My family under house arrest by the AVO (the Hungarian KGB), the country in hopeless ruins, my slightest hopes for a future in my homeland broken — and what began as a most unusual and colorful life, seemingly over.
At the age of thirteen-and-a-half, I fled the house arrest and began my escape toward the Austrian border. This new beginning was also the final curtain on a childhood that had begun with my birth on February 10, 1943, in a war-torn corner of Eastern Europe.
I was the younger son of Sandor Szabo, one of Hungary’s most celebrated young classical actors. What hadn’t been torn apart by the Second World War, was broken by the divorce of our parents in 1947. By court decision, I was given to my mother, while my older brother, Barna, went to my father. My mother passed her responsibilities on to her parents who were then in their sixties. Despite their new fate in the Communist regime, where all their possessions were confiscated and their pensions denied, my grandparents assumed their new parental role with enthusiasm.
My grandfather was an attorney for the Catholic Diocese in Hungary and the ministers’ advisor. As a result, he was able to save the life of thousands of Jewish families by forging legal documents for them; as Catholics, they were saved from the Holocaust. The Communists considered these acts crimes. Along with the rest, we were herded out to forced labor projects, which served both as a rehabilitation program and part of the plans to revive a country that had lost much of its workforce in the long war.
Political brainwashing and indoctrination were also a part of this program. Despite my age, I was carted along by the System with other children. Before the three-year program was over, I was to learn at a tender age to ask questions about injustices that should not have troubled a child’s mind; it made me a political child along with the rest of my generation.
The Communist party was to purge all political enemies, or the “enemies of the people”, by categories, usually defined by people’s previous achievements and successes. The ones from humble background were elevated to positions for which they were not trained, and members of the intelligentsia were deported to the equally foreign life of farm- and factory work. Thus began the grand Communist design of chaos in socialist heaven. There was always a sinister undercurrent of hatred, coupled with torture and humiliation.
My maternal grandfather came of humble beginnings in the town of Nagyszombat (now Trnava, Czechoslovakia), where his father had abandoned the family – 5 children and wife; she then raised, supported and educated the children with her work as a seamstress. My grandfather further educated himself and completed studies at law school in Budapest. It was there that he met my grandmother, the daughter of a rich feudal lord.
Grandmother was one of the first women to become a professor at Budapest University in Hungarian and French studies, but with the advent of World War I, her post was abolished and she became simply a housewife. She spoke French, German and Latin fluently and played classical piano; but I only heard her play on the church organ, since their piano had been confiscated with the rest of their belongings.
Other than the small financial help given them by their two sons, the old couple had no income, save for food ration coupons given for their forced labor. Grandfather, who was an excellent Sunday painter, began to manufacture beautifully designed lampshades with Hungarian motifs out of parchment, which he made out of plain butcher’s paper. While allowing me to doodle, he discovered my talent for exact rendering and filling in colors. With delight, he encouraged me further and soon we created a conveyor-belt-like system in producing these beautiful items, which he then sold on the black market for money or exchanged for food.
The joy and richness of life that developed between us during those years can only sound like a fairy tale in the midst of a tragic era in Hungary’s history. While experiencing the usual rigors of Communist brainwashing in school, where the Russian language was mandatory and all transgression was punishable by harsh physical beatings, I was taught repeatedly to hate everything America represented and to consider everything the West cherished as evil. What the Soviet fathers taught was sacred! Our duties as “Young Pioneers” (an organization similar to that of the Hitler Youth, only the Communist version) were commitment to the destruction of the hated West and the spreading of ‘wonderful’ Bolshevik dogma throughout the world. God did not exist — only Lenin, Marx and Stalin.
In my protected home, I was constantly decontaminated mentally by the two old people who told me the truth about democracy, freedom and the West. Secretly, behind tightly sealed doors, we would listen to Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America radio broadcasts — something that was punishable by being imprisoned or banished from the country. We were the only family out of about four hundred to own a radio, from which poured forth also the sounds of operas and plays. My grandparents would tell me the stories of the operas and Greek mythology, and we would draw hour after hour during the long winter months.
My grandparents escaped deportation from Budapest by leaving on their own and occupying their summer villa in a small resort town at Lake Balaton. Although the government confiscated it, we were allowed to occupy one room and a small pantry that we converted into a kitchen. The toilet was an outhouse. A Communist teacher’s family was to occupy the rest of the first floor, with another strange family residing upstairs. Since my grandfather had established and zoned that little town some thirty years before, I was considered a little capitalist pig bastard – something the teachers at school never failed to point out. I was repeatedly held up to ridicule and had to stand up in class as an example when capitalist pigs were the topic — which was practically every day. I was persecuted not only by teachers, but by many of the children, my classmates, as well.
Having not seen my father at all for years, and being been only rarely in touch with my mother, it was a traumatic event when at the age of seven-and-a-half I was reunited with my father. Only in the midst of our meeting did I realize that I was his son. A few years later, I was taken back to Budapest by my mother, where I was to live among concrete, machines and the general noise of city life as opposed to the tranquility of the countryside.
The unhappiness of my existence with my mother and the strong desire to be with my father, stepmother and brother finally reached a critical point and I ran away to my paternal home. After testifying in court, I was given the right to choose with whom I wanted to live. From that moment, my life seemed to accelerate from five to a hundred miles an hour.
Sharing the life of a genius father and a passionate and intellectual stepmother is difficult to describe. The “creative brew” in which they lived, surrounded by artists, poets, writers, sculptors, musicians and vagabonds, injected a new life into me. The love of a father who was making up for lost time with his son, and the constant deep love and friendship of his wife, one of Hungary’s most beautiful young actresses, began to mend the years of neglect. They tried to fit me into the niche my brother already occupied, but being a little rebel, I hated dancing school, piano lessons and acting in the movies, but much preferred doodling, instead. I loved the company my father kept and often hung around the theater, watching him perform. He was the most favored young classical actor, and I enjoyed seeing him on billboards all over the city, the object of so much respect. It was the polar opposite of my previous life, where my beloved grandfather was often humiliated in front of me and where I was persecuted along with him.
Though isolated from much of the reality outside our privileged life, we saw the suffering of the people reach a crisis point. A nation well known for its vitality, great spirit and talent could no longer be oppressed without profound consequences. The revolution broke out in 1956, with new hopes on the horizon, and unparalleled heroism repressed by shocking bloodbaths. A country of ten million rebelled against the oppression of two hundred thirty million! With no aid from anywhere in the world, the revolt was crushed; an entire nation was punished by deportations, renewed tortures and executions.
I made my escape from house arrest, my parents following a few hours later, and a day later we all crossed the Austro-Hungarian border at different points, uncertain of each other’s fate. Some weeks later, after much searching by my parents, we had a jubilant reunion at the Eisenstadt refugee camp. As there was high bidding for the exceptionally valuable refugees — scientists, artists, and professionals — my father was much in demand. He accepted a very substantial and prestigious offer to go to the U.S. over one to go to work in the theater in London. We boarded a four-engine prop plane, which then had to make an emergency landing in Ireland — ironically coming close to losing our life after having made it to freedom.
The memories of blood, suffering, defeat and escape were still fresh on our mind as we stepped out and through the gates of Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, USA, to a new life.
My father, being an elite refugee, was awarded a lavish scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to pursue his field and study his new tool, the English language. With the advantage of a stage actor’s memory, he spoke the language so well within a year that he was able to perform in off-Broadway theater. He enjoyed a successful and ironic debut, playing a Russian in a production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”.
The adjustment for me was phenomenal. Having left the dramatic heritage of suffering, we had come to a country where I saw Elvis Presley nearly torn apart by teenagers gone berserk in sexual star-craze, and where teenage gangs were murdering each other senselessly in one city after another.
My brother and I were placed in a Catholic boarding school in Rhode Island, where the teachers treated us as mere children, while from our point of view, we already had the life experience of several souls, and it was they who seemed to us the immature, inexperienced “baby adults”. It seems that my surreal existence and mentality was formed at a very early age.
While we were attending school, our father and mother were very much concerned about our development and guided us accordingly. They had the very generous and loving support of the family of Robert and Ann Scott Morningstar, who aided my father in assuming the financial burden of private education for his sons. For my brother, he stressed political science and the diplomatic field, and for me he arranged the tutelage of a talented Hungarian painter and former student of Renoir, Pal Fried. From the time I was fifteen, this tender Jew – philosopher and craftsman – had made an impression on my work and thinking.
When the time came to enter the Pratt Institute in New York, I found that I had already been trained so well that I somewhat regretfully declined the scholarship they offered and instead took a ship to Europe to attend the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna, then the Bauhaus-oriented Angewandte School of Art. I had a hard time getting along with my professors in both these schools and chose instead to sit all day long in coffeehouses, sketching feverishly. I traveled to Istanbul, Budapest and Sweden where I worked to finance my continued schooling.
While in school, we were strongly encouraged to study basic anatomy and spent many hours at the medical school, dissecting countless cadavers in search of knowledge. We were allowed to sketch the original drawing at museums like the Albertina in Vienna, where I drew many Michelangelos while the museum guard stood silently by. During those days, the young artists were able to mingle with the established artists of the time and to be included in artistic debates and creative discussions.
All that came to an abrupt end when the U.S. military called me up and back to the U.S. for a physical exam. I waited for six months in Chicago before finding out that they had rejected me. My parents were in Chicago at the time, since my father was playing with Myrna Loy in “Barefoot in the Park”.
I very much wanted to be a full-time artist and good things were beginning to happen. I received a commission to do a portrait of McDonald’s founder, Raymond Kroc; my first one-man show sold well, though my agent pocketed the proceeds. I decided initially that I did not want to compromise my own work by doing commercial art, so I took odd jobs like selling encyclopedias in the slums, waiting on tables, washing dishes and working as a printer’s apprentice. After witnessing a violent accident on the presses, I decided to reconsider commercial art.
The reputable Chicago firm of Feldkamp and Malloy hired me, where I became the “gofer” to the commercial illustrators, carrying their work between studio and clients. I thought my own work was superior to those of the professional illustrators but, fortunately, I was not given the opportunity to sit behind the drawing board; otherwise, I would only have ended up praising Brach candy, Florsheim shoes and Hotpoint appliances with my talent.
A bit disillusioned at the time, I ended up working as a designer for the Sears catalogue and other smaller agencies but never worked as a commercial illustrator. It was a way to keep myself fed and my work pure.
In 1967, I followed my family again, this time to Los Angeles where my father was working on TV appearances and my brother was a professor of political science at a university. I became art director for one of the major record companies. I still continued to pursue my painting, began to sell successfully and even appeared on daytime television with a one-man show. The calamity of the 1971 earthquake took me to Hawaii temporarily — and I wound up living there for twenty years.
My professional career in the islands began with a one-man exhibition and a large mural commissioned by the State Foundation on Culture and Arts. I finally left my position as art director with J. Walter Thompson and committed myself to my own work. I returned at one point to the Fine Arts Academy in Budapest to develop my skill with intaglio printmaking. Although Hawaii has been very supportive of me in terms of both inspiration and patronage, I have continued to exhibit elsewhere, including Hong Kong, and to complete major commissions on the mainland, including a major suite of mural paintings for the law firm, Charfoos, Christensen and Archer, PC., in Detroit, MI. I felt particularly fortunate to be selected for a solo exhibition in Honolulu’s city hall on the occasion of the national Bicentennial, as well as to have my work in major private collections including that of the Rockefeller family who have supported my father years ago.