The Human Face of Freedom

What the Berlin Wall Anniversary MeansBy Joe Gschwendtner

The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this week. Anyone in Central or Eastern Europe today, 70 or older, has spent over two-thirds of their life under Communism or jackbooted Nazis. That is, unless your courage and ambition made you willing to risk life itself like our neighbor, Emerencia Marton Kanan. Emi was born into impoverished, post-war, Communist Hungary in 1945. At age four, weakened by ingested chemicals, Emi was near death on a straw bed until a man with rare Rh negative blood offered an 11th hour transfusion. Finally off the grim reaper’s list, she then contracted TB and was removed to a hospice/sanitarium. Written off again, her mom brought Emi to her native village Nyoger at a higher, more beneficial altitude. In one of life’s outlying moments, Emi survived on curd from the churn in the milk house to sate her hunger. Open spaces, food of the earth, and perhaps the scent of more freedom put the tuberculosis into remission.

Rough hewn and semi-skilled, Emi’s Dad was a hunted man. A former government worker, he was punished with menial jobs—shoveling coal and building Budapest subways in the 50’s. He had narrowly saved his own life earlier by having escaped a forced shipment to post-war Russian labor camps. He taught Emi two things: Freedom is worth fighting for and to never give up.

At 21 Emi met Frank. He was heady with ideas, ambition and dreams of freedom, ever plotting to escape Communism. Their romance was epic in speed and intensity. They were married in 1967 and Frank Junior arrived ten months later.

Even as Frank Senior planned their Iron Curtain escape, he left the collectives to set up a welding shop with friends in an attempt to rise above subsistence level. His dreams died with him when he was electrocuted by a faulty transformer. Emi was now a widow at age 22. She worked at a local school but her attention was riveted by politics and economics.

After hearing other stories of escape, Emi engineered her own. With $140 and a Communist visa to vacation in Yugoslavia, she located a smuggler who ran human flesh across the Adriatic to Italy. On short notice she convinced her mother to join her, and, along with her sedated son, fled in the night (a story paralleling Disney’s “Night Crossing”).

During eight months in a refugee camp and refusing “easy” prostitution money, Emi survived by ironing clothes for $1.50 a day. On her own terms, she finally secured a passage for three to Chicago. Emi, by dint of her own courage would go on to self-educate, re-marry, and find her way to Colorado and the investment industry, subsequently attaining stratospheric levels of success for a female in the 1970’s. She and her husband Pat now enjoy a reflective life together as they teach photographic techniques and market artistic old world photography in Castle Rock, Colorado.

If there is anyone who can prove the case of America, as land of the free and home of the brave, it is she……….

Joe Gschwendtner is a Castle Rock businessman and writer.