Crossing borders has always been stressful for me. Even in Schengen countries, when driving on a motorway knowing I won’t be stopped, I still anxiously look out for the sign that shows that I have successfully crossed the non-existent border to the next destination country. That funny, tight knot in the pit of my stomach dissolves slowly until I relax.
Passport control at airports and ports on the way to ferries or the Eurotunnel also causes my pulse to beat faster. I must have travelled between my London or Kent UK home to mainland Europe across the Channel hundreds of times. I have also driven south from Northern Germany where I lived for eight years to Austria and Hungary many dozens of times. Still my anxiety level at borders does not seem to subside.
Travelling with an Austrian passport
When my family moved to the UK, I had an Austrian passport. Of course, every crossing over the Channel or flight abroad on holiday or from work was accompanied by a passport check. In the first few years, I often had to answer probing questions. “Why was I coming to the UK?” “Where was I staying, and how long for?” The officious tone of these questions always gave me cold shivers, even though I had nothing to hide and nothing to fear, as all was above board.
At first, I had a year’s permit to study, and then I had an indefinite leave-to-remain stamp in my passport. After five years of living in the UK, and having married a UK passport holder, I took British citizenship and felt very proud to hold a British passport. Sadly, even knowing that I now ‘belonged’ here in the UK, and that the Queen herself required “all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely,” I still couldn’t and still can’t help feeling anxious at the prospect of being checked by uniformed officials.
I imagine that I must be suffering from some sort of post traumatic stress disorder rooted in two experiences in my childhood. The one which involved my flight from Hungary, and a second border crossing to Austria from a visit to Budapest where my mother and we three children went to visit a very elderly aunt.
As a refugee, you leave all your family and connections behind and don’t know if you will ever see them again. My mother was therefore very happy when, five years after we had fled Hungary, in 1961, she was allowed to visit Budapest under a general amnesty afforded by the then Hungarian state. The country wanted the foreign currency these family visits brought them, and they attracted Western visitors with cheap hotels.
East meets West at Balaton
Tourism to Budapest and Lake Balaton thrived partly because East Germans often came on holiday to Hungary to meet their relatives from West Germany there. The self-styled German Democratic Republic did not allow visits beyond the Iron Curtain and West Germans preferred to spend holidays at Balaton and invite their relatives to meet them there. Hungary was slightly less grey and sombre-looking than eastern parts of Germany.
My family didn’t have many relatives in Hungary, as my mother was an only child. But she was very attached to the few we had. She took them presents of clothes and delicacies not available in Hungary at the time. US jeans and chewing gum were particularly welcome by the younger generation. We were happy to spend some time with our cousins, who sadly were not able to visit us and obviously had such a different life from ours.
Time to head home
In summer that year, we said goodbye to our Hungarian family with a meal at a well-known hotel, which was a big treat for them. By Western standards it was easily affordable – for my teacher mother with an average German salary. We were in high spirits on our drive towards the border and we children were talking about what we hoped to do on the last few remaining days of our school holidays.
By the time we came to the border post, however, our mood was dampened. Soldiers with torches had stopped us several times on the road. They had made us get out to check that we hadn’t hidden another passenger in the car. At that time one could read weekly in the papers about deaths at attempts to flee across the border. The road leading to Austria was across no-man’s-land and there were watch towers with searchlights and armed soldiers with vicious sounding dogs walking about. The security was there to keep people in and not to keep others out.
When we stopped at the border post, several guards approached our car and told us to get out. We thought nothing of it until they told us to follow them and we saw that there was an individual guard for every one. I was about 15, my sister 11, and my brother 9. They separated us from each other and from our mother. I told my ‘guard’ that I wanted to be with my younger siblings as I knew that they would be afraid. They didn’t even look at me but grabbed my arm and pulled me into a room.
There, there were another two female guards or soldiers, I couldn’t tell as they all had guns. They were huge women. They told me to take all my clothes off and sit down naked. At 15, one is not exactly keen on stripping in front of strangers. They took my clothes away somewhere. I was shaking from nerves and very worried about my sister who I knew was a bit of a rebel and might make her situation even worse by resisting her guards.
A woman in civil clothing came into the room and started to ask me questions which made it obvious that my family had been under observation in Budapest. They wanted to know who the man was who was in a wheelchair at our meal that day and who the woman was who we had coffee with the day before. I said Uncle George and Aunt Éva. I said I didn’t know their surnames but told them I was sure they did.
Then they asked me if I could drive as they would keep my mother and I would have to take my siblings home. It was obvious that at 15 I couldn’t, but they must have thought I was older. Although I was petrified, I kept back my tears. I was not going to give them the satisfaction and, anyway, I didn’t want to scare my sister and brother more by looking tear-stained.
Eventually, they brought my clothes back and told me I could go to my siblings but my mother was not yet “ready.” Both my siblings looked dishevelled and shaky. My sister screamed that they had undressed her by force and my brother, who was not a hugger at nine squeezed me really hard.
It seemed like hours before the door opened and our mother came in. We didn’t talk, and as one of the guards said we could go, we just ran to our car and drove off. The lights of the Austrian border were about 15 minutes’ drive away, but it felt like a hundred miles.
Our mother told us, that they had threatened her that they would keep us children back in Hungary if she didn’t cooperate. She was to go back to Budapest in a month’s time on her own and report to the political police there: the police which was infamous for making people simply disappear without a trace.
My family did not visit Hungary for several years after this event. My English stepfather wanted to meet some of our family in Budapest but, before we agreed to go there with him, he wrote to the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior demanding assurances for the safety of his Hungarian wife and step children. He got a reassuring reply but it took a lot of persuasion on his part for us to cross the Hungarian border again.
Some things have changed
European borders have changed a lot since the Iron Curtain and Cold War days. But not for everybody. Hungary has forgotten that in 1956 over 200,000 people crossed the border to Austria to flee USSR tyranny. They are one of the EU countries which has built a tall fence at its Southern border to keep refugees out. Images of children pressed up against barbed wire fences guarded by armed soldiers went through the media.
A law in Hungary makes giving food to any of the refugees at the border a criminal offence. And the UK which has cut legal pathways to enter Britain is threatening desperate refugees arriving in dinghies at Dover with deportation.
How many of the refugee children experiencing the harsh treatment by guards now will like me never lose the fear they experience when crossing borders?