The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 28, 2010

'I was blessed' | JSO conductor recounts steps in race for his life


— Istvan Jaray is a Johnstown institution, having conducted the local symphony orchestra for more than a quarter century.

However, if not for a a few miraculously narrow escapes in the cold, gray November of 1956, Jaray never would have set foot on U.S. soil, never would have picked up a conductor’s baton and never would have seen his 26th birthday.

In the span of one month, Jaray went from dodging bullets that had cut down so many of his Hungarian countrymen to resting comfortably in London.

“Some helping hand was with me all the way, guided me through an incredible journey,” Jaray said.

“I was blessed, really.”

Music was an everyday fixture in Jaray’s small-town Hungarian household: He first picked up a violin 74 years ago, at the age of 5.

‘Music chose me’

“I always say that I didn’t choose music,” he said. “Music chose me.”

It was music that later led Jaray to the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest to study the violin.

In a country ruled with an iron fist by a brutal communist regime, a free education was one of the few perks. It was important for Jaray, who had grown up in a blue-collar family and had lost his father at age 17.

But everything changed in October 1956.

“I had another year to complete to have my full performing degree,” Jaray said.

“But then, of course, the tragedy hit on Oct. 23.”

That tragedy began as a peaceful student gathering protesting the Soviet-communist government and expressing solidarity with a Polish movement against Russia. Jaray was part of that parade, and he recalls a crowd swelling to the thousands.

“It was such an incredible, enthusiastic, joyful march,” he said.

“Everybody’s hoping that maybe through a peaceful march, the solution can be that the Russians eventually will just pull out of the country.”

The march ended violently, though, as soldiers fired on students. And while the subsequent uprising appeared for a short time to hold promise for a free Hungary, the Soviets quickly cracked down in early November.

Jaray remembers “absolutely senseless, brutal cruelty”: Machine guns turned on a line of people waiting for bread, or soldiers told to shoot on sight anyone who was wearing boots.

‘Their system’

“The government started a systematic search for any of those who were part of the start of this whole revolution,” Jaray said.

Students were a target. And one night around 11 p.m., three tanks appeared outside the dorm where Jaray lived.

After a search, soldiers decided – mistakenly – that these students were enemy combatants. The classmates, who had been herded into a large assembly hall, now were ordered onto a waiting truck.

“That meant we knew that we’re going to be shot. Period. There were no ifs and buts,” Jaray said.

“That was their system.”

Their lives were spared when, by chance, a Russian officer came by the truck, was told what had happened and allowed the students to go free.

The ordeal had lasted until about 3 a.m., and Jaray did not wait around to see what might happen next. He called a friend at 5 a.m., and an hour later, they were on a train headed toward the western border.

“All I had was my clothes, a coat, and that was it. And that’s where I decided that obviously our future is so dark, so hopeless, that I have to leave,” Jaray said.

‘Didn’t call anybody’

“I absolutely didn’t call anybody – not my mother, my sisters, and for weeks actually they didn’t even know whether I (was alive) or whether I was dead.”

Jaray and his friend knew what they faced: The Hungarian border, he said, was “iron-clad. A mouse couldn’t get out.”

Still, they would try, with their hopes buoyed by the fact that the border had been breached during the revolution.

The duo disembarked before reaching the border, spooked by a secret police search of the train. Reaching a village on foot, they heard that a man – for a certain sum – would lead them to the border.

A group of about 20 set off. But a sudden encounter with bright lights in the sky and machine-gun fire forced them to retreat – the Soviets had locked down that section of the border.

The next day, Jaray and his companion decided to try their luck on a train to the south. Word spread that an opportunity lay ahead: Anyone jumping from the train as it slowed for a curve would land on the Austrian side of the border.

“And a very, very lovely old farmer was standing close by,” Jaray said.

“And he said, ‘Young man, don’t do that.’ ”

“He was right. Many, many people tried it ... and again what happened was, this light was shot up and they started machine-gunning them.”

Their lives had been spared once again. But they were seemingly out of options, and they got off the train at the next station.

Chance intervened when they met a woman who was willing to help. A plan was hatched: The next day, the woman and her daughter would distract border guards with conversation and wine, and the two friends would run as soon as they spotted a signal – the woman blowing her nose.

“Suddenly we saw the handkerchief and my friend and I just took off,” Jaray said.

“And I think I would have won the 100-meter world record – this incredible burst of energy and fear and hope all bundled into one.”

They heard shots. Jaray cut his leg on barbed wire.

But they did not stop until sheer exhaustion overtook them after an all-out sprint through no-man’s-land.

“We looked up, and there was the most incredible peace and quiet surrounding us,” Jaray said.

“In the distance, we saw a jeep coming. Well, we stood up and waited and said, ‘If it’s a Russian jeep or whatever, we’re done. If it’s an Austrian jeep, we are free.’ It was an Austrian jeep.”

The Austrians, he said, were “incredibly gracious.” The two were immediately fed and housed for the night, and in short order they were transferred to the capital city of Vienna.

Within two weeks of his escape, Jaray had traveled to London – he wanted to get as far from the Soviets as possible. There he resumed his musical education, starting on a path that eventually led to the United States in the late 1960s and to Johnstown in 1984.

But he has not forgotten a single step of the race for his life, a race in which he also won something else.

“You realize what freedom actually means,” Jaray said.

“And then, this really becomes the most precious thing of all.”