The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Home Lands

November 28, 2010

'I am so glad God brought us to America'

There’s something more than the usual parental pride in Edith Kovacs’ voice as she lists the occupations of her four grown children.

They are more than job titles. For Kovacs, those words represent the freedoms she was denied under a communist regime in her native Hungary.

And they represent the long road she traveled to Johnstown, starting with a harrowing escape from counter-revolutionary violence in 1956.

“I am so glad God brought us to America, and my children could choose what they wanted to be,” Kovacs said.

There were few choices for Hungarians in the 1950s, as Soviet-backed communism had taken a firm hold on every aspect of public and private life. So there was little doubt about the ultimate outcome of a revolt against communist rule in October 1956.

Russia responded with brute force. And that spurred crowds of Hungarian citizens to run for their lives – the U.S. State Department estimates that 200,000 fled west.

They were trying to escape not just the spasm of violence that was shaking the country, but also the pain of years of oppressive communist rule.

For a young Edith Kovacs – who then had the surname Buch – that oppression became painfully clear when the government shut her Catholic high school and forced the students to another institution.

“They wanted to close everything that was Roman Catholic,” she recalled.

Worse still, officials decided that nearly all of the school’s students would not be permitted to attend college. Since she was a little girl, Kovacs had dreamed of becoming a physician.

“It is like you are a rose growing, and you are clipped,” she said.

“You know that whatever you dreamed of, it is finished.”

So when the revolution began the year after she completed school, the 18-year-old wasted no time in fleeing west in a group that included her future husband Paul Kovacs, a young minister she had met in Budapest.

‘We had to go’

Fifty-four years later, there remains a steely resolve in her voice when she says, “We had to go.”

But there was no easy way to slip through the Iron Curtain. The group was stopped in the border town of Sopron, where soldiers declared that everyone could continue on – except for Kovacs.

“They wanted to take me,” she said.

“There were five or six of them, with machine guns.”

The guards somehow were persuaded to release her.

The next day, she and Paul boarded a truck arranged by Edith’s aunt. The couple had been disguised as peasants heading for a day of work, carrying shovels and rakes.

The truck stopped near the Hungary-Austria border.

Difficult journey

From there, it was a difficult journey on foot to freedom. Even after cr­ossing the border, there remained about 3 miles of dangerous no-man’s-land.

“It was cold, and it was snowing, and we had to run,” Kovacs said.

“The faster you got over, the better it was.”

Given the nightmarish journey, Kovacs’ memories of the moment she spotted an Austrian town are dreamlike: There was sunshine, and she heard music.

‘It was so nice’

“The Austrians were wonderful,” she said.

“They gave us rooms, and there was straw on the floor – but it was so nice.”

The young couple stayed in Austria for a few months, then moved to the Netherlands, where they were married. They had two children during their time in Amsterdam.

But their travels had just begun: Paul Kovacs then was invited to perform United Church of Christ missionary work thousands of miles away in Uruguay, South America.

The growing family spent a full decade in Uruguay. And their next potential relocation came with a choice – Canada or the United States.

Kovacs said her husband “looked at me, and I said, ‘Of course, America.’ ”

First assignment

Their first assignment was the Hungarian Reformed Church in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.

It was the early 1970s, and the congregation was thriving.

“They were so good to me and to the family. They practically adopted the kids,” Kovacs said.

“There was not one morning that I opened the door and didn’t find some present there.”

An assignment in Mercer County followed, and the family eventually settled in Ligonier.

Paul Kovacs spent more than two decades as administrator of what was then called Bethlen Home, and Edith Kovacs worked as a dietitian.


After retiring, Paul Kovacs came full circle: He was asked  to again minister at Johns-town’s Hungarian Reformed Church.

“It was like going home,” Edith Kovacs said.

She also recalls a homecoming of a different sort. Around 1980, Edith Kovacs returned to Hungary for the first time, with two children in tow.

The trip made quite an impression on her son Dan Kovacs, who was about 12 at the time. He remembers guards, supported by guns and dogs, searching the family’s car.

“After you experienced that, it put the fear of God in you,” he said.

Edith Kovacs smiled when she heard that, saying she knew the family was safe on that trip.

For her, the experience was in part an important lesson for her children.

“It was good for me to show them that this was what we came from,” she said.

The long journey ended for Paul Kovacs when he died in April 2009.

But Dan Kovacs will never forget his father’s stories about surviving in Hungary.

His parents’ migrations – and their final destination – now seem almost inevitable.

“It was all about freedom for them,” he said.


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