Sunday, November 06, 2011


SMH, 6.11.11

David Sygall.

FOR Les Murray's parents, there was no queue to jump, immigration officer to plead with or process to follow. Nor was there a destination, other than to flee Hungary, where Soviet soldiers were crushing the 1956 uprising, in which his father had played a small but dangerous part.

Murray's parents, and the go-betweens who helped them cross the Austria-Hungary border one icy winter's night, risked everything to give their boys freedom. They succeeded.

It is why the demonisation of so-called people smugglers today prompts mixed feelings in the veteran broadcaster. He does not defend traders in misery. But he knows well that to escape persecution, smugglers are essential. Murray's smuggler, who he remembered only as Julius, remains his hero. In August, after 55 years, Murray sought to find him.

''When people discuss people smugglers, they often group together those who conduct the slave trade with those who legitimately help refugees,'' says Murray, born Laszlo ܨrge. ''One is despicable. The other has its dark side, too. But the point is, in order to successfully negotiate an escape through many dangers, you need help.''

About 200,000 people escaped Hungary in two months in 1956. Some smugglers expected payment. Others didn't. Murray's family was poor and perhaps offered some old jewellery. He remembers Julius as warm, caring and sympathetic. ''He held mine and my brother's hands across the border,'' he says. ''Then he kissed us all, turned around and disappeared. He told us which way to walk to an Austrian village and we were free. My people smuggler was always my hero.''

There was a haunting footnote. Another family, the Kereszteses, had conspired with the Murrays to escape, but their dash came unstuck. Imprinted on 11-year-old Murray's brain ever since is the image of two machinegun-carrying Soviet soldiers ushering them back. Until this year, Murray knew nothing of their fate. ''My parents had made inquiries but we got no information,'' he says.

When Murray went back to Hungary in August, he learnt that the parents of the Kereszteses had died. But, remarkably, he found Andor, the then four-year-old son. ''He told us the security police had interrogated his father, beat the crap out of him, then let him go,'' Murray says. ''That's what would have happened to my father if he'd been caught.''

Julius, Murray's smuggler hero, died in 2005. But he found his son, also Julius, and grandson, Balazs, who had known nothing of Julius's deeds. ''The reaction was immense pride and emotion. Finally I could thank Julius, thank him through his son and grandson,'' Murray says.

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