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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 9 page 12


The semaphore man opened the door, peered out, and asked, “What do you want?” He was not exactly welcoming, but then again, with all the Russians around, who knows what he thought or what his worries were? I was still shaking from the experience of hiding from the Russians. I tried to explain that I just got off the train, was lost, and was trying to get to Austria, and could he please point me in the right direction.

I was taking a chance, but he turned out to be another one that helped. In a steady, clear voice he said, “Go up the tracks about one hundred metres, turn right, and run like hell till you come to a small creek. Cross it, and you should be in Austria. Good luck, and I hope you get help from the Hungarian border patrol and not the Russians.” With that he slammed his door and I was on my own again in the middle of that night.

An unofficial border crossing

I did just as he said, proceeding along the tracks about a hundred metres and then turning right. As I started across a dark deserted field, not more than ten minutes into my journey, three soldiers appeared out of nowhere. “Stop!” they yelled. “What are you doing here?”

In a trembling voice, I answered that I came from Budapest, where the battle against the Russians was being lost, and that I just wanted to get out of the country. To my amazement, rather than arresting me, they told me exactly how to go forward and how to avoid the Russian machine gun towers, which were located about 500 metres apart all along the border. You could hear the occasional burst of machine-gun fire in the distance. I thanked them and gave them some watches. My mom and dad made sure I had six or seven watches to bribe the Russians, who were known to love watches. If you wanted a favor from a Russian soldier, you had only to give him a strap watch. Although these chaps were Hungarians, I gave them three watches and they pointed the way to the border.

In a few minutes, I met up with a group of other refugees. We exchanged a few whispered words and then proceeded as a group. There was a young mom and dad with their daughter, perhaps age four, and a small baby that the dad carried in his arms; and there was another single lad like myself. So the six of us continued on our way. When the girl of four started to cry, I took her from her dad and held her in my arms. She quieted down, but in truth it also helped me to feel loved and comforted at a time when I needed this perhaps more than she did. This was a combined experience of terror and yet hope. There has never been anything like it in my life since. We marched on. Before long, we came to a small creek. This had to be one that the semaphore man meant.

We were in late November. It was pretty cold. Patches of snow dotted the ground, and icy water lay before of us. We crossed the creek, believing from what we had been told that it was Austria. In the distance, we saw the figures of a different-looking group of soldiers, or were they police? Green hats and feathers in their caps. I knew from previous descriptions that these were Austrian border policemen.