confidence in America, their willingness to step into the unknown for the sake of their children, for their right to practice their faith, for freedom.
We went to reconnect with family, to strengthen our understanding of our roots, and to renew the connection of the next generation of cousins with each other across the ocean.
We went to remember and to commemorate the days of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, when a ragtag collection of teenagers, university students, and workers tore the mask off the horrors of communism, even if only for a few short days of freedom.
It was an emotion-filled, life-affirming trip. On a personal basis for our family, to walk on the streets and in the footsteps of our parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents, was an amazing experience.
We visited the places on Timar Utca (street), Szollo Utca (street), and elsewhere, where our father struggled to maintain his small analytical scale business against the pressures of a communist government that twice nationalized his shop and then made him work on his own machines in the collective factory, the szakszervezet.
We went to Mass, in honor of our parents, at St. Alajos church where I took my first communion at the age of 6, one year early, learning the Ten Commandments through pictures drawn on the blackboard, because my parents and our parish priest feared that the communists would close the churches before the year was out.
Seven weeks ago I stood with my brothers, sisters, and cousins, among 50,000 people in Szena Ter, a major site of battle in 1956, in commemoration of those few exhilarating days of freedom. I stood there proud to be an American, a Hungarian-American who has had the great good fortune to live in America, and to be a part of the history of that great country Hungary.
On the deathly quiet morning of Oct. 24, we walked among the headstones of the Hungarian freedom fighters secretly buried for decades in what is known as section 301 of the Ujpest Cemetery by their communist executioners. We heard nothing but the sound of snow falling and every now and then the somber clanging of a bell that stands over the grave of Imre Nagy, the Hungarian prime minister who tried to take Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact and was executed.
I rang that bell seven times for every member of my family who started here in America, and in some ways for all of us here in the Birmingham neighborhood and in Toledo. I rang it for the liberty and freedom that we enjoy and so often take for granted.
As we departed those hallowed grounds, we saw grave markers with the year of death: 1960, 1961, 1962. The communists, trying to project an image as a government of laws, waited four, five, and six years until the teenage freedom fighters were 21 years old before they executed them by hanging. It struck me how much we take our freedoms for granted.
These were life-affirming experiences.
But I came back with other, more disconcerting experiences as well. There was the sight of super stores that combine Wal-Mart, a Home Depot, a Walgreen's, and a dozen specialty stores all in one structure around the edges of Budapest. This is truly a “big box” store. It was clear that in the next decade the neighborhood stores will be just abandoned places.
I saw the future of urban sprawl and it scared me. I saw the proliferation of McDonald's - often one on each side of the street - and Burger Kings advertising “Italian days” in Hungarian at an American hamburger joint.
I saw the Jerry Springer show with Hungarian subtitles on the cable channel. To deal with that show in two languages was more than enough.
Most disturbing of all, for the first time, I saw and heard the rise of anti-American feelings, and even of a fear of America. I observed the perception that we have become a go-it-alone, dictatorial superpower that does not listen to, and perhaps does not even want, allies. I heard the word “cowboy” more times than I want to recall. This is new in a country that since 1848 has looked on America as a model of republican government and democracy.
As we look to 2004, we need to understand our role in the world. We'd better understand that we have to work with other nations to shape a safe, democratic, and free world, or we will increasingly stand alone.
I returned home to America, to Ohio, to Toledo, and to the Birmingham neighborhood, with gratitude.
I am grateful to my parents for their bravery and for the heritage they bequeathed our family
I am grateful to America for the freedom and opportunities that she has provided to all of us in the Ujvagi family.
And I am grateful to the citizens of Toledo for letting me, helping me, be a part of the democratic political process of this great country, to in some small way make real the words “freedom,” “democracy,” and “liberty” for which so many died in the streets of Budapest almost half a century ago.
Peter Ujvagi is a member of the Ohio General Assembly. He lives in East Toledo. He and brothers Charles and Edward and sister Magdalene (Baba) were born in Hungary and arrived in Toledo in 1957. Another sister, Bernadette, was born in Toledo in 1959. Their father died in 1999 and their mother passed away in 2002.