by Yvette Szabo

Her name is Agnes Bajka and at 71 years of age, she is a mother of 3 and grandmother of 5. A now retired woman, Agnes lives in Auburn, California with her husband of 50 years, Peter Bajka. The woman one can see now looks so carefree and happy here in America. One would never guess the troubles and trials she has lived through during her life in Hungary and her struggle to leave and come to the United States. She was born in Erhat, Hungary in 1936, but her family soon moved to Budapest, to escape from the advancing Russian Front when their father was drafted and decided to flee. Her father was captured and later died in a war prisoner’s camp near the city of Kecskemet, leaving Agnes’ mother Nizsi alone to raise her three young children. She moved to Sarospatak, met and fell in love with a lawyer, Dr. Szabo Jeno, and had two more kids. This large family of 7 people suffered in one small apartment as the Communist control in Hungary worsened. Agnes decided to escape to her cousin’s home in Switzerland and build a better life for herself. She moved to Canada to marry a former boyfriend, Peter Bajka and apply for immigration to the United States, a land of opportunity. Peter was educated in the field of electronics and made a life for himself by starting a business in the booming Silicon Valley. Together they had 3 children and remain settled in California, with their extended family close by.

“The fifties were miserable years. To survive, we had to grow our own food, raise our own animals for meat, milk, and eggs. We all worked like laborers. We lived in constant fear of the authorities, who threatened to deport us.  The seven of us lived in a three room apartment. We shared the only kitchen and only bathroom with a family of four; they lived in the fourth room of the flat. We had no freedom. We had no money, unless we sold something, like jewelry, oriental carpets, cameras, fur coats, or any food that we grew and could spare. On the side, to try to make money, we delivered coal and wood to others with our horse “Muki” and a cart and us carrying the fuel into people’s cellars. My step-father, Jeno papa, became a skilled silkscreen printer in order to make a better living. My siblings and I would never be able to go to college because we were not born into the “ruling proletariat” or peasant class. It was a difficult time. No wonder we left Hungary the first chance we had.”

“My brother Istvan actively participated in the short-lived 1956 Revolution. This small revolt was brutally crushed by Soviet military forces and all of those involved had to flee for their lives. He fled to Switzerland because our cousin, Tamas, lived there. When we saw he was able to cross the border, my brother Sandi and I soon followed, escaping Hungary. It was the most difficult thing I ever had to do, to leave my mother, my family and my home. Everything I had ever known was in Hungary, and it broke my heart to leave, not knowing if I would ever see my homeland again.”

“I immigrated to Canada soon after to marry Peter Bajka, whom I had dated prior to the Revolution. We didn’t like the Canadian climate and living conditions, but had to wait to be allowed into the United States.  In 1967, our luck changed and we were able to move into California, just as the Silicon Valley began to emerge.  We worked hard to build a new life and apply for citizenship. Peter was able to start a successful business called Compool, which is a maker of pool and spa heaters.  We love living in California and the “American” way of life. It was a fairly easy transition, as I had learned English while during our time in Canada. I stayed close to my family and the raising of my three children. The style of clothing here is much different, much less conservative than that Hungary. Also, since Peter was the able to provide for our family, I did not have to worry about farming each day to feed my family. I still cooked each day, making each meal for my family, as I do not care for the popular American “fast food.” I chose to cook a variety of foods, mainly things I had learned to make from my mother in Hungary, such as stuffed cabbage, langos, and goulash stew A huge change with the food here is the lack of using spices while cooking. I had to ask for my family in Hungary to send me Hungarian paprika to me.

“The way I related to family and friends never changed: my family was always my first priority. I taught each of my children Hungarian, as I wanted them to always have a connection to their history and the beautiful Hungarian culture. I believe to be American; you must have a strong connection with the culture and the people, no matter how different from you they may be. A huge part of being American is learning the language and accepting the culture. To truly become an American, you must assimilate into society. However, this does not mean one must forget about their native homeland and their roots. We celebrate all of the American holidays and are all American citizens. However, we all retain our native language and celebrate our holidays together eating native foods. Peter and I went through all the legal channels to apply for and become citizens. We helped many other members of our family to enter the United States legally over the span of the last few decades. I firmly believe a person can be American and still retain their native culture and I am proud to say my family is living proof.”

Agnes Bajka