‘My favorite title, I have already started: Surviving socialism. Because people over here they say, Yay, socialism, how nice…Read. My. Book. Maybe you will learn something’.
Les Knebl is somewhat of a juggernaut when it comes to life experience. From talking to the 81-year-old Hungarian man you get the sense that his passion to explore, encounter and embrace new experiences has not diminished despite his age. Les has lived his life all over the globe, experiencing all that he can and his hunger for adventure is yet to be sated. However, for all his adventures and experiences, he finally wants to have a home here in Australia where he can be close to his son and grandchildren.
‘I was born, brought up and educated in Budapest Hungry. It wasn’t very good because of the communist government that took over in1949; I was 14 to be precise. My father had a company at the time in which we also became x-listed, which means that we were excluded from education, we were excluded from working we didn’t even qualify for food rations which had been brought back again after the war’. Les says all this in a matter of fact way. Like the beginnings of this story had been told countless times before. From 1949 to 1989 Hungary was under communist rule. Following the occupation by the Soviet Red Army, military occupation ensued. The Soviets, after seizing material assets from the Germans, made headways in controlling Hungarian politics, using such methods as coercion through force. Though there was resistance to the Red Army influence, the Soviet Union once again intervened by force resulting in what can only be described as an oppressed government.
‘For better education my parents sent me to private school, but after the communist takeover the school was nationalised as well and because of my ‘X’ listing I was blocked continuing my studies in high school. At age 15 I got a job in an iron foundry carrying molten irons and casted in a sand mold. The next year I loaded and unloaded trucks at the central food terminal of Budapest. I lost two years of high school, but in 1951 some of the nationalised schools became private again and I could graduate from high school. ‘Slowly but surely the system eased up after Stalin died. Once again I could not go to university, but I had to do something for a living so I became an apprentice pastry chef. Once I started working University opened up to me, but they would only let in 1% for the applications of the X-listed individuals, lucky I made the grade. Finally, after years of study and working I got my degree as a chemical engineer’.
From 1935 to 1971 Les resided within the borders of his home country, living under the rule of an oppressive government. During these years there was civil unrest, as riots and uprisings rocked the nation. Les decided that in order to do best by his family he would have to leave his home country with his wife (who he met at the age of 15) and their young son.
‘In 1968 it was the first time the government allowed to file an application traveling to Western Europe I had applied for a permit for my family. After I was called to the Ministry of Interior they told me that I had to leave my boy behind. Unfortunately, so as to not draw attention we had to leave our son with my wife parents so as not to rouse suspicion going forward on our 2-weeks trip to the west.’
How did Les and his family eventually make it out? Upon asking the question Les leaned back and replied ‘It’s a long story’, ‘I beat the system and we could take our son out. By 1971 I was operations manager in one of the largest chocolate companies in Hungary, I reported only to the director. We left on Saturday morning by train to Vienna, I had called my boss up saying that I was going on a two week trip to Italy with my wife. By Monday there were state police in my office because they had somehow figured it out that I had left for Italy with two passports and three people. If we had of been caught fleeing the country, it would have been three to five years imprisonment and everything that we own would have been confiscated and we would then be labelled enemies of the people. It really was our last chance to get out.
‘Now, the passport that we had at the time had a Hungarian stamp on it that meant that if we were out of the country for more than 30 days we became enemies of the state. After arriving in Vienna we applied for immigration permit to South Africa, because my sister lived there and she sponsored us. For the interim waiting for the immigration permit the Austrian police placed us in a refugee camp outside Vienna.’
Since 1900 the Traiskirchen refugee camp has been used during many crises that have caused people to escape their home countries. For the first time in 1956 it was used to accommodate Hungarian refugees during the Hungarian revolution in October 1956. Over six thousand Hungarian refugees were taken to the camp within the first 6 months. This was the first large use of the camp and because of this the Federal Ministry of the Interior made further decisions to open the refugee camp to refugees around the world. Today the Traiskirchen camp remains open offering assistance to the rising refugee crisis that commenced earlier in 2015. Though there have been concerns of inhumane conditions and a lack of staff and food, Les endured all of it to better help provide for his family.
Though his story is new for Expat International it isn’t unique to many others that endured hardships during this era. We will continue Les’ story in our next instalment documenting his extraordinary life and his plans to join to his family, here in Australia.