My mother, Aranka Csiszar, was born on October 22, 1935, in Mezofalva, Hungary, the middle one of Anna and Frank Csiszar’s seven children: Vilma, János, Annus, my mom, Eszti, Edit, and little Ferenc, born in June 1944.
Her father was a gentle spirit who didn’t believe in violence. She remembers checking his pockets for candies whenever he came home. Her mom spoke Romanian and Hungarian fluently and did the best she could for her family.
While waging war against the Soviet Union, Hungary engaged in secret peace negotiations with the United States and the United Kingdom. Hitler discovered this betrayal, and in 1944 German forces occupied Hungary. My mom’s father was conscripted to fight in the German army against the Russians, missing the birth of his youngest son.
My mom was nine and had a Jewish playmate next door. She remembers waiting one morning for her to come out to play, but she never did. There was a big yellow star painted on the front door. They never talked about this family again.
In August 1944, two weeks before the invasion, my grandmother packed up her children to escape the war. They travelled in freight train boxcars heading to Austria and freedom. At a station stopover my aunt Vilma, who was fifteen, got off their freight car and recognized an injured soldier on another hospital train as their father. Their mother spoke to the authorities and was able to take him away with them.
An ongoing daylight bombing campaign was waged against the rail system between Budapest and Vienna. During the journey they were constantly afraid of being bombed. Mom recalls about eight times when the train would suddenly stop in the countryside. She remembers running into fields of corn or watermelon patches away from the train. Other times they hid under bridges. While in the fields, they would gather armfuls of corn or watermelons and, returning to the boxcars, live on them for a while. To this day mom can’t stand eating corn and only small amounts of watermelon.
At Nagyrakos, her mom was too afraid to continue. Her dad was very sick and they took him to a hospital, but he couldn’t be helped. The family stayed there from the end of September until March 1945, when the war ended. In May 1945, they found a wagon and a sick horse to carry them back to Budapest.
Along the way they would stop in small villages, hoping for food and shelter, or mom and her siblings would find food in the fields. They suffered so much loss after the war. Hunger was by then a way of life.
Russians soldiers took the horse, leaving the kids to push the wagon to a train station, where they rested for two days before being allowed on a train back to Budapest. They arrived in July.
Her father lived with them until he died in June 1946. Her mom was only 37. Vilma married at sixteen to help out the family.
Living conditions were difficult in Budapest. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a closet-sized kitchen. When mom was eleven, she stayed for a while with a well-off family. Her sister Eszti lived with a teacher’s family for two years. Both families wanted to adopt the girls, but my grandma wouldn’t separate them from her family.
Vilma decided to put them into a school dormitory in 1948. The family got together for holidays. Mom hated it; she so wanted her freedom. She heard about places like North America where there was freedom to travel from city to city without having to report first to the police for a stamp and questions like, “Why do you want to leave Budapest?”
So during her 3rd year of high school she left and started working on the trolley system, collecting fares from passengers. She had been there for three months, when the revolution started in October 1956. With her final pay cheque she decided to leave.
Her younger sister Edit fought back in the streets, throwing rocks, cocktail bombs. Mom wouldn’t fight; she was chicken, with a quiet personality. So it surprised the family when she left Hungary.
In late November, in the early morning hours, she and some others snuck out from a small village, their papers in hand, but were caught in the woods by Russian soldiers. Their documents were taken, their names written down, and they were put on a train back to Budapest.
But at a border village eight of them jumped the train. Mom and another girl slept with an old couple on a bed of corn leaves. Early the following morning they went through fields to a lake where Hungarian soldiers helped them escape by boat to Austria. After traveling for three days, mom suffered from frost bite, needing medical attention. She stayed in Eisentadt for two days, recovering, and then moved to a refuge camp in Sulzberg.
Mom then lived for a year with a family that owned a pub in Sulzberg, while working for a company making fabric for girdles and stockings. Her family found her through the Red Cross, not having received any of the letters she had sent them.
Mom heard that Australia was accepting immigrants. So in 1957, she and 30 other Hungarians from the camps signed on to go.
First she went to Amsterdam to board a big ship going to Australia. The trip took a month. It was a luxury liner with dancing and shopping and swimming. Mom says that when the ship stopped in Athens, 300 robed women came on board to join the trip to Australia.
It was hot. They travelled through the Suez Canal and had to stop for a day to allow another ship to pass through. While there, Mom decided she would go for a swim in the Canal. She went down the ladder and swam with sailors already swimming. She didn’t know this was against the rules and the ship’s captain and crew tried to get her to return. She couldn’t speak English and didn’t know what the commotion was about but knew she was in trouble. On another night Mom and other passengers decided to sleep on the deck. Early in the morning, sailors cleaning the decks accidentally doused mom and the rest who were sleeping on the lounge chairs.
When the ship crossed the equator, many of the passengers were baptized with shaving cream and then pushed into the pool. This was the ritual for starting a new life and leaving the old one behind.
The first mate taught mom basic English. He fell for her, sending her letters while she was in living in Australia, asking her to wait for him.
In Melbourne, while waiting to continue her journey, mom experienced sand storms for the first time. On the train trip through the desert to Brisbane, she saw hundreds of kangaroos. In Brisbane she stayed with a Hungarian family and worked in a canning factory cutting up fruit on a conveyor belt. She saved her money and after a year decided to go to Canada.
This time she flew and the plane landed in Hawaii for a day before leaving again for Vancouver. My mom lived with a Hungarian family at Fraser and 49th. Sometime after she arrived, in 1959, Mom met my dad. He was charming and swept her off her feet. He was working for the Britannia mines, but after five months they moved to Whitehorse to start their family together.
Along with two other Hungarian families, they travelled the gravel roads to the Yukon. Along the way they saw a moose. My dad had his rifle and wanted to shoot it, but before he could get positioned, the moose disappeared into the bushes.
My parents lived in a small cabin along the Mackenzie River, with no electricity, heating or plumbing. One day two First Nations men came up to the cabin. Mom saw them through the window and screamed, “Bill, Bill, Indians! Indians!” Dad ran out with his rifle, but it was all sorted out. The men lived in the area and were curious about their new neighbours.
Mom was 6 months pregnant with me when they arrived. She wondered if the drive up had affected my birth. I wonder if I hadn’t been born with Cerebral Palsy would they have stayed in Whitehorse. It was a difficult birth, and two months later we moved back to Vancouver, and I went into hospital.
My mom always knew she wanted a family, but it was a struggle to keep both home and family going. My brother Frank was born in 1961 with no complications. Then, in 1964, she had a miscarriage. Then, in 1965, she and my dad officially married. From 1965 to 1975, I often had to stay at the Shriner’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, for various operations, and Mom would visit me. She would take my brothers to hockey practices and games. She was always on the go. In 1966, she worked for Air Canada in the catering area, and dad worked in construction. From 1970 until my brother Les’ birth in 1971, she worked for a company packaging vitamins. In 1972, she started work at Flecto Paint Company in Richmond, where she stayed for 23 years.
Her mother came to visit us from Hungary in 1967. In 1984, her sister Vilma came to visit and then, in 1986, Mom went home for the first time with my brother Les. She had been afraid to go home earlier, in case the Communists took her passport away.
My mom is an excellent cook; she cooks with her heart. When my brothers were teens, they and their friends would devour mom’s cooking not leaving a bit behind for leftovers. She still cooks enough for an army, even though it’s only her and dad at home. I tease her that when she passes away, we’ll put an Easy Bake Oven in with her, so she isn’t bored with so much time on her hands.
Her best dishes are Hungarian: Vadas Gomboc – roast beef with potato dumplings and vegetable sauce; husleves – meat soup with thin pasta; palacsinta – crepes filled with cottage cheese, sugar and lemon; szilvásgombóc – plum dumplings; pickled stuffed red pepper with red cabbage; apple strudel; and the list goes on, along with the pounds on me, if I’m not careful.
Dad and Mom moved to Horsefly, B.C., in 1995. They really love the wilderness – going out together for firewood for their wood burning central heating system, fall hunting trips for deer, bear, or moose. Often Mom is dad’s carpenter’s assistant on the renovations they’ve done on the ranch house and a three-bedroom cabin on their seven acres.
Mom was rarely sick until November 2001, when her diabetes took a turn for the worse, causing her pancreas to shut down. She spent three months in St. Paul’s Hospital.
I became her daily visitor. I knew from experience what life is like in hospitals and didn’t want her to feel abandoned during the many empty hours without visitors, while recovering from the operation, or when the superbug invaded her body.
Once she had found her strength and legs again, we would walk the floor, meeting other patients, making our way to the cafeteria for a snack and a few games of cribbage. On Christmas Eve I felt like the Grinch who stole Christmas in reverse, sneaking in my miniature Christmas tree, all decorated, enjoying take-out food and celebrating Christmas Eve together. The rest of the family came on Christmas Day.
Mom is an encouraging, protective grandmother to my nieces and nephew. She only wants the best for her kids. If she could take the pain away from a marriage falling apart or losing a pet, she would trade places with us in an instant.
That’s how much mom loves us. Love you too, mom.