Advent and Christmas Exiled in England, 1956-57.   Leave a comment

mami-1956

Tom’s mother, Edit Leimdörfer,

London, December 1956

A Seven-day Sojourn in Austria: 10-17 December 1956… 

As the black Cadillac belonging to Gyuri Schustek’s business associate drove Tom Leimdörfer’s refugee family into the outskirts of Vienna on that Sunday afternoon following their escape from Hungary, the contrast with Budapest could not have been more stark. Quite apart from Budapest having suffered the ravages of the recent fighting, the Austrian capital was already showing signs of becoming part of the wealthy west. The shops, the cars, the bright lights all spoke volumes of a different world. Tom describes how…

We were taken to a large flat, sumptuously furnished, where Sunday dinner was being laid for the family and for us. I remember going to the bathroom and having trouble looking for a cistern and a chain to pull for the toilet, till I risked turning a strange lever on the beautifully tiled wall and being relieved that it worked. We were conscious of being under-dressed for the occasion, thankful for the meal and needing to be at our most polite when addressed in Hungarian. Some phone calls were made and then we were escorted to a quiet back-street ‘Pension’ (guest house) where two dingy rooms were rented for us. We never saw the family again, but I assume Gyuri was given or lent enough money to see us through the coming days, till we could get to England. Mami had already rung my uncle ‘Bandi’ and asked him to try to make arrangements for us to get visa permits as soon as possible.

Memories of next few days in Vienna merged together: long waits at the British Embassy for visas and travel documents, long walks on the streets of Vienna gaping at the wide range of goods in brightly lit shops, walking down the Kartner Strasse with its Christmas lights glowing, rides on trams and buses, a visit to the Stefankirche, more long waits at the British Embassy. They had no money to buy anything, of course, and mainly ate snacks in their rooms. Tom associated that week in Vienna with feeling really hungry, perhaps for the first time in his life. However, they were given a special treat one day by way of their first banana. Oranges had appeared in Hungary occasionally since 1954, but it was in Vienna that Tom ate his first banana. In the evenings, they were back to playing rummy and canasta again to relieve the boredom.

The following Friday, 15 December, came the great news that the authorities had all their papers and they made their final trip to the British Embassy. From there they were sent to the offices of British European Airways (as it was known then) to collect flight tickets for the Sunday. They had assumed that they would go by train, but BEA had some empty seats to offer to refugees and so they would be going to London in style. Of course, none of them had ever flown before. Tom had been taken to Ferihegy airport a couple of times, most recently to see his aunt ‘Compie’ fly back to London in the summer. Apart from the communist countries, the only airlines that flew to Budapest were KLM (Dutch airlines) and SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). On their last day in Vienna, a full week after their adventures getting to the Austrian border, they were able to do some sightseeing around the capital:

Naturally, we were full of excitement. With our spirits lifted, we enjoyed Saturday by going out to Schönbrunn Palace. It was bitterly cold, but for a few hours we felt like a family on holiday and not like refugees in transit.

On returning to the pension, they began packing for the onward journey. There was not much for them to do as they still carried all the worldly goods they had escaped with in the same rucksacks, and wore the same clothes. They had managed to get them all clean and washed at the guest house, which they were not at all sorry to leave. Arriving at Vienna airport on the Sunday afternoon, they were surprised to see a stark, cold, unfriendly looking hangar used as a temporary departure lounge. A sparking new terminal was being built, but they waited for what seemed ages in a very unpleasant place before being called to board the plane:

The Vickers Viscount waited on the tarmac. It was a lovely aeroplane with its shining white exterior, the BEA logo with the Union Jack. Inside, the seats were comfortable and the large portholes gave a panoramic view looking out. We were treated same as all the other passengers and made to feel at ease by the stewardesses. It was getting dark by the time we took off and most of the flight across Europe was in cloud, with the occasional jolts of turbulence. Then as we started to descend over London and we came below the cloud level, I caught my breath at the sight of a vast carpet of orange lights as far as the eye could see. This was our first sight of London and I will never forget the impression of its enormity. I had never seen orange sodium streetlights before either, so that was new. Everything was going to be new and strange and bewildering and exciting.

A New Name and a Second-hand Bright Yellow Woolly Jumper…

They had arrived in what was to become their new homeland. They were sent to a separate area, away from other passengers, where immigration officials were waiting for us. They looked carefully at the travel documents and asked some questions, which Edit Leimdörfer tried to answer:

She struggled with English, but the conversations with ‘Compie’ in the summer must have helped. I was asked if I spoke any English. “A little”, I replied. “You will learn quickly” the official assured me with a kindly smile. Then they made out some fresh documents for us and we were each asked for the names we wanted to be known by in England. I said “Thomas Charles Leimdorfer” without hesitation. So Tamás Károly was left behind, but did resurface when I applied for a Hungarian passport (in addition to my British passport) some three decades later.

After the immigration officers, they found themselves being paraded in front of some middle-aged ladies wearing the uniform of the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service). They looked them up and down and asked them to show what clothes we had with them. The ladies then selected items from a large pile of used clothing and asked each of the family if they would like to have this or that:

One kind looking lady offered me a hideous bright yellow woolly jumper. It looked warm and I did not want be choosy, so I accepted with a polite “thank you”. I grew to like that jumper and kept it for years.

When they eventually emerged  into the arrivals hall, Edit was looking for my uncle ‘Bandi’, but instead they were met by his friend and business partner, Irwin Reynolds. He explained that ‘Bandi’ was waiting at the terminus of the airport bus in London. He got them all on the bus:

We barely understood, but it had something to do with Suez and petrol rationing and the airport being too far. It was a bit disappointing, but totally understandable in retrospect. The main topic of conversation between Ferkó, Marika and me on the bus was the fact that all the cars drove on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Bandi was waiting for them as we got off the bus and gave Mami and me a warm hug. It was the first time they had seen him since his brief visit in 1947, when Tom had been sick with jaundice. They were taken by two cars, Irwin’s and Bandi’s from Cromwell Road to Muswell Hill:

I was in Irwin’s car and he gave us a commentary of the sights as we drove through central London. We did not understand any of it, but I remember catching sight of the bright neon signs of Piccadilly Circus. Of course, there were Christmas lights everywhere. 

Mostly it was all a blur, till we walked through the doors of 10 Vallance Road, where ‘Compie néni’ and her son Roy (who was just coming up to his 18th birthday) were waiting for us. They did their best to look joyful at our arrival. Five homeless guests eight days before Christmas at a couple of days’ warning was hardly undiluted good news. To make matters worse, Ági, the relative who was also part of our original ill-fated group of escapees, also managed to make it to England and arrived at their doorstep two days later.

Vallance Road, Muswell Hill

The house at Vallance Road seemed a suburban palace after their accommodation in Vienna, and their small flat in down-town Pest. The downstairs consisted of a large entrance hall, a dining room, lounge, kitchen and breakfast area and another reception room called the ‘Chinese Room’. On the first floor, there were three bedrooms and a fourth large room used as the ‘table tennis room’. It had a full size good quality table with just sufficient room around for a proper game. There were three rooms in the loft, an extra bedroom, a study and a room kitted out as a gymnasium. Physical exercise was Uncle Bandi’s priority. The large garden was also on three levels; a large patio with borders at the top, a lawn with borders in the middle and a full size tennis court on the lowest level. Apart from the oddity of the Chinese room, there was nothing ostentatious, but it was all mind-blowing. Bandi, Compie and Roy were keen tennis players, played table tennis and exercised avidly each day, so the house just reflected their dominant interests.

Tom knew that his Uncle Bandi had done well for himself in London. He had seen a small picture of the front of the house, but the reality was overwhelming. After his time of hiding as an illegal immigrant and then serving in the British Army, Bandi had struggled in the immediate post-war years on a clerk’s salary at the Milk Marketing Board. He made his money in the fifties by getting together with a tennis partner and setting up a small factory in Holloway. They manufactured a range of household goods and ornaments all made of black-coated steel cable with bright plastic knobs on the end. These made coat racks, toaster racks, letter racks, candle holders, lamp-holders, pen-holders. They were bent in all kinds of shapes, including cats, dogs, snakes etc.. They were sold all over the place, but mainly in every Woolworth chain store. As there was a store in every town of any size by then, Bandi’s small factory made a lot of money and he bought the house in Vallance Road.

Though they were treated kindly on arrival, it was soon obvious that the refugees’ presence meant a huge disruption to the Reynolds household. Neighbours and friends from the tennis club called, there were parties and preparations for Christmas and we tried our best not be in the way. The children started to explore Muswell Hill Broadway, walking up to Alexandra Palace, where they had a splendid view of the city. The palace itself was a ghostly place, recently abandoned as the main centre for BBC television broadcasts. They walked a lot, but also wanted to learn how to use the buses and the underground:

Our first ride on top of a red London Routemaster bus was yet another new experience. While the three of us were getting gradually more adventurous, Mami and Gyuri were busy trying to work out what their next step should be. Gyuri had an old pre-war business contact who lived and had a small business in south London, so they went to see him.

Our momentous year of 1956 ended with blurry haze of new experiences, a kind of limbo existence after the traumatic events, (accompanied by) feelings of uncertainty and not belonging.  

The New Year of 1957 should have been one to look forward to, but it brought further suffering and tragedy for Tom and his family.  Edit Leimdörfer was just 41 years old when the family celebrated her birthday at Vallance Road on the 4 January. She was such a strong person and her spirit through the previous months had been indomitable. She led the family to England with all the adventures of the escape over the border. Shortly after her birthday, Gyuri Schustek’s business contact found him a low-paid job in Richmond, and the couple moved there and married, leaving the children in Vallance Road for the time being. The following March Edit fell ill with what seemed at first to be a bad cough, but then her breathing got worse and she was admitted to hospital with what was first diagnosed as pleurisy. However, an operation revealed widespread cancer from which she died in the middle of April. Tom was not simply a refugee, but had now lost both his father and mother:

The mother who hid and protected me from the Nazis, struggled to bring me up after losing her parents and her husband, introduced me to concerts and operas, started to treat me as a young man and who loved me always, was no longer. I felt a huge void, but almost at the same time a very strong sense of a real ‘presence’. It felt like her presence and the ‘presence’ I associated with the faith she tried hard to introduce to me, all rolled into one. God, Jesus, Mami, I did not question. It was a strong loving presence and I was not letting go of it.

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