By David Schriemer, MD
With his father’s example of courage, integrity, and kindness to guide him, Laszlo Csiszar navigated a world in chaos. Born near Budapest, Hungary in 1934, named after his father, he entered a world in conflict. Hungary was drawn into World War II by Germany. Budapest was being attacked by the Allies. Seeking safety, the seven members of the Csiszar family moved from the Budapest area to Transylvania.
Shortly after their arrival, Romania took claim of that area from Hungary. The Romanians arrested his father. Hearing of this, his mother, Tulianna, took the rest of the family to visit him in jail. The family was put in jail too. Jail was better than being separated. The family spent two days in jail, and then they were released.
They watched in horror as Jewish neighbors were taken to concentration camps. They promised to watch after their houses and shops. One day they were told to pack two days worth of food and up to 30 pounds of possessions for each person. They, too, were going to the concentration camp. Traveling by horse and buggy and by train, the trip took ten days, not two. His father, spotting three orphans traveling alone, took them in and made them part of the family. One day they were riding on top of a flat railroad car carrying lumber. While stopped, his father got off the train to get water. He was nearly back, when the train jerked and a little girl fell off the top of the lumber and onto the adjacent tracks. Just before he could rescue her, a train hit and killed her. Distraught, his father could hardly speak for days.
They arrived in camp. Mother and children were separated from their father and the orphans. Laszlo, his four siblings and mother were kept in a large barracks, about 100 feet by 40 feet. They shared one blanket that winter. Laszlo remembers his coat freezing to the barn siding of the barracks because it was so cold. The latrine was an open pit with a log to sit on. Sometimes frail prisoners fell into the pit and died there. Ten-year-old Laszlo spent eight months in this concentration camp. Miraculously, none of his family became ill.
Liberation came from an unlikely source. The Russians now controlled the area. A high-ranking Russian soldier came and asked why families were interred there. He was told they were war criminals. Seeing the children around him, he had many families released. Reunited and free, the Csiszars walked over 20 miles to a train station. His father was able to convince the engineer to take them in the engine back to their home town, where they hid in their aunt’s home before sneaking back to Budapest.
Budapest in 1945 had been devastated by bombing and was occupied by the Russians. The Communist Party was in control. His father was made a Communist Party “member-elect”, but never signed up. When asked why he didn’t become a Communist Party member when he was already a “memberelect”, he replied, “I’m only half crazy not all crazy”. The Party was heavy-handed. Laborers in his father’s workplace were required to read the Communist Party paper (Pravda) and quizzed on its contents. At a large gathering of co-workers, the Party leader questioned a woman. She replied, “I read the paper twice, but I just can’t remember.” She was told, “Read it three times then.” His father spoke up and said to the official, “You have read it 13 times so you don’t have time to work.”
His coworkers applauded and broke up the meeting. Laszlo reports that his father was so well respected by all his co-workers that the Communist Party didn’t dare touch him. He was a man of courage and integrity.
In October 1956, students started a rebellion to rid Hungary of Soviet influence. For a brief time, they were free. “ I was so happy,” Laszlo recalls. But the rebellion was crushed within two weeks. After the rebellion was defeated, it was not safe in Budapest for young Hungarian men. Laszlo, his brother Mike and two friends decided they must leave the country, not knowing if they would ever see their families again. Together they took a train to Szombaehel near the Austrian border. As they got closer and closer to the border, the lines to the bathroom got longer and longer, until everyone realized they were all doing the same thing. They were all checking their maps in private to make sure they got off at the right place. They waded a frigid river at night to cross the border undetected.
In Austria they were taken to a camp for Hungarian refugees. They decided that they wanted to come to the United States. They were transported by train to Germany and embarked on The General Hunn from Bremenhaven on December 24, 1956, with 1500 other Hungarian immigrants. Almost immediately, he and his friends became seasick for most of the two-week voyage to New York City. They were taken to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where they had physical exams and immunizations. They would need a sponsor to stay in America. The First Methodist Church of Kalamazoo sponsored four immigrants. Because there were four of them, Kalamazoo, Michigan, became their new home.
They were given train transportation and five dollars to get to Kalamazoo. Not knowing American currency, Laszlo bought two bowls of soup (worth 35 cents each) and paid five dollars for it, giving the rest as a tip. He knew only the phrase, “How do you do?” and the word “four”. They were met at the train station in Kalamazoo by a representative from the church looking for four Hungarian immigrants. He and his brother were placed with the John VanDyke family. Jobs were arranged for he and his brother at Martinson Machine Company. They had done tool and die and machine work before. Their boss taught them the essential English words to know. After six months, Laszlo began to understand enough English to get by. Being last hired, he recalls being laid off at least four times. He then went to work for the Miller Davis construction company.
He had seen how generous Americans could be, but he also experienced how uncaring and mean people could be. A new immigrant with limited English skills was an easy target. He recalls twice co-workers sent him down in an excavation to fix or retrieve something, and then began to pour in cement or a load of sand before he climbed out. He had to scramble out for his life. Another time he was on a scaffold working on a wall when a co-worker drove a forklift to the scaffold and lifted it up. He had to leap to the wall to keep from falling. Following the example of his father, he did not retaliate: “I was never mean to anybody”, Laszlo says.
He met his wife, Larradine, at Bruno’s Pizza in Kalamazoo. They were married in 1961. Together, they started their own construction company in 1969, with Larradine managing the books and Laszlo, the construction. The work went well and many clients became friends in the process. He designed and built their unique hexagonal home in Portage.
In 1976, Laszlo was able to take his entire family back to Hungary to visit. Eventually his parents came to America and stayed for four years. They never quite adjusted to the United States, and went back to Hungary. “You can’t transplant an old oak tree,” Laszlo says. The roots run too deep.
Laszlo and Larradine have four children: Etel, Laszlo (Les), Aronka and Maria. Les and his family, and Maria (Greenlee) and family live in the Vicksburg school district. The Csiszars have ten grandchildren and four greatgrandchildren. Like his own father, Laszlo has been a shining example to them of courage, integrity, and kindness.