Nova Scotia

Former Halifax County mayor recalls harrowing Christmas Eve escape from Hungary

Laszlo Lichter, the first mayor of Halifax County, has written a memoir about his early life in Hungary under the Soviet regime.

Laszlo Lichter was a municipal politician from 1979-1994

Laszlo Lichter, right, and his wife, Rozsa, hold photographs of themselves at a young age. The former Halifax County mayor has recently written a memoir about his early life growing up in Hungary. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Christmas season includes a special anniversary for a former Halifax County mayor.

Laszlo Lichter was a municipal politician from 1979-1994.

He has just written a memoir about the early part of his life in Soviet-controlled Hungary and his family's escape in 1956. It's called Border of Hope, Fence of Despair.

"It's a memorial to the people we love," said Lichter.

Hungary was part of the Axis alliance and fought with Germany during the Second World War.

When the war ended, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union, which imposed a communist regime.

Targets of secret police

Both Lichter's father and his father-in-law were in the Hungarian military, so their families became targets of the secret police.

"Anybody could lodge a complaint with the Communist government and they were quite willing to take action against innocent people," said Lichter. "It was not just our family that suffered those difficulties."

'They were finally free:' Former Halifax mayor pens memoir about early life in Hungary

2 years ago
Duration 3:25
More than 60 years ago on Christmas Eve, a man with his wife and young daughter escaped Hungary and fled to Austria. That man went on to become the mayor of Halifax County. Pam Berman reports.

Lichter's in-laws escaped to Austria in 1954. That intensified the persecution for the family members left behind.

So Lichter, his wife, Rozsa, and young daughter, Ildiko, tried to escape in 1955 along with a group of friends and relatives.

But when the little girl became sick and her cries threatened to expose the group, Lichter and his wife turned back. Other members of his family continued on.

"Later we found out that my uncle fell on a mine at the border and was blown up," said Lichter. "It was probably the greatest tragedy in my life as a young man."

Laszlo and Rozsa are shown on their wedding day. The child to the right and left of the wedding photo is their daughter, Ildiko. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Hungarian uprising in October 1956 raised Lichter's hopes that he would not have to flee, but those hopes were crushed by Soviet tanks.

In an excerpt from the memoir, Lichter writes: "Dad, I must be honest. During the days of hope, I wasn't willing to try to leave, but now that all our hopes are dashed, I have an obligation to Rozsa and Ildiko."

The second escape attempt was also fraught with difficulties. A guide got them lost. They were discovered by a Hungarian patrol who demanded bribes to let them go.

"So, we lost everything we had, to the last penny," said Lichter.

Pictured here is Laszlo Lichter's uncle, Josef, and his wife. Lichter's uncle stepped on a land mine as he tried to escape through the border of Hungary. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nevertheless, Lichter and his family ended up in Austria on Christmas Eve in a gymnasium with 200 other refugees on straw mats.

"That was our first Christmas in a free land," he said.

The Lichters applied for refugee status with the first country that would take them. They ended up in Nova Scotia, where their son was born.

Lichter wrote his memoir for future generations of his family.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pam Berman

Reporter

Pam Berman is CBC Nova Scotia's municipal affairs reporter. She's been a journalist for almost 35 years and has covered Halifax regional council since 1997. That includes four municipal elections, 19 budgets and countless meetings. Story ideas can be sent to pam.berman@cbc.ca

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