Helen Szablya ’76 For. Lang. and Lit., German
Helen Szablya is just 22 when she and her husband, John, their two toddlers, and newborn sneak out of Hungary, escaping Communism for Canada via Austria. It’s December 1956, about a month after the revolution is crushed. Under the cover of night, they walk to freedom.
Helen’s epic journey continues where her first volume, My Only Choice (2013), leaves off. From Refugee to Consul details the latter part of her extraordinary life—coming first to Canada, then Pullman, where John teaches electrical engineering at Washington State University for 19 years, and, finally, to Bellevue where Helen becomes an honorary consul of the country from which she escapes.
Helen recalls her life—raising seven children, earning a degree from WSU, working as a freelance writer, traveling back to Hungary—with warmth and gratitude, humor and charm. She recognizes her luck and privilege alongside her and her husband’s hard work. It’s a heartwarming read, punctuated with family photos, letters to and from family members, and nearly a lifetime of mostly rose-colored memories.
“I don’t want you to think it was always milk and honey for us. We had our share of illnesses and worries, just like any other family, but I prefer to concentrate on the good news,” she writes.
The most detailed accounts are found in the first half, which features anecdotes of adjusting, as a young mother, to cultural differences in Canada and America, particularly in Pullman in the 1960s and ’70s.
From a unit in the Statesman Apartments (now condos) to an old farmhouse on Sunnyside Hill, the growing Szablya family builds a new life and makes many friends. The kids participate in Pullman’s Summer Palace theater program. And Helen works toward her degree, often gaining credits at WSU by taking exams without taking the classes. She starts writing her memoirs and doing some freelance writing while her children are at school.
John’s work takes the family on two yearlong sabbaticals to Germany and Trinidad. Later, after moving to the west side, Helen serves as president of the Washington Press Association. As honorary consul, she works to build trade and cultural relations between the United States and Hungary. She wins awards for her writing and her work. In 2005, five days before John dies, the couple receives the Order of Merit from the president of the Republic of Hungary for their lives’ work.
From Refugee to Consul spans nearly seven decades, and the last chapters bring readers right up to publication. Their overarching issues—refugees fleeing Russian invasion, women’s history and leaders, Pacific Northwest immigrant history—remain relevant today.