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Horrors of war tempered by first taste of sweet, sticky bubble gum

Judit Kenyeres


Budapest, November 11, 1956. Shelling and tank fire force my mother, my elder brother and me to take refuge in a bomb shelter. My mother’s face is grey and she is dressed in black. I'm afraid to look at her. She's become a ghost. Perhaps she escaped to join all the other ghosts of my family; my brother's father, my grandparents and uncle. They all perished 11 years before.

My step father was buried 3 days ago. He committed suicide on the night the Russian tanks thundered into Budapest. He died by his own hands rather than being hung by the revolutionaries. He had been packed to go into hiding. To me, he was my beloved guardian; to them, Chief Justice of the Politburo, an executioner.

It is dangerous to venture out to buy bread. People are killed every day while waiting in bread lines. Gabi, my brother, has been sent out to do the shopping. I am given tranquilizers to help me sleep, to soothe my fears.

Budapest, December 7, 1956 . My aunt, Annineni, my uncle, Zolibacsi and my cousin Laci have come all the way from Miskolc to be together with us. This morning my mother and my aunt sit sewing gold jewelry into coat linings. Laci and I watch, curious about what the adults will do next. At bedtime, we are all dressed in layers of clothing. This, we’re told, will help to lighten the load in our two small knapsacks. It may also help to lessen the impact of a fall.

There is no moon. Protected by the dark, we steal past Soviet soldiers, asleep in their tanks, guarding the train station. I sleep among the knapsacks while our train labours under the weight of its load.

A border town between Hungary and Austria, December 8, 1956 It is dawn. The train stops. Gathering the little that is ours, we debark. I am lifted from the train onto a wagon. Under bales of hay we are concealed from the searching eyes of patrolling soldiers. The peasant’s cart rolls down the bumpy village road with its secret cargo. Our hosts’ humble home is filled with the sweet, sticky smell of babies and hot milk. The children are fed large slices of homemade bread with fresh pork lard, sprinkled with paprika. Then we are packed away. Seven small bodies are laid out in a row on the high and wide peasant bed. Our squeals, giggles and whimpers are muffled, buried under the weight of a feather filled comforter.

While still dark, we are roused from our milky and feathery dreams. It is midnight. We all file out into the night in silence, following our very stern host and guide to where a hundred other bodies, including many children, are waiting. We stand vigilant, straining to hear instructions by our guides, our leaders to be over the rugged, frozen, furrowed terrain. Children are gagged or silenced by fear. The adults smoke their last cigarettes.

During our silent march three Soviet flares light up the skies. Flat on our stomachs our shadowy shapes blend with the earth and sky. We are rendered invisible. The escape, fraught with apprehension, is otherwise uneventful.

The Austrian Frontier, December 9, 1956 We cross over the night and reach the border. Except for the glow of red cigarette tips, we are enveloped by the grey, steely light of dawn. Red Cross ambulances are waiting for us. The Austrians greet the children with milk chocolate, the adults, with cigarettes. Convents and synagogues offer us shelter. We sleep stacked in rows on humps of straw.

Vienna, December 24, 1956 . I have fallen in love with a Hungarian refugee. His name is Gyuri and we are inseparable. We walk through the city, kissing and holding hands. Our parents think us adorable.

Then, it is Christmas. A Viennese family welcomes us, my little family, into their home. There are gifts for everyone. Laci and I are happy to play with the two children our age. They are generous with their toys. However, there is one thing they will not share!! It is much too precious! Yet they tempt us with their prize, teasing us with their pink explosions. Skin like bubbles appears from between their lips. They grow bigger and bigger and then explode, again and again. How I long to have my own bubble! It is called Gumi. The boys taunt me pulling at the wet pinkness, stretching it thinner and thinner. It sticks to their fingers and lips. What magical pink bubbles they can blow!

In Transit, January 2 to 17, 1957. A refugee camp accommodates us while we wait for our ship, bound for Canada, to receive passengers. We are to stay only a few days but a young girl dies of polio. A two-week quarantine shuts us in and others out. I have more time to play with my doll and Laci.

The Scythia, Cunard Lines. January 19 to 29, 1957 . On the ship, I play with other children while the grownups struggle with seasickness. I discover orange juice and white, sliced bread toasted. As the ship heaves from side to side, riding on a storm, we romp from deck to deck, lurching in delight. The ship’s cinema presents “Moby Dick.” Many stay away. In a beauty contest my mother wins a box of chocolates with the picture of our ship on it. I sing, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” again and again, until I think I know it well. It is my first English song. I try to teach it to my mother.

During a practice drill, I refuse to put on my life jacket. I don’t want to jump into the icy water below. Ten days pass over the rough, cold waves with much lighthearted play.

Halifax, January 29, 1957. Zolibacsi and I are in hospital. We are suspected of having TB. The doctors clear us for further travel several days later. We board the train going to Montréal.

Montréal, February 7, 1957. It is my Birthday. I am 9 years old and we have arrived.

Jewish General Hospital, February 9, 1957 . I have my long overdue asthma attack. The doctors and nurses at the hospital are very kind. It is nice to be able to have orange juice and white, sliced bread toasted, dripping with butter, again. At visiting hour, my mother brings me presents; chocolates, candies and a beautiful shiny, red leather purse. It is my first grown up purse. I inspect my loot and decide on a small, square, pink candy. It is covered with white powder and has a tiny comic wrapped around it. It sticks to my fingers. When I try to remove it, it stretches. Stretches!!?? Memories of pink explosions wash over me. This is no candy…. Could it be? Could it really be Gumi? My curiosity and excitement mount!

I put it back in my mouth, wrap my tongue around it and knead it with my teeth to soften my new-found pleasure. I stick my tongue in the soft, resisting goop and push. It remains intact. I withdraw my tongue and blow. A tight, little bubble escapes from between my lips and pops. I am astonished. I try again. This time, I risk sticking my tongue further into the juicy, rubbery mass and then withdraw it, blowing at the same time. My breath enters and bursts forth in an ecstatic pink bubble, suspended precariously at the edge of my lips. I continue to blow. My fragile, sweet balloon grazes my nose and then, blocks my view. With pink bubble gum plastered all over my face, I sit on my hospital bed, pleased with myself. So, this is Canada!. A land full of pink bubbles to blow.

Feb. 9, 1957, a most memorable time! On this day, I managed to blow my first Canadian bubble and I was proud!

In Commemoration of the 64th Anniversary of our escape from Hungary.

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Alison Fleming
Alison Fleming
Dec 30, 2022

Judit. This is such a magnificent memoir from the point of view of you, the child. It is beautifully written. I love how it is written all in short sentences-that express your (the child's) perceptions- but that rapidly move the narrative forward. I love how you contrast the challenges faced by the adults (which are, of course, simply devastating, but are mostly left to the imagination) and the experiences of the child. The feelings that the children are protected and cared for is conveyed under the blankets. I was very moved Your memoir sent me to a memory of my own from the point of view of a child (like 8 or 9 as well) with a Hungarian …

judit kenyeres
judit kenyeres
Dec 02, 2023
Replying to

Dearest Alison,

Your words energize and encourage me!! You are indeed a kind and generous friend with whom I share Hungarian mothers and curls. I hope to keep blowing bubbles with you for eons to come!! Judit


Thank you for sharing your story


Such a touching story! Thank you Judit for let us know what it was like in Hungary in those days. Great story! Merci Judit


The best kind of writing....evoking the child's point of view both during the terror of flight, and the unforgettable joys of discovery. Keep blowing those magical bubbles Judit!


EarlM Fowler
EarlM Fowler
Dec 12, 2022

Happy 64th! Wonderful.

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