I once knew a hero. He was a real hero although he denied it. In my life I have known many people. Most of us are ordinary and most people we meet are ordinary. I guess that’s what the word ordinary means.
It was my first year as a teacher. That would have been about 1968 – I am not good at remembering dates but that’s near enough. Quite good enough in the circumstances. Dr Lazlo Kovacs taught Physics. He was Hungarian and he was a small and timid man. He had very poor classroom control but eventually his students learned to respect him. He was a nice man. He was also a hero. I got to know him quite well and when I asked a few questions of him he would say, “No, no, no. I am no hero. I was just lucky.”
I can’t tell you his story because I was too young to appreciate it then, but some years later we met and I asked him to write down what happened. Lazlo spoke, even after these years with a heavy accent and some of his story I have polished a bit. I wish you could hear his voice – it was so soft and gentle even when he was angry. He died seven years ago. This is his story. Not mine.
“My name is Lazlo. Lazlo Kovacs and I am an Australian. But I used to be Hungarian. I am proud to be both. First of all let me tell you I am not a hero but I am lucky. I am lucky because I was never a hero and because I was never a hero I am alive now.
I was born in Siotok on the banks of Lake Balaton. This is a beautiful part of Hungary with a beach and boats and the lake is so big it was like living by the sea-side but in the middle of Europe.
When I was a child I was very small for my age and weak. My doctor told my mother that I had weak lungs and she took me to Budapest to see some special doctor and he said there was little he could do. My mother, Margit, started to cry and the doctor stopped her.
“There is nothing I can do Mrs Kovacs, but there is a lot you can do and a lot that Lazlo must do. He must swim. Every day he must swim. I see you come from Siotok and I have written to a friend of mine who is an instructor in swimming. Lazlo must swim every day in the lake. Warm or cold. Sun or snow. He must swim and he will survive.”
My God! Did I swim. Every morning before school. If it snowed I would cry. I was not a brave boy. I was not strong. But my mother was strong.
“Lazlo, you must swim. If you don’t swim you will die. The doctor in Budapest said.”
And so I swam.
Then the war came. I was too young to understand. I was seven when the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia and I didn’t know what a Czechoslovakia was then and I was seven when my father, Csaba, went away and I was seven when my mother started crying every night before I went to sleep. I was eight when I learnt that my father was dead. I really didn’t understand but my mother cried more and then she stopped crying and she became strong and silent. Still she made me swim.
In 1945 I was thirteen years old and I understood everything. I knew a hatred of the Germans and I knew a fear of the Russians. I knew of the British and the Americans. But I hated the Germans and I feared the Russians.
When the Russians came many were happy to know that the Germans were gone. The young girls ran into the streets and kissed the Russian soldiers. And from here, in my old age I have no hatred for these young men from Russia. They were boys. And they had mothers who cried for them as my mother cried for me and for my father, Casabo, who was no longer with us and for my brother, Andres, who had disappeared.
As the years went we learned to accept the rule that the Russians had imposed. I went up to Budapest to the University of Debrecen. Since the Russians came all languages were stopped and no longer taught except for Russian, but Science was continued.
It was in the cafes and coffee shops that we talked and we learned that the Russians were not our friends.
I will not bother you with the problems of the world then. We had our own problems.
In July of 1956 we heard that a demonstration of workers in Poland ended when 38 workers were killed. But there was progress. By October of that year the Polish worker had a few benefits. Maybe we could fight a little. That is what some people said. I was not a fighter. I just hoped that things would improve.
At the end of October, and I remember the date well, it was the twenty-third, we all went into the centre of Budapest. We were young and some of us stood up – I was not amongst them because I am not brave enough – and proclaimed independence for Hungary. We demanded that all Russian troops go home. There were thousands of us.
I will not tell you of the war. The history books have it all. I will tell you what happened to me. What happened to Lazlo Kovacs.
I was captured by the Russian soldiers.
The Russians took me and my friends and marched us to the Railway Bridge at Belvaros and there we were all lined up at the edge of the river. I knew I would die that night. It was dark and I have always been scared of the dark. As I said earlier I am small and I am no hero. I was scared of the dark and I was scared of the Russians.
And we were all lined up and many Russian soldiers with guns were lined up opposite us and the officer shouted something and the guns started shouting and as I looked to my right I saw my friends falling and I was so frightened I think I must have fainted.
(At this point I must interrupt. Because Lazlo does not know what happened next. But I have researched this and I do know. Lazlo did faint and it was assumed he was dead.
All the students were scooped up by a tractor and tipped into a truck. Then the truck dropped all the students into the River Danube. Lazlo was in that lot and was dumped into the river.)
The next thing I know was in the water. I could hear my mother. “Lazlo, if you don’t swim you will die. The doctors said.”
So I swam. I took a deep breath and dived under the water and I swam.
And when I reached the other side of the Danube river I was gathered up by many people. I was warmed and hidden and many, many people helped me. And I escaped and I came to Australia. And I am not a hero. I am just lucky that I know that if you swim you will not die. Because my mother said.