A Refugee Camp Birthday

by | Jun 1, 1999 | Gifts

My eleventh birthday was just a week away when we arrived in the refugee camp on that bleak and cold November day in 1947. My grandparents, who were rais­ing me, and I had successfully fled our Soviet-occupied, communist country, Hungary, with only the clothes we were wearing. The refugee camp, called a Displaced Persons Camp, was in Spittal, Austria.

To frightened, cold and hungry people like us, the refugee camp was a blessing. We were given our own little cardboard-enclosed space in a barrack, fed hot cabbage­and-potato soup, and given warm clothes. We had much to be grateful for. But as for my upcoming birthday, I didn’t even want to think about it. After all, we had left our country devoid of possessions or money. And even if Apa (my grandfather) had managed to flee with a few pengos (Hungarian small currency) in his pocket, it wouldn’t have done us any good in Austria. So I had decided to for­get about birthday presents from then on.

My grandmother, who was the only mother I had known, had taken over my care when I was only a few weeks old, because her only child, my mother, had died suddenly. Before the war intensified, my birthdays had been grand celebrations with many cousins in atten­dance, and lots of gifts of toys, books and clothes. The cake had always been a dobosh torte, which Anya (my grandmother) prepared herself.

My eighth birthday had been the last time I received a bought gift. Times were already hard, money was scarce and survival the utmost goal. But my grandparents had managed to hock something so they could buy me a book. It was a wonderful book, too, full of humor and adventure, and I loved it. In fact, Cilike’s Adventures had transported me many times from the harshness of the real world to a world of laughter and fun. After that, birthday presents, thanks to Anya’s deft fingers, were usually crocheted or knitted items, but there was always a present. However, in the refugee camp, I was resigned to the inevitable.

On November 25, 1947, when I woke in our cardboard cubicle, I laid there on my little cot beneath the horsehair blanket and thought about being eleven now. Why, I was practically a grown-up, I told myself, and I would act accordingly when Anya and Apa awoke. I didn’t want them to feel bad because they couldn’t give me a present. So I dressed quickly and tiptoed out as quietly as possible. Outside, I ran across the frosty dirt road to the barrack marked Women’s Bathroom and Shower, washed, combed my hair and took my time, even though it was chilly in there, before returning to our cubicle. But finally, return I did.

“Good morning, Sweetheart. Happy birthday,” Apa greeted as soon as I walked in.

“Thank you. But I’d just as soon forget about birthdays from now on,” I replied, squirming in his generous hug. “You are too young to forget about birthdays,” Anya said, taking me in her arms. “Besides, who would I give this present to if birthdays are to be forgotten?”

“Present?” I looked at her dumbfounded, as she reached into her pocket and pulled something out.

“Happy birthday, Honey. It’s not much of a present, but I thought you might enjoy having Cilike back on your eleventh birthday,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“My old Cilike’s Adventures book! But I thought it was left behind with all our other things,” I said, hugging the book to my chest, tears of joy welling up in my own eyes.

“Well, it almost was. But when we had to leave so quickly in the middle of the night, I grabbed it, along with my prayer book, and stuck it in my pocket. I knew how much you loved that book, and I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. Happy birthday, again, Honey. I’m sorry it’s not a new book, but I hope you like having it back,” Anya said.

“Oh, thank you, Anya. Having Cilike back means so much to me. So very much,” I said, hugging her again, tears streaming down my cheeks. “It’s the best birthday present I ever received!” And it truly was, because I real­ized that day that God had blessed me with a wonderful grandmother/mother, whose love would always see me through.

Renie Burghardt renie_burghardt@yahoo.com

From Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul. Deerfield, Florida: Health Communications, Inc, 2000, p. 311-313.


A Refugee Camp Birthday