January 8, 2016

‘God was holding my hand the whole time’: 82-year-old woman shares story of love, faith and fleeing from communism

Maria Moko displays a photo of her husband, Leslie, at her home in Indianapolis on Nov. 12. The Mokos fled on foot at night to escape the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Maria Moko displays a photo of her husband, Leslie, at her home in Indianapolis on Nov. 12. The Mokos fled on foot at night to escape the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Maria Moko sat at her kitchen table holding an old, black-and-white photo of her husband, Leslie.

She placed the photo to her heart, gave it another look, then kissed it softly and said, “You were the love of my life. I miss you so much.”

Like many widows, Moko mourns the loss of her husband, who died in 2012.

Unlike many widows, Moko shared harrowing experiences with her husband as, by the dark of night, they escaped the Soviet invasion of their native Hungary in 1956.

Moko, 82 and a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, shared with The Criterion stories of life in Hungary during World War II, the unusual way she met the love of her life, their flight from Hungary, their first months in America—and the strong faith in God that got them through it all.

‘The raid is going on, the sirens are going off…’

Among the mountains and hills of western Hungary lies Lake Balaton, the largest freshwater lake in central Europe.

Moko grew up along the shores of the lake, a region she remembers for its stunning beauty.

But present in that beauty was a munitions factory, making her hometown a prime target during World War II.

“Everything had to be blackened at night,” she said. “You could not see one light. The radio would say, ‘Attention! Attention!’, and 10 minutes later the American bombers would all come roaring over Hungary.”

It became too dangerous. Families left the town to live with relatives.

Moko’s mother and four sisters left to live with family in 1944, leaving 11-year-old Maria to care for her father while he worked for the local Civil Service monitoring the radar. She recalled having to stand on a stool to make noodles by hand because the stores were empty of food.

“When these horrible raids came at night, I was home by myself,” she remembered. “My dad couldn’t come home because he had to stay with the radar for the Civil Service. He told me to open all the doors and windows because if a bomb falls the pressure will blow them out.

“So I’m home by myself, everything is open, the raid is going on, the sirens are going off like crazy, and I’m standing on the front porch crying.”

‘I got the biggest gift … my faith’

Her family survived the war and lived to see their country “cut up and parceled out.” A much smaller Hungary then became a communist bloc country under the iron fist of the Soviet Union and its leader at the time, Joseph Stalin.

“There was no Church whatsoever [after communism],” Moko said. “The Catholic Church was forbidden. If they knew you went to church, you were doomed. You couldn’t be anybody at the workplace. You couldn’t get ahead.”

Moko and her family may not have gone to church, but they lived an active, devout prayer life.

Her parents were poor and unable to pass on material wealth, said Moko. “But I got the biggest gift anybody could have—my faith. They taught me how to pray.”

The family prayed the rosary every night, and on Thursdays the children were awakened late to say prayers recalling Christ’s agony in the garden. Anyone home at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday gathered to pray in memory of Christ’s crucifixion and death.

“Sunday we were not allowed to do any kind of work whatsoever, as the [third] commandment tells you,” she said. “Saturday in the morning we had to clean the house by noon. We had a nice lunch, and the afternoon was Mary’s holiday. We honored her and prayed a special prayer to her. She is my mom—I love her.”

Maria and Leslie shared their devotion to God, Mary and prayer, reciting the rosary each night with their two daughters until the girls left for college.

“When he was little, he decided he wanted to be a priest,” Maria said of Leslie. “But he fell in love with me, so … ,” she said with a laugh.

‘That was it. I was hooked.’

Maria met Leslie in 1953 at the university in Miskolc, the second largest city in Hungary. Both were studying engineering.

“I was the only woman [at the university] at that time,” she said. “I was always adventurous. I wanted to be something.”

For Leslie, it was love at first sight. But Maria, then 20, was in a serious relationship with the son of the family she lived with in Miskolc. When he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 22, Maria was heartbroken.

After a short while, Leslie asked Maria if he might court her. Still mourning, she told him no.

“He walked away so sad,” she said.

A friend asked Maria if she loved Leslie.

“I couldn’t answer,” she said. “I was still grieving. But I liked him because he was so kind and sweet and just a beautiful person.”

He was also seven years her senior.

Leslie had started at a university at the age of 18 in 1944. But during his first year of college, the Soviets rounded up the students and put them into forced labor camps. Maria shared Leslie’s experience of the prisoners sleeping in piles outside in the cold with no shelter. In the morning, those on top of the pile would be frozen to death.

He was released after four years, having contracted tuberculosis. Leslie spent several years recuperating before attending the University of Miskolc.

After Maria rejected Leslie’s offer to court, a friend advised her to go to his house to console him. Maria took the advice, and found Leslie and his mother tending a garden in the backyard.

“Leslie looked up, and I will never forget, he was as white as a sheet when he saw me,” she recalled. “Every drop of blood went out of his head. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Mom, this is my fiancé.’

“That was it. I was hooked. I couldn’t say ‘no.’ ”

Maria and Leslie were married in October 1955.

‘We could hear the machine guns’

By 1956, Hungary had had enough of communism and Soviet influence. The Mokos joined in protests seeking freedom from the Soviet bloc during a revolution that began on Oct. 23.

For a time, it appeared that then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would allow for the country’s release. But he changed his mind, and on Nov. 4, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, crushing the resistance.

By the end of November, Maria and Leslie decided to go to Maria’s mother’s house at Lake Balaton, “to lay low and see what would develop.” They headed for the train station, each carrying a small satchel that held just a pair of pajamas.

The station was in chaos. No trains were leaving, and “people were scrambling everywhere, trying to figure out what to do,” Maria said.

Then someone announced that the Soviet army was coming to the train station to round up all the men.

“The train conductor jumped up on the train, and he yelled, ‘On board!,’ and everyone jumped on board, and he started the train out of the station,” she said.

The train headed west. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun was setting. When the train reached the stopping point a half mile from the last station before entering Austria, the flagman informed the conductor that the Soviet military was waiting at the station to arrest all the people on the train.

“In no time, everyone [was] off the train, running every which way we could,” Maria recalled.

She, Leslie and six other men headed toward what they believed to be the Austrian border.

“We walked all night,” said Maria. “We didn’t know if we were walking around and around. And then we got closer to the border because we could hear the machine guns.”

Walking through an unharvested cornfield, the refugees would duck down and crawl in the furrows as search lights swept by.

Finally, Maria could take no more. Having had no food or drink or sleep all night, they decided to rest on a haystack while two of their group headed off to investigate some lights in the distance.

As the gray dawn light illumined the landscape, the group noticed a jeep heading toward them.

“We [thought], ‘They got [the two men], now they are going to get us. We are done,’ ” Maria said. “The jeep stopped, and the two guys jumped out and said, ‘You know, guys, we [have been] in Austria a long time, and we just [didn’t] know it!’ ”

‘I didn’t have a cent, didn’t speak a word of English’

The Mokos and the other men were taken to a high school set aside as a shelter for Hungarian refugees. Thanks to a letter to Leslie’s mother the couple happened to have from her brother in Pennsylvania, the Mokos were able to provide contact information for resettlement in America. Leslie’s uncle agreed to sponsor them.

While Leslie no longer suffered from tuberculosis, his lungs still showed scars from the disease. Consequently, he was quarantined to a hospital in Pennsylvania for three months.

Meanwhile, Leslie’s aunt put Maria in contact with Leslie’s second cousin in Indianapolis, Martha. The aunt felt Indianapolis would have more job opportunities than her small Pennsylvania town.

“I arrived [in Indianapolis] on a Saturday, and Monday we went to look for a job,” said Maria. “I didn’t have a cent, and I didn’t speak a word of English.”

Martha took Maria to Eli Lilly to inquire about employment. It was a fortuitous choice.

“We went to the personnel department head, and Martha told him I was from Hungary and had a reference,” she recalled. “He said I didn’t need a reference because Mr. Lilly said any Hungarian refugee looking for a job, he had to hire on the spot!”

‘I asked the Holy Spirit to help me, then closed my eyes…’

After a week of health tests, Maria was cleared to work in the cafeteria. She knew the way to Lilly by bus—she thought.

But her first day on the job, the bus didn’t stop where she expected.

“I think Beech Grove is where it ended up,” she said. “Everyone had to get off. I’m standing on the street corner, I have no idea where I am, and I don’t understand what people are saying.”

Martha did not have a phone, so calling her was not an option. Maria prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Finally, she went into a phone booth and looked up common Hungarian names, settling on Szabo. She motioned a mechanic over from a nearby garage.

“I asked the Holy Spirit to help me, then I closed my eyes and pointed my finger on a name and motioned for [the mechanic] to call that number,” she said.

“So he put his dime in and dialed. When he started to talk, I took [the phone] away from him and I started to speak Hungarian. And [the woman] spoke Hungarian back.”

With the woman’s help, and the assistance of the mechanic and the bus driver whose bus she was put on, Maria found her way to Lilly. Through an interpreter, she relayed why she was four hours late for her first day on the job. “And then I lost it and sobbed uncontrollably,” she said.

“[The head of personnel] called a taxi and sent me home. And he ordered a taxi for two days until I got [the bus route down]. I couldn’t believe how wonderful America was.”

‘God was holding my hand the whole time’

By the time Leslie was released from the hospital in Pennsylvania, Maria had rented a furnished room, kitchen and shared bathroom in a downtown home. Leslie soon got a job at a civil engineering firm. Maria went on to work for various engineering companies, retiring from Rolls Royce 12 years ago.

The Mokos purchased a home in 1959 in the boundaries of the newly established St. Monica Parish on the city’s northwest side. Maria lives in that home to this day.

The two enjoyed retirement until about five years ago, when Leslie became ill.

“He didn’t have any kind of disease,” Maria said. “He didn’t have cancer. He just didn’t have enough blood. The doctors couldn’t figure it out.”

After a year of blood transfusions, Leslie’s doctor saw no hope.

“The doctor said, ‘I cannot do any more,’ ” Maria recalled. “He said, ‘I suggest you sign up with hospice because he probably has a month, month and a half to live.’ That was in October of 2011.”

But Leslie lived another year at home. After a grand mal seizure put him into hospice in November of 2012, one of the Moko’s daughters, who lives in Denmark, flew home to see him.

“She came on Thursday and left on Tuesday,” Maria recalled. “I took her to the airport. I came back [to the hospice], and Leslie was very quiet. He was praying the Hail Mary.

“I held his hand and prayed with him. Then he kind of quieted down and went to sleep. And that’s how he died.”

Maria worships at Mass daily. She is also a member of one of St. Monica Parish’s small Church communities, and is a member of the parish’s Young at Heart group.

She plays bridge and likes to work in her yard, keeping her flowers blooming and caring for the home that she and Leslie shared for 53 years.

“I’m ready to go any time,” she said. “I’m pretty sure Leslie is well. He loved the Lord so much, he really did.”

So does Maria, who said she cannot thank God enough.

“God was holding my hand the whole time,” she said of her life’s journey. “We depended on him constantly. He watched over me, took care of me, and to this day he guides me.

“I am blessed to have my faith. And I was blessed to have Leslie as my soulmate.” †

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