Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another Distortion at the Movies, etc.

Tibor R. Machan

American Rhapsody is a movie about a family that gets smuggled out of Hungary in the early 1960s and all the various complications this gives rise to. Since I went through this ordeal myself when I was 14, not with my family but several perfect strangers and a paid guide, I thought I’d check out the movie.

Expecting to see something familiar I’d witness, instead a very distorted picture of the escape emerged right from the start. And I have met up with this distortion before, when in 1981 TIME magazine carried a lengthy story about what TIME called flesh peddlers, the who people hired out their skills of leading people across the dangerous Iron Curtain. Just as TIME did, so American Rhapsody depicted the people smugglers not as heroes, not as folks doing an important piece of work for which hundreds of refugees would forever be grateful. No. Both TIME and American Rhapsody depicted the smugglers as rapacious, greedy, heartless brutes who had no concern for their clients at all, especially not the young children who accompanied them.

My experience was completely different. From the start, when my guide came to our apartment in Budapest and introduced himself to my mother and me, he was not only competent but very helpful. First he established his credentials so that we’d be at ease about the possibility that he might be some government agent setting a trap. This consisted of showing my mother letters I had written to my father, already in the West, ones only someone who had the trust of my father could have on him. Sure enough, this served its purpose--we relaxed and continued our preparations without nagging suspicions that very naturally infest such transactions.

I was allowed a day by the guide and my mother to decide whether this is something I wanted to undertake. It wasn’t a journey without serious risks, mind you. Several people we knew had tried to escape and were caught by vigilant border guards and immediately incarcerated and later sent to labor camps. (You see the communists were serious about the idea, one that attracts some Western communitarians, like the highly respected Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, that each of us belongs to our societies!)

Of course, I decided to make the trip--for me it was more of an adventure than a hazardous escape and I had always dreamt about coming West. (Young people probably do not fully appreciate the dangers of such undertakings so for them they tend to be exciting adventures, mostly.) My guide then helped me to get ready by instructing me to send my bicycle to the city, Gyor, where we would disembark from our bus and begin in earnest the more complicated portion of the trip during the night, on our bikes, sleeping during the day in hey stacks on the way toward the border, after which we would have to walk.

All of us, the four adults and I, were provided with phony documents that would at least temporarily fend of authorities who might ask what we are doing wandering about near the Austro-Hungarian border. Then we started our 20 miles or so walk, mostly at the edge of freshly tilled farmland. Our feet took a violent beating from this--I eventually had to toss all the stuff I brought along and even go barefoot for good spells.

All along our heartless flesh peddler gave us all the help he could, kept reminding us what reward lies ahead, once we crossed into Austria and reached the American sector there. At the border he skillfully cut the barbwires and made sure that we would not trip the hairline wires wrapped around it. We were also carefully led though the 25 feet soft dirt just before the barbwires since it was booby trapped and we would have been blown to smithereens without his guidance.

Once we successfully crossed into Austria, we still had some 10 kilometers to walk to reach the railway station where we were to catch the train to Vienna. And after some hassle we did, only to find the train filled with Russian soldiers. Fortunately they were all drunk and our strategy of going through the compartments talking loudly in German turned out the be quite superfluous.

But I have told this story elsewhere already--my memoir The Man Without A Hobby (2006). The only reason I tell it again here is to show how this supposedly rapacious, heartless smuggler was, in fact, a completely decent, as well as highly competent, individual whom Hollywood and TIME really should have represented more honestly.

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