Posted: October 5, 2006
n October 23, 1956, students gathered at the foot of Sandor Petofi's statue in Budapest and read his poem "Rise, Magyar!" made famous in the democratic revolution of 1848. Workers, and even soldiers, soon joined the students. The demonstrators took over the state-run radio station and the Communist Party offices and toppled a huge statue of Stalin, dragging it through the streets. Rebellion spread throughout the country. The demonstrators—now Freedom Fighters—held Soviet occupation forces at bay for several days.
On November 1, the Hungarian Prime Minister announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. At dawn, November 4, the Soviets launched a major invasion of Hungary, in an offensive involving tens of thousands of additional troops, air and artillery assaults, and 6,000 tanks. A heroic resistance was crushed in less than a week.
The last free Hungarian radio broadcast spent its final hours repeating the Gettysburg Address in seven languages, followed by an S.O.S. Over 20,000 Hungarians were tried and sentenced for participation in the uprising, hundreds receiving the death sentence. An estimated 200,000 Hungarians—of a population of nine million—became refugees. Forty-seven thousand came to the United States. Hungary became a member of NATO on March 12, 1999.
In October 1956, my parents, my four-year-old sister, and I shared a small apartment with my father's parents and his brother on the plaza near the eastern railroad station in Budapest. I was two months shy of my tenth birthday when the Hungarian Revolution began.
Because the revolutionaries had taken over the railroad station, the Soviets positioned several tanks in our neighborhood, and we could not leave our apartment. There was heavy fighting, and bodies were strewn everywhere; one lay just outside our window for several days. After a week and a half, the action moved elsewhere and we could once again venture outdoors—carefully. Walking around one day, I came upon a Russian personnel carrier that was stacked with skeletons. It seemed that each was covered with about two inches of black velvet. I later learned that these poor souls had been burned alive by a Molotov cocktail.
It soon became clear that though the Soviets had pulled out of our immediate area, they were winning. The Revolution was going to be defeated, and they would be back. Things were going to get more unpleasant than ever, and Hungary had not been a pleasant place for the Schramms for quite a long time.
My father, William, was born in 1922, into a politically tumultuous Hungary produced by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. His father, an active participant in the 1919 Communist revolution, was hounded by the Fascists then ruling Hungary. By the time my father reached his teens, the Depression hit, followed by another world war. My father was placed in the air artillery. He liked it there, he said, because they could pretend to shoot down American planes, knowing that the B-17s were flying well out of range. They couldn't hurt the good guys, yet they did their duty. That was as good as life got in those days.
The war's end brought little relief. When the Communists took control of the country in 1949, they "expropriated" my parents' little textile shop (about half the size of my current living room) and everything in it. Under this new tyranny, my parents were considered part of the dangerous "bourgeoisie." In that same year, the Communists sentenced my father's father to ten years hard labor for having a small American flag in his possession (by that time he had been a leader of the social democrats for some years). At his "trial" he was asked why he had the flag. Was he a spy? He replied that it represented freedom better than any other symbol he knew, and that he had a right to have it. My father tried then, for the first time, to persuade my mother, Rose, to leave the country. But ties to family and friends were too strong, and she could not bear to do it. Soon, my father himself was sentenced to a year of prison for "rumor mongering" (someone claimed he had called a Communist a tyrant, which he had). When he got out, he washed windows for a while and made illegal whiskey to make ends meet as best he could.
My grandfather got an early release from the labor camp in 1956 and came back to us looking like a victim of the Holocaust. Still, the first thing he wanted to know was whether we still had the flag. Of course, we did not. It had long ago been confiscated. But my father didn't want to break his father's heart and had somehow managed to secure another one. We took it out of its hiding place and, at that tender age, I learned the very adult lesson of the complexity of telling the truth. Seeing that flag somehow erased much of the pain and torment of my grandfather's years of imprisonment; it seemed to give him hope.
Now, with the revolution failing, everyone expected that the Communist boot was going to come down harder than ever. But before we had more opportunities to experience it, an odd accident set us on the path to a very different future. On one of his trips out to secure some bread, a hand grenade landed next to my father but, miraculously, did not go off. That was the last straw. He came home and announced to my mother that he was going to leave the country whether she would come or not. Mom said, "O.K., William. We will come if Peter agrees. Ask Peter."
"But where are we going?" I asked.
"We are going to America," he said.
"Why America?" I prodded.
"Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place."
He said that as naturally as if I had asked him what was the color of the sky. It was so obvious to him why we should head for America that he never entertained any other option. Of course, he hadn't studied American history or politics, but he had come to know deep in his heart the meaning of tyranny. He hungered for its opposite and knew where to find it. America represented to my father, as Lincoln put it, "the last, best hope of earth." I would like to be able to say that this made my father a remarkable man for his time and his circumstances. For, in many ways, he truly was a wonder. But this is not one of those ways. Among the Hungarians I knew—aside from those who were true believers in the Communists—this was the common sense of the subject. It was self-evident to them. I would spend much of the next 20 years acquiring this common sense for myself.
Journey to America
We could not tell anyone—including my grandparents and uncle—that we were leaving. It was safer for them (and for us) that they not know where we were, so they could answer honestly and convincingly when questioned. We therefore had to leave with essentially nothing. My sister Marta and I each had a doll and a small bag of clothes. My parents had one small bag between them. And my father had 17 dollars in his pocket in single dollar bills, which he had been hoarding for years; good as gold, he always said. The trains were packed with many other people similarly outfitted and with the same destination—the Austrian border. The Russians were stopping the trains and looking for people. We all just kept our heads down and said nothing to anyone.
When we left the train, hundreds of others left, too, all taking different paths, doing their best to ignore one another but inevitably merging into larger groups, since they were all heading in the same direction. We had many miles ahead of us, most of them in the dark, some across fields and farm land. We did our best to avoid haystacks (where Russians were thought to lie in ambush), and I remember a particularly difficult thing we had to do—ignore the nearby sound of a crying child. That was a well-known Russian trick. We did, however, come upon a boy whose father had been shot. He was immediately welcomed into our growing and informal group of which, it seemed, my father had become the leader.
We crossed a little bridge in the dark before morning. Someone heard the sound of German on the other side of the bridge. It was the Austrian border post! As we stepped over a line, the Austrians asked us to show our weapons. I remember being utterly surprised to see that every man in our group immediately began to drop pistols, knives, etc. We had just finished an expedition of the brave. It had led us to the town of Nickelsdorf, Austria. There we were housed in a big barn, and slept soundly, on beds of straw (I remember the oddness of going to sleep when it was still daylight). The next morning we were moved to an Army camp near Innsbruck. For nearly a month, we were fed and housed there. Dad went out and got a job. I occupied myself in the normal pursuits of 10-year-old boys.
Occasionally, officials from the various embassies of different countries would come by and attempt to catalogue where the refugees were planning to go and why. They wanted to know if we had any relatives in any other country. We did not. The man from the German embassy encouraged us to settle in Germany. We would be made citizens immediately because Schramm was a German name. My father told him we were not German. He was sure of what he wanted. But we had no relatives in America. The representative from the American embassy asked my father, "Don't you know anyone in America?"
As fate would have it, we did. Back in 1946, in war-ravaged Hungary before I was born, my father (who was not a mechanic or an engineer, but was resourceful in all things) had somehow managed to build a car out of scrap parts. It was nothing more, really, than an engine with four wheels and a flat-bed in the back. Apart from military vehicles, cars on Hungarian streets were an extreme rarity at that time. He combed the countryside in this contraption for junk to sell or trade so that his family could survive.
On one such excursion, he came upon a man standing next to a broken-down Volkswagen. The man turned out to be a decommissioned U.S. officer who had been born in Hungary and was taking time off to tour the country. My father was able to help him get the car going again, and the man offered to pay for the help in precious dollars. Dad was too proud to take the money, but he accepted the man's business card. It read, "Joseph Moser, DDS, Hermosa Beach, California." "If you ever need anything," the man said, "don't hesitate to call." Dad gave the card to my mother for safekeeping.
Now, in Nickelsdorf, Austria, ten years later, my mother remembered that we did know someone in America. She ran back to the bunks and out of her little satchel pulled an old, rumpled business card. "Yes," my father said, "I know this man." He showed the business card to the American. We had had no contact with Dr. Moser in all those intervening years. But he was still where his card said he was, and he was willing (thank God!) to sponsor us.
Within a week of contacting Dr. Moser, we were shipped off to Munich and then took a plane to New York City. We landed just before midnight on Christmas Eve, one day after my tenth birthday. When the plane stopped for refueling in Newfoundland, the crew of the airline (TWA, as I recall) gave Christmas presents to the children on board. My sister got a doll, and I got a toy Army jeep. This was the extent of the presents for that Christmas—except for the freedom we were about to enjoy. On Christmas morning we were taken to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for processing.
A few weeks later we took a train to Los Angeles where we were met by Dr. Moser and his family. Sponsorship meant that they had to guarantee that we would not become a burden to the American people. He had to house and feed us for awhile. Mom and Dad both got jobs right away, Dad at the local newspaper lifting heavy things, and Mom cleaning houses. Soon we had a little beach shack to live in, and my parents were able to purchase their first restaurant with their savings and a bank-financed loan. The whole family went to work. We had to tear the place apart before we could open it. After it was opened, my sister and I washed dishes as Mom and Dad cooked and waited on tables.
The Education of an American
When I reached high school age we moved to Studio City and bought a bigger restaurant, Schramm's Hungarian Restaurant, right across the street from many of the movie studios. I attended Hollywood High because it had an ROTC program, which the neighborhood high school didn't. But I must say that I didn't learn much, either in high school or college, about the great country to which I'd emigrated. Even in the early '60s (before "political correctness" had been heard of), it was already common for teachers and professors to teach that America was an amazingly hypocritical place. All I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln, one teacher said, was that he was a racist.
When I graduated from Hollywood High in 1964, I enrolled at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge), while continuing to work for my parents. By that time, I had become an avid reader and had accumulated a large and growing library of my own (to the chagrin of my father, to whom this seemed very impractical). But there was no particular focus to my reading—I wandered through history, philosophy, literature, language, as one thing or another struck my fancy. When I started college, I just took classes that I found interesting. I had no plan or major in mind, until I discovered I had to pick one. So I picked political science.
Throughout these years, because of my own experience rather than anything I was taught in school, I maintained an interest in American politics. The anti-Communist positions of the GOP were a natural draw for my family and me. We didn't think the Democrats fully appreciated the enemy. I became active in Republican Party politics and campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and for Ronald Reagan in his successful race two years later to become Governor of California. But my politics were not well developed.
While I was active in the Young Republicans, I attended a few seminars sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. They provided an opportunity for students from colleges all around the country to meet and study with some of the leading conservative professors. It was in 1965 at one of these summer seminars that I first met Harry V. Jaffa. He had just moved from Ohio to Claremont Men's College and was teaching a class on Shakespeare; Martin Diamond was teaching one on The Federalist. At about the same time, I came across the new journal Intercollegiate Review and the youthful National Review.
As I met and became friends with other students and teachers in Claremont, I discovered a world of study that united all my interests and included an understanding of America that was worthy of the subject. I enrolled in a doctoral program in Government at Claremont Graduate School in 1971. I took classes on Plato's Phaedo, the American Founding, Lincoln, Shakespeare's politics, and many other topics. It was intoxicating, made even more pleasant because it took place with friends, who were not only smart and hardworking, but partisans of America and the things for which the country stood. It was here that I started understanding what my father had always understood: that in America human beings could prove to the world that they have the capacity to govern themselves. I came to understand what Lincoln meant when he said that the ideas of the Declaration of Independence were the "electric cord" that linked all Americans together, as though we were "blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration." This is what it meant to be an American, and it wasn't all that far from what it meant to be a man.
America became home to me, and these days I continue my life as a student of America. The difference is that now a university pays me to study, rather than my paying it for the privilege. Here at a liberal arts college in central Ohio, I'm in the ironic position of teaching native Americans (I mean native-born Americans) how to think about their country. How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly American, that I, a Hungarian immigrant, should teach them.
When I teach them about American politics and American history, I start with a simple thing about their country and themselves. I tell them that they are the fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them this as a thing that should be as obvious to them as it was to my father. And their blessing, their great good fortune, lies in the nation into which they were born. I tell them that their country, the United States of America, is not only the most powerful and the most prosperous country on earth, but the most free and the most just. Then I do my best to tell them how and why this is so. And I teach them about the principles from which those blessings of liberty flow. I invite them to consider whether they can have any greater honor than to pass undiminished to their children and grandchildren this great inheritance of freedom.
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This essay is adapted from a longer memoir in On Principle, Special Edition, April 2006.