Bali Szabo tends a guerrilla garden in summer at the Summit Apartments in Hailey on a plot of vacant city land that he reclaimed from a rubbish heap. He calls the flower and vegetable garden the Habitat for Nonhumanity.
“Plum trees I planted from seeds are now 20 feet tall. There are daffodils and tulips. There is always something in bloom,” he said.
Szabo, 76, fled Hungary in 1956 two months after Russian tanks came rolling into Budapest to quell an uprising. He was 13 and arrived at the Austrian border with a machine gun hanging from his shoulder.
“If my childhood taught me anything, it was to value freedom,” he said
The Soviet Red Army had ruled Hungary since the end of World War II. Szabo’s father, an artist who also played violin in a gypsy orchestra, was sent to work decorating shop windows and died young.
“They killed his spirit and he turned to the bottle,” Szabo recalled. “I knew I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.”
Szabo’s mother knew her son escaped to the inner city at night, but always expected him to come home. One day he followed loud noises and discovered two Russian tanks burning in the street, destroyed by student protesters in a rebellion that enveloped the country and temporarily drove the Russian military from the city. Peace negotiations were set to begin.
The new government was promising free elections and was recognized by the United Nations, when Szabo’s mother sent him for coal. Waiting in line, he met a police officer who gave him a .32-caliber machine gun, showing him how to break it down into three pieces for hiding.
“He went back to his barracks and got another one,” said Szabo, who then faced a dilemma: fight for the Hungarian resistance or flee the country, as some 200,000 others eventually would.
In early November when the Russian army came rolling back into town, with fighter jets strafing from above, Szabo made his decision.
“Some people were manning barricades, but the Russians had an armored military. Then the peace negotiators were arrested and shot and that was the end of that,” he said.
Packing his gun and taking some food and money from his house, he fled in the night, never to return.
“My mother was apolitical. She only cared about taking care of her family. But she would never have let me go,” he said.
Szabo met other refugees, dodged armored cars and occasionally hid in the woods as he walked two days west toward the border. He and his friends were picked up in a panel truck filled with other refugees.
“One guy asked to take my gun away. I just pointed it at him and said, “Uh, no.’”
Halfway to Austria, a man in shiny boots and a fancy coat suggested the group turn from the highway to a relief center nearby. Half the group followed his directions. Szabo and the rest decided to push on.
“We were all very tired, but those others wound up at a police station run by the Russians. They were only one hour from freedom and lost it.”
Looking down on the city lights of Andau, Austria, Szabo saw a Volkswagen bus pull up to offer assistance. He knew he had made it.
“I went to the refugee center and laid down on a cot to rest. I finally let them have my gun,” he said.
Szabo was taken in by an Austrian journalist who aided his emigration to Connecticut, where he lived for a while with his father’s relatives. He eventually found a place in a foster home in Cape Cod. He learned to speak English and earned a college degree.
“I always was a good cook,” said Szabo, who worked in restaurants for 35 years before retiring in 2000. He moved to Hailey in 2002 and until recently wrote a newspaper column.
“I was a right-wing anti-communist for a while, but now I see that freedom is liberal. Freedom for Hispanics, for women, freedom for everyone. I had luck, luck, luck all the way.”
When Szabo isn’t gardening, reading or writing, he dabbles in the stock market.
“It’s one of the last democratic institutions,” he said. “A person can get rich regardless of race, background or ethnicity.”