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From Behind the Iron Curtain to the Belly of the Beast | Eva Muntean | Ignatius Insight | October 19, 2011
Editor's Note: This
talk was presented on September 17, 2011, at the Indiana Catholic Women's
The title of my talk today is "From Behind the Iron Curtain
to the Belly of the Beast." The title refers to my family's journey from
Communist Hungary, where I was born, to San Francisco, where I now live.
Coming from a country where faith was persecuted, and a
simple public prayer was dangerous, I'd like to take a few minutes to publicly
thank Our Blessed Mother for allowing us to live in this great country. Please
join me: "Hail Mary..."
As I said, my journey begins behind the Iron Curtain.
I was born in a country that was ruled by a system of government called
Communism. I am sure all of you are familiar with this system of
government since America waged a cold war against the menace of Communism for a
great deal of our lifetime. But not many of you know what it was like to
be born in a Communist country and why people risked their lives and the
lives of their children to escape.
So let me start at the beginning of my life. My
parents were both educated by the state to be engineers. For my father
that was the perfect career choice. Working with diesel engines was his
passion. My mother hated engineering. She was forced into the
career because the state needed engineers. They worked six days a week
from sunrise to sunset, sometimes longer. Their combined income barely
put food on the table.
I was their first child. The State gave my mother a
twelve weeks maternity leave, and then she was forced to hand me over to a
A year later my sister was born. My mother had all
kinds of medical complications with her birth and nearly died. My parents
were too poor to bribe the nurses and doctors to go beyond the mandatory care
so my mother burned with fever, near delirium, yet no one offered her even a
glass of water. My father, of course, was at work. My grandmother
came to the hospital, found her daughter near death, and raised a loud protest,
which finally forced the doctors to treat her. So much for socialized
medicine. After twelve weeks my sister joined me in the daycare.
Sometimes we were allowed to go spend a few days with my
father's parents, who had a little house with a small patch of land where my
grandmother grew grapes and raised rabbits. She would go without food so
she could buy such luxury items as a piece of cloth to sew my sister and
me a skirt, or a little cocoa to make us chocolate milk on Sunday
Before Hungary became Communist, my grandfather had invested
all his resources into buying his own barges and a beautiful tugboat. He
risked his life to protect his ships and livelihood during the war, including
time he spent as a POW. When the fighting was over and he was finally
able to bring his boat home, the Communists confiscated all the merchant boats
working the Danube in the name of the people. For a while the Communists
used his tug boat as a luxury vessel to entertain high ranking officials, but
eventually his boat and all the others in the harbor sank to the bottom of the
river due to lack of maintenance. My grandfather was left a broken and
My grandmother became the sole provider for them eking out a
living by selling her grapes and rabbits. They rented a plot of land
nearby and the kids were enlisted to help with growing gardens and selling the
products. Her life was hard work and sacrifice revolving around her faith
and family. Her rosary was always by her side, and she prayed it daily
for us. After living through two world wars that raged all around them
and countless political upheavals, they were terrified of the State and lived
in a constant, broken fear.
My mother's parents were city folk. They lived and
thrived in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. My grandfather was a
composer, choir director, conductor, amateur mathematician, and linguist.
They had thirteen children in a three-room apartment. It is a true
miracle that my mother's family lived through the war. During the Second
World War, Budapest was pounded for days and weeks at a time by bombs.
Entire buildings collapsed and thousands of innocent people died in the
rubble. Buildings were falling all around them and half their own
building was torn away by a bomb. The family was in the basement of their
building from December 24, 1944 to February 11, 1945 without being able to leave.
They were there with all the rest of the tenants of their building. There
were wall-to-wall people with hardly any room to move around. My mother's
youngest sister was one and a half years old when they went to the basement,
and because they could never put her down during the two months, she "forgot"
how to walk and had to learn all over again after the war.
They almost starved to death. They survived by eating
anything they could get: tape, toothpaste, apple peels, etc. Some
neighbors braved the fighting and went up to the street and brought back pieces
of dead horses that were killed during the fighting. They also scraped
paint from the walls to eat since it had lime (calcium) in it. Because
they tried to survive by eating anything available to them, they all suffered
severely from dysentery.
They were starved and dressed in rags, but they
survived. Once the gunfire stopped, my mother was sent out to check the
situation. As she went out of their building, she had to step over dead
bodies that littered the streets. She was horrified to see that some of
the soldier's bodies had their arms and legs cut off. She learned later
that the Communists would cut of the legs of the dead German officers because
of their beautiful, well-made boots; and they would cut off the arms because
when the German soldiers pillaged the locals, they would wear the jewelry on
My grandfather fought daily to maintain his deep faith and
love for the Church when it was extremely dangerous even to whisper the name of
Around a decade later, my father and his friends were
involved in the Hungarian uprising of 1956. When the Hungarians lost
their battle for freedom that year, my father had to return to his job,
whereupon the Communists immediately started interviewing him and asking him
about his participation. He denied it, claiming to be at home with his
mother, but the Communists produced a document detailing his every move. They
asked if he still wanted to deny it. He had to admit that there might be
a kernel of truth in it.
Since my father is a brilliant engineer, and since the
Communists were in a dire need of good engineers, they told my father that that
they were willing to let him stay working as long as he was successful.
They had an arrest warrant with no date and told him they could put date in at
any time he did not cooperate or if he was not successful. He worked for
years under this tremendous pressure. During these years he was given the
hardest assignments and was constantly reminded that he had to be successful
and productive if he wanted to stay out of jail. It was at this time that
my father decided that at all costs he needed to leave Communist Hungary.
In 1965 a group from Cummins Diesel came for a conference in
Budapest. My father was in charge of coordinating the event. It was his
excellent performance at this event that caused the head of the Cummins
delegation to offer my father a job. He made it clear that Cummins would
not help or be involved in any way with an escape attempt, but a job would be
his if he was able to make it to Columbus, Indiana.
In 1966 there was another big investigation in which the
Communists accused my father of all kinds of crimes. This was the last
straw and the plans for escaping were started in earnest. My father heard
that escaping from Yugoslavia would be relatively simple, so plans were made to
take a family vacation there and try to escape. My brother had suffered
from severe eczema from birth so they were able to use his medical condition as
an excuse to take a family vacation to Yugoslavia where the seawater and air
were said to have healing powers.
Once in Yugoslavia, the search was on. My parents
would drive around looking for any opportunity to escape. Once they were
driving out in the country on an old abandoned road, and it looked as though
there were an opportunity to walk to freedom. It was decided that my
father would stay at the car with my brother and my mother and the two girls
would start walking. If we girls made it to freedom, my father was going
to run after us with my brother. As soon as we girls started across the
field, guards showed up out of nowhere and pointed guns at us. Thinking
quickly, my mother told us to pull down on our pants and go to the bathroom.
The problem was that we didn't need to go. She insisted. The guards
were apparently convinced of our innocence and let us go back to the car.
Another time my parents noticed a part of the barbed wire
fence out in the country was low (probably from many others taking this
route). Again my father stayed with my brother by the car and again the
guards showed up with their dogs and machine guns.
The final attempt that year was going to be to swim at night
along the shore of the Adriatic Sea around the border to freedom. Our
parents bought rafts to put us kids on. In the middle of the night as my
father turned down to the road that led to the water, the guards seemed to come
out of nowhere with their dogs. These guards pointed their machine guns
at us and motioned for us to turn around. My parents were
devastated. Dejected we returned to Hungary. My father started a
whole new plan to escape. This time we were either going to make it to
freedom, or they were going to lose their lives trying.
My father had a friend who knew of a rich architect who
lived in Austria. The architect was bored and looking for a
challenge. My father met with him to enlist his help with our
escape. The plan was that this man would drive across the border with all
five of us in the trunk of his car. He was going to bribe one of the
guards, whom he had befriended during his many business travels across the
border, not to open the trunk of the car.
The architect had certain conditions. One of them was
that we had to have the equivalent of $3,000 in a bank in Austria. He
wanted to make sure that we were not destitute if the escape was
successful. My parents sold everything they had (sewing machine,
refrigerator, boat, etc.), but they could raise only $1,000. So my father
smuggled the $1,000 to Poland where he sold it in the underground for Polish
currency. Once back in Hungary he had a friend who worked at a bank who
exchanged it back to Hungarian money. With the exchange rate as it was,
he was able to triple his money. He had the $3,000! A friend of my
father took the money to Vienna and deposited it there in my father's name so
the architect could verify that we had fulfilled his request.
Once the architect confirmed that the money was in the bank
in Vienna, coded telegrams started going back and forth between him and my
father. It was set up that we would meet him at a hotel in
Part of the plan was to make sure all three of us kids were
asleep during our time in the trunk. For four consecutive Sundays, my
parents gave all of us tranquilizers to test their efficacy.
The day came and we met the architect out in the country in
a clearing that was pre-chosen for its secluded location. To get
five people in the trunk of his car was, to say the least, difficult. The
architect had to sit on the trunk to close it. To provide air, the back
seat was pulled away from the back of the car a few inches.
As soon as we were in the trunk, the architect started
driving. Problem was, the tranquilizers were not working: my sister and I were
wide awake. Luckily my two-year old brother was out like a light.
My parents bribed us to stay quiet by promising us certain dolls that we
liked. We wanted the dolls very badly — we stayed quiet.
The toughest part was the wait at the checkpoint –
moving forward one car at a time. Finally the guard asked the architect
if he had anything to declare. The architect replied, "You know I don't".
This was the code for the guard not to check the trunk.
We were allowed to pass through the checkpoint, but it was
another fifty yards to the border. When we made it passed through the
border, the architect started yelling, "We got through, we got
through!" He drove us to a secluded country location and opened the
trunk. I still remember the elation of my parents and all the hugging and
kissing. Soon after this my sister and I finally fell asleep and slept
for twenty-four hours!
At this point the architect's part in our escape was
complete. But he was a very good man, and decided he would walk back over
the border with the license plate from his car, put it on our car and drive our
car through the border so we would have more than just the clothes on our
backs. We paid the architect $1,000 for his help. We had
$2,000 left to live on. And we were free!
My father immediately started applying for our visas to
immigrate into the United States. He went daily to the embassy to make
sure that our paperwork didn't go to the bottom of the pile. He contacted
Cummins, which verified for the authorities that he did have a job waiting for
him. Finally the day arrived; on November 30, 1967 we flew out of Vienna
on Swiss Air. Our final destination was Columbus, Indiana. We
arrived on a Friday and my father started his new job on Monday.
The people of Columbus were tremendous. My sister and
I were put into school, and the teachers took great care to spend time each day
teaching us English. Our neighbors were fantastic also, donating things
like clothes, furniture, and most importantly, their time to make sure our
family got off to a good start. We even had one wonderful neighbor lady
who sewed us clothes.
For the first few years in America we had to maintain
silence with our family and friends in Hungary. Only coded post cards
were sent to let them know we arrived safely. The Communists were
searching for my father and interrogating his friends and family in
Hungary. It was a very dangerous time for them all.
On April 23, 1974, we became citizens of this great
country. It had taken a few years, but finally, in 1979, my mother was
able to get a visa to return to Hungary to visit her aged father. Even as
a U.S. citizen, my mother faced grave danger in returning to Communist
Hungary. After my mother's first successful trip, I went back a few years
later. One memory that stands out in my mind is a sightseeing tour I took
with my uncle. I remarked how ugly a particular building was. My
uncle grew quite alarmed and told me that we must not say such things in public
since the building was the headquarters of the Communist party. To live
in such fear of voicing an opinion was new to me. Even as a young girl, I
knew how blessed we were to live in the United States.
While in Hungary practicing our faith was very
difficult. My parents were around fourteen years old when Communism
arrived in Hungary. People were arrested and killed for their faith so
parents were reluctant to teach their children about religion.
Understandably, they feared that the children might accidentally say something about
God in public. But once we arrived to Columbus, we started to attend Sunday
Mass. It was difficult because only my father spoke a little
English. We did receive our First Holy Communion and Confirmation, but
eventually we drifted away from the practice of our faith. By the time I
left to attend Indiana State in 1976, I was not going to Mass at all.
I spent six good years in Terre Haute obtaining my bachelor
degree in Aviation Administration and a Master's degree in Business
Administration. After graduation, I ended up in Midland, Texas, working
for Midland International Airport first as an operations agent and then as a
supervisor. I was in charge of the daily operations of the airport.
While the job itself was fulfilling, I didn't care for the Texas heat, so in
1984 I moved to San Jose, California. Coming from Texas, I was shocked at
the high real estate prices, so I decided to try real estate sales. I
worked successfully in commercial real estate for four years.
It was during this time that one of the most profound
experiences of my life happened. It was 1988 and my sister and I were
visiting my folks in Columbus over a holiday. It was a tradition of ours
to try to visit our parents at the same time so that we could also visit each
other. One evening during this visit we were watching television in the
living room when my father came walking in mumbling under his breath.
When we asked him what was wrong, he said, "Your mom is watching some damn
religious show". Since he was about to commandeer the television anyway,
my sister and I decided to go and give my mom a hard time about the show she
was watching in their bedroom. A documentary on the apparitions in
Medjugorje was just beginning.
I remember being transfixed for a solid hour. My life
turned upside down. I kept hearing the Blessed Mother's response to the
children when they asked her why was she appearing – "Because there is a
God". I couldn't sleep at all that night. My mind was racing with
the implications of everything I had seen and heard. If there is a God,
then everything we do matters. Everything we say matters.
Everything we think matters. Everything matters.
When I got back to San Jose, I immediately went to my local
church and asked for a priest to hear my confession. I had no idea what I
was doing, but I knew enough to know that it was imperative that I go to
confession. I sat with that priest for a half an hour pouring my heart
and soul out to him. Many tears were shed that day. When I left, I
felt clean. Really clean. I was on Cloud Nine. I started
attending daily Mass immediately. I went to our local Catholic bookstore
and bought tons of books. I devoured everything I could get my hands
on. I had a hunger for knowledge as never before.
The beautiful part of this conversion experience is that it
didn't happen only to me. My sister back in Houston and my mom here in
Columbus both went to confession and started attending Mass and praying the
Rosary. Funny thing about the Rosary: my sister calls me one day all excited
saying, "Did you know there are things called 'mysteries' of the Rosary?
That you're supposed to meditate on events in the lives of Jesus and
Mary?" I did not know that. But I immediately went and got a book
The three of us had the great privilege of going to
Medjugorje in 1989. My sister was pregnant with her fourth child.
We were determined to go to thank the Blessed Mother for all the many graces we
had received. We also wanted to thank her for our dear Aunt who the year
before our conversion had gone to Medjugorje, and on the mountain prayed in a
very special way for our conversion. If there is one thing I'm convinced
of, all three of our conversions were brought about by my grandmother's daily
Rosary for us and by the prayers of my holy aunt on that special mountain.
During the next few years I grew in my love of God and His
Church. I became a Third Order Carmelite. I attended a weekly youth
prayer group. I took pilgrimages. I lived and breathed my faith.
It became quite obvious that I needed to leave my job as a
real estate agent. The work was very cut throat and I was aching to do
something more meaningful with my life. I finally quit my job and took a
year off to discern and to travel.
When it was necessary for me to return to work, I took a job
at a Fortune 500 company and started working in their contracts
department. Apparently they liked me because almost right away I was
promoted. While I enjoyed success at my job, I still felt empty – I
knew that for me this job was meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
At my weekly prayer group meeting I met a guy who became a
dear friend. This friend invited me to go to "Camp-lots-of-fun" one
year. Camp-lots-of-fun is a camp that he and my future boss, Tony Ryan,
started for families to come together and enjoy a long weekend of fun in the
beautiful California coastal mountains. (Tony was, and still is, the
Marketing Director at Ignatius Press.)
I met Tony a few more times over the next year at different
events, so when I heard that his assistant was getting ready to quit to go to
graduate school, I immediately called him and asked for the job. Tony's
response was "Eva, you have the job. But are you sure? You might be
bored". I told him I would take the risk -- and the huge pay cut that
came with the job -- and gave my two week's notice. As it turned out, two
girls were leaving to go back to school, so I took over both their jobs in
September of 1993. Needless to say, I've been anything but bored! Ignatius
Press has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.
In 1994 I met Dolores Meehan, a fourth generation San
Franciscan. We were both volunteering at the Gift of Love AIDS hospice, run by
the Missionaries of Charity. In 2000 we both attended the March for Life in
Washington DC, and we were deeply moved by the sight of thousands of faithful
walking peacefully for life. In 2004 we organized a rally and march in
defense of marriage, responding to the illegal directive of our mayor, Gavin
Newsom, to the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. The
outpouring of support far exceeded our expectations, with 1,500 people
attending, and this gave us the courage to organize the first Walk for Life
West Coast. This Walk was held on January 22, 2005.
We knew we would face intense opposition. San Francisco is
ground zero for the culture of death: it has the lowest percentage of children
of any major U.S. city; homosexual activists dominate city politics; and
sexually transmitted disease rates are through the roof. In that expectation we
were not disappointed. Ten days before the first Walk for Life the San
Francisco Board of Supervisors issued Resolution # 44-05, designating January
22, 2005, as "Stand Up For Choice Day." Their press release urged
people to demonstrate in opposition to our Walk: "Anti-choice demonstrators
plan to descend on San Francisco to protest women's health and rights with a
so-called 'walk for life'." Openly homosexual supervisor Bevan Dufty, who
came to San Francisco from New York City, said "These outsiders who oppose women's rights are not welcome in San
Francisco." As it turned out, the local politicians shot themselves in the
foot. Because of their rhetoric, the conservative media (yes, we have
some) covered our upcoming event extensively. News spread far and wide
about a Walk for Life in San Francisco! It was such an outrageous thought
that it was actually news.
We found we had awakened a sleeping giant. The first Walk
for Life West Coast drew 7,500 people. Participation has increased every year,
and this year 50,000 people attended with nine Catholic bishops in
attendance. The Walk now draws persons of good will from all faiths:
Catholic, Orthodox, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Hare
Krishna's—any and all religions united by respect for life. One
year I even saw a sign that said "gays for life". Only in San Francisco!
As I look back on my journey, I realize that the Walk for
Life has been for me both a fulfillment of the promise of America, and also a
chance for me to repay the gifts given to me by this great country. As America
welcomed me and allowed my family to build a new life, I think of those verses
on the Statue of Liberty:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"
Roe v. Wade is not only a violation of our Catholic faith,
it is a violation of the deepest American understanding of the very first right
enunciated in our Declaration of Independence, the very ground upon which
America rests: the right to life. If we are to be faithful to our American
heritage we must welcome those children in the womb "yearning to breathe free".
Related Ignatius Insight Excerpts and Interviews:
The Soul of Solzhenitsyn | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
On Keeping People In: The Berlin Wall and the Shortness of Political Memory | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
Eva Muntean was born
April 1, 1958 in Budapest Hungary. When she was nine, her family escaped
communist Hungary in a trunk of a car through the Iron Curtain. From the
age of nine she lived in Columbus, Indiana with her family. Eva obtained a
BS degree in Aviation Administration in 1980 from Indiana State
University. In the course of obtaining this degree, she also obtained a
Private Pilot's license with Commercial and Instrument ratings. She then
earned a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree in 1982 from Indiana
State University. After graduating, she worked for Midland International
Airport in Midland, Texas as an Airport Operations Supervisor for four
After moving to San Jose in 1986, Eva worked in
commercial real estate for four years and at Booz, Allen and Hamilton in their
contracts department. She then took a year off to travel and study before
moving to San Francisco to work for Ignatius Press in the Marketing Department
in 1993. Eva is one of the founders and Co-Chairs of Walk for Life West Coast (www.walkforlifewc.com), an annual
pro-life rally and walk in San Francisco.
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