According to former Hungarian minister Dr. Géza Jeszenszky, Helen Szablya “brings back two lost worlds: Hungary before Communism was imposed upon the nation and the darkest days of the Stalinist dictatorship. A fascinating and illuminating story.”
Credibility and a context of reality are the greatest values a personal memoir of historic events provides. Helen Szablya’s compelling family saga, My Only Choice, does exactly that. Through her family story she paints a vividly detailed picture about the daily lives and struggles of Hungarian citizens between World War II and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For me, a fellow Hungarian American 56-er, some of the incredible stories told by my own parents suddenly came alive. But one certainly doesn’t have to be Hungarian to appreciate this book.
In the book Szablya depicts the daily life of the well-to-do and highly principled Bartha-Kovács family and their wide circle of friends. Even under the most difficult circumstances, their actions show patriotism, courage, family solidarity and deep faith. Throughout the years it was these same characteristics that enabled them to survive the war and its brutal aftermath: the Soviet take-over of Hungary in 1948, the 8 years of communist dictatorship, and the crushed hope of the 1956 Revolution and Freedom Fight.
Through the eyes of the 9 year-old Helen we gain insight into the fear and devastation caused both by Russian and German troops in the 51 day-long siege of Budapest in 1944. We observe the superhuman efforts made by Helen’s parents, not only to assure their own family’s survival but to provide a safe shelter and food to many others—including Hungarian Jewish families—amidst the wide-spread hunger and deprivation of the post-war period.
Along with her personal recollections, Helen Szablya provides essential background information for readers unfamiliar with Hungarian history. This is especially useful in explaining how Hungary’s Soviet “liberators,” who first pretended to support political pluralism, gradually showed their true intentions when they fixed the 1948 elections to assure communist rule. Thus, Hungary’s fate was sealed. Thereafter, for eight years the Soviet dictatorship ruled with an iron fist as it nationalized all private property; arrested, tried and executed many Hungarians; attempted to destroy churches and turn education into indoctrination; infiltrated Hungarian society by creating a vast system of spies; forced the reorganization of an agrarian society into an industrial one; and introduced the system of “domestic deportation” of families considered “enemies of the people.”
Because the Bartha-Kovács family certainly belonged to that category, they learned to deal with poverty and hunger and to protect each other against the increasingly harsh realities of life under Soviet rule. To prevent arrest, Helen’s father escaped to the West. Later, to help her family escape deportation, the 16 year-old Helen married János Szablya, a young engineer who was “indispensable” to the communist plan of industrializing Hungary.
But the Soviet system, as all dictatorships, contained the seeds of its own destruction. The death of Stalin in 1953 brought short-lived improvements in Hungary with the introduction of “communism with a human face.” But soon thereafter, Moscow reasserted total control, causing grave dissatisfaction in Hungary and several neighboring Soviet-ruled countries.
The final chapters of My Only Choice describe Hungarian hopes for freedom and independence and the eventual tragic defeat of the 1956 Revolution. Although many fine books have been written about this subject, through her day-by-day description of dramatic events Helen Szablya does a masterful job of communicating the incredible excitement and the euphoric desire for freedom that Hungarians felt in those fateful 12 days, between October 23rd and November 4th of 1956.
“…Helen Szablya paints a picture of how the inconceivable became reality. Hungary … in the 1940s is depicted in its inability to withstand Fascism and Communism. A personal account, as engrossing as fiction, but true, this book serves the lessons of history irresistibly on a silver tray.” Annette Lantos-Tillemann-Dick, daughter of the late Congressman Tom Lantos—a Hungarian-American who has been the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the United States Congress.
As she describes the hopes and eventual tragic defeat of the Revolution and her family’s desperate attempts to escape to Austria, Helen Szablya tells a truly compelling story of universal significance.