Klara and Kalman on their 50th wedding anniversary.
On a winter evening in Budapest, Hungary, in 1957, Klára Keresztes and her husband Kálmán dressed their two young children in warm clothes and walked out of their home, claiming they were going to their village for the annual pig slaughter. Instead, they took a train and then taxi to the southern border, and, through heavy snow and darkness trudged out of communist Hungary. It had become an unsafe place to live; the USSR had arrested Hungary’s leaders for later execution. Terror was rampant. The family spent nine months in refugee camps before a sponsor helped them move to Silver Spring, Maryland.
Life changed. In Hungary, Klára was vice principal of a special-education school and Kálmán a published linguist and researcher. However, at nearly age 40, they had to take new jobs in the new country. Kálmán began washing dishes and Klára began nannying and doing domestic chores. They learned English any and every way they could, including through children Klára cared for, soap operas, and dictionaries. Soon the family was able to move into a small apartment. They scraped by and in five years, Klára had learned English well enough to receive her master’s in education from the University of Maryland. She went on to teach in Montgomery County Public Schools for 18 years, working with severely handicapped children. Kálmán went on to get his PhD and to teach at Columbia University. Their two children finished school and started families. When she and Kálmán retired, they moved to a house in Reston to be closer to their grandchildren.
The couple who had walked out of their country with only the clothes on their backs was able to purchase a townhouse on Lake Audubon in Reston – the growing community experiment – without borrowing a penny. The lake reminded them of the lake Klára grew up on all those years ago in Hungary.
Kálmán passed away in 2006 and Klára spent the rest of her days nestled away in her home on the lake, singing in English and Hungarian and being taken care of by her two children for whom she had risked everything to bring to a new life. She was able to hold each of her 17 great grandchildren before she passed away at her home in February, 102 years old, fiercely loyal to the country that gave her a better life, but never forgetting the Hungary of her youth.