In Memory of Imre Racz

Seventh in a series

When my family moved to Seattle after my father’s heart attack, we lived across the street from the Racz’s. Imre, known as Bimbo, was Hungarian while Trude, his wife, was Austrian. I was always told that they fled the “Hungarian Revolution with only their paintings on their backs.” The one painting they retained hung over their living room fireplace — a misty scene of a woman with a lined face. This was my first exposure to art, and something about it captivated me. That and the idea that it was the one possession they had remaining from a prior life. As we had just left behind our lives with the Marine Corps, I could absorb the idea of moving, but not leaving everything behind. I still had my curtains, my lamp, my dolls. The painting was all they had from their home in Hungary.

I also didn’t understand what it meant to flee. Bimbo spoke little English and was embarrassed to use it. He had owned a shoe factory with 200 employees; now he worked in one. Most of the time, he fiddled in his basement workshop lined with his collection of cuckoo clocks. After we moved away, my mother and I often stopped by when we went to Seattle.

The first time that Bimbo saw me as a teenager he said in his heavy accent, “So beautiful, like movie star.” He made me feel like one. Then, as my rite of passage, he offered me “vermoot,” sweet Vermouth, in a tiny cordial glass. I didn’t much like it (nor did my mother, I could tell) but I knew what it meant to receive it from him, and I swallowed every drop.

Where was Bimbo in 1956? Budapest? I’ll never know. At the point that 20,000 Hungarian students took to the streets of the capital to demand freedom, food, the banishment of the secret police, removal of Russian control, etc., Poland had just succeeded in gaining more rights through a similar rebellion. The mood was hopeful. And initially, Russia responded favorably, releasing the regime’s biggest critic from prison and appointing a new prime minister, Imre Nagy, who was more liberal.

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Nagy went too far. He announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. The foreign minister split off and established a rival government in eastern Hungary that was supported by Soviet tanks. The hospital filled. An estimated 30,000 died. Fearing Soviet reprisals, 200,000 people fled to the west, leaving their possessions behind. This was Bimbo’s story.

President Eisenhower said, “I feel with the Hungarian people.” The American Secretary of State promised that “you can count on us.” But no help was given. The Soviets clamped down for decades more.

Next: City of Peace

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