Only seven when World War II came to Budapest, Helen Szablya remembers that December night in 1944 when she woke to the sound of bombs. The Soviet air raid was just the beginning of a siege that lasted more than a year and led to a Soviet occupation that culminated in a bloody attempt at a revolution in 1956. 

At one point during the siege, all 22 members of Szablya’s household took shelter in a little room that was normally used for ironing. It was on a lower floor and the safest place in the house. The family and their workers stretched their supplies, eating soup made from flour, lard, and water from melted snow. “Thank God for the snow,” says Szablya.

In her family’s summer home in the hills of Buda, they were trapped between Russian soldiers and German and Hungarian soldiers. For a brief time both sides left the family untouched because Szablya’s father was a doctor, and the soldiers worried they might need his help. By February of 1945, the city surrendered. But little Helen, and her home city, had another 11 years of Soviet rule to endure.

Szablya spent her earliest years between a house on a fashionable street in Pest and the large summer home in the hills of Buda. It was a golden time, when her grandparents were business leaders and her father a successful doctor. Her grandfather owned a pharmacy and made perfumes, soaps, deodorants, and cosmetics. She had a governess, a chauffeur drove her to school, and two angelic little sisters awaited her return.

Helen Szablya's souvenirs
Szablya has only a few souvenirs from her Hungarian childhood. (Photo Matt Hagen)


But then came war and their way of life was forever gone. “It was scary when you went to bed,” she says. “The teachers told us we might not wake up in the morning.”

As a man of property, “my father was going to be arrested,” she says. “So he left.” He slipped onto a train out of the city and made his way to Paris. Her mother stayed to care for her grandparents.

Eventually the remaining family moved back to their city home, but only as tenants in a small apartment, sharing the house with other families. “We were lucky,” says Szablya. “Space was so rare, some people were put into pig sties.”

Her mother was arrested many times, simply for being a person who owned property. According to the tenets of communism, property is theft. “But (that first time) my mother was 35, she was beautiful, and really kind,” says Szablya. The citizen tribunal was sympathetic to her and released her. She was arrested a number of times more. “They never kept her, thank God,” says Szablya.

The young girl adapted to life under a Soviet dictatorship, learned to hold her tongue lest she be reported for anti-communist beliefs, and managed to grow up, attending school when she could and making friends, and even having courtships and starting a family of her own.

Szablya recently republished My Only Choice: Hungary 1942-1956, a book detailing her life in that period between World War II and the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Her mission, she says, is to share her story and that of her natal country so people will know the history and the details of life under the tyrannies of fascism and communism.

As a teen she helped her mother keep the remaining family together and in Budapest, where her grandfather couldn’t survive without them. The effort involved her mother divorcing her father, who had since moved from Paris to Canada, so she could marry another doctor. Then other families had to adopt the two younger girls, and Helen needed to get married. “My mother used to say our life was just like a musical, only we had to keep rewriting the script,” she says.

The communists shipped the capitalists out of the city, but out of necessity they kept the engineers and doctors in town. John Szablya, an engineer and the bright and handsome son of a family friend, became Helen’s primary suitor. Though the plan was for her to find an engineer to marry and stay in the city, it was John who sought her out. “He asked me,” she says, then with a giggle, “Actually three asked me.”

They married in a civil ceremony when Helen was just 16. Then four months later, they married in a secret church ceremony. It was a clandestine event late one evening, because the communist leaders wanted to eliminate religion and its ideas. When Helen arrived at the church, she found it full of friends and family, all who had spread the word of the wedding without it leaking to the government officials.

In the following three years, she had three babies. John moved to a job teaching at a university, and Helen was a student there. The Szablyas had obtained Canadian visas in 1951, when a British consul’s chauffeur hand-delivered them. They kept them hidden in the walls of a friend’s basement and in 1956 took them out.

A student protest had turned into a spontaneous revolt against the Soviet leadership. Initially, Helen and John attended the demonstration, but then went home to their family. Ten days after the birth of her third child, a guide sent by her father came to help them. They went to Vancouver, Canada, with many of John’s colleagues. From there they moved to Pullman, where John joined the engineering faculty, Helen pursued a German language degree, and they increased their family to seven children.

During this time, “I wrote all the time,” says Szablya, “but I had to wait until my last sister got out in 1965 before publishing,” she says. Her first piece on her Hungarian experience was published two years later.

She started working on her book in 1976, after finishing her WSU degree. “I had time,” she says. “My kids were in school. I would sit at the typewriter and it brought me back. When somebody came to the door, I first had to think, where am I?”

Szablya was driven to tell her story and share the experiences of her fellow Hungarians. “I really want people to know that extreme right and extreme left are equally horrific,” she says. That’s one reason she wrote her book and why she and John would give public talks on life under the Soviet regime. They would speak “Wherever they asked us,” she says. “We always wanted to help Hungarians to escape and become free.”

When Hungary did become free in the early 1990s, the Szablyas sought out the Hungarian foreign minister asking him to appoint Helen as Hungary’s Honorary Consul General for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. As such, she assists citizens of Hungary and works to build trade and cultural relations between the two countries.

Though John died a few years ago, Helen Szablya continues their work of speaking out about the Soviet regime and their experiences. This fall she traveled to Hungary to visit and be honored for her work.

“You know that saying, ‘May you live in interesting times,’” she says. “I see it as a blessing— if you survive them.”