Faith through adversity

Assumption parishioner shares stories of her family’s escape from Communist Hungary

Helen Szablya
Helen Szablya

By Susan Eick

When Helen Szablya and her husband John decided to flee Communist Hungary in 1956, they left everything behind except their three young children.

It wasn’t easy, but Szablya has long trusted in God’s providence. “Together you and God can do the impossible,” she told a recent gathering at Holy Family Parish in Kirkland.

Szablya (pronounced Sabya), a parishioner at Assumption Parish in Seattle, is a storyteller who wanted to write since she was very young. “Under communism you couldn’t do that,” she said. “You could only write what [the communists] wanted to hear.”

But Szablya has written much since leaving Hungary. Reading from her new memoir, “My Only Choice: 1942-1956 Hungary,” she shared memories of love, tragedy and living her Catholic faith through adversity. Through her words, the audience got an inside view of Hungary as it transitioned to communism, when life as Szabyla knew it disappeared.

“The communists wanted to take away your religion,” she said, but the more they took away, “the greater your faith became.”

The communists banned the practice of religion, but a priest in a downtown Budapest church continued celebrating Mass, drawing so many people that the period for distributing Communion had to be extended.

Helen Szablya and her family
John and Helen Szablya are pictured with their children after escaping Hungary in 1956. Photo: Courtesy Helen Szablya

The audience laughed when Szablya humorously recalled the absurd nature of rigged elections. But the room grew silent as she described the loss of life to soldiers’ bullets, and citizens arrested and imprisoned for actions like going to see a movie.

“The things that do not perish in a disaster are your knowledge and your memory,” she said.

The Szablya family left behind their possessions when they fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution. They arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Helen’s father was living after his own escape from Hungary.

John was hired by Washington State University in 1963 as an electrical engineering professor, and he and Helen eventually became U.S. citizens. They moved to Western Washington in 1982. John died in 2005.

In the years since leaving Hungary, Helen has written more than 700 published pieces, many for the Catholic media, and continues writing today. She also is Honorary Consul General of Hungary for the Pacific Northwest.

Her seven children are her proudest achievement, she said. She also has 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Szablya’s faith is “the glue that holds everything together,” said her son, Janos Szablya. He admires his mother, he said, because “she doesn’t give up. There’s always a solution to the problem, no matter what the problem is.”

Szablya’s faith is tested “constantly,” she admits with a laugh. But she also knows her faith will see her through, as it has for so many years. “What God wants is always best for you,” she said.


Learn more

Helen Szablya will speak about her book, “My Only Choice: 1942-1956 Hungary,” at 7 p.m. May 13 at Assumption Parish, 6201 33rd Ave. N.E., Seattle.

Learn more about Szablya on her website,


May 8, 2014