Tuesday, July 21, 2015

TOP STORY >> Lehoczky: A class act and witness to history

Istvan (Steve) Bela Lehoczky fought the Russians in Budapest in 1956 before he fled to America.
Leader editor

Istvan (Steve) Bela Lehoczky, the patriarch of the Hungarian-American community in Little Rock, passed away July 10 at the age of 82.

He was one happy fellow. He loved his adopted country and eventually settled in Little Rock, where he repaired foreign cars. He also loved soccer and started the Riverdale Soccer Club and coached soccer at Catholic High School.

Steve fell outside a restaurant in April and was in rehab for months. We visited him the Sunday before he passed away. He could barely move, and he couldn’t talk, but we knew he recognized us.

My wife said he looked good and hoped he’d go home in a few weeks. He’d fallen asleep while we were there, and we told a nurse we’d come back next Sunday.

A few days later, Steve took a turn for the worse and died in the middle of the night.

A veteran of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Steve had an outgoing personality that turned somber only when he recalled the horrors of the past, which wasn’t often.

He was tough in his youth — you had to be strong to make it across the Hungarian-Austrian border after the Soviets crushed the revolution. I was just a child, but we kept moving as the searchlights and tracer bullets lit up the sky.

When we became friends decades later in Arkansas, we realized we’d lived in the same refugee camp in Austria. He’d offer a toast to our survival with a shot of palinka, Hungarian plum brandy. Palinka may have helped him drown his sorrows, at least for a while.

Maybe Steve made friends easily because of his Hungarian accent — Hungarians of a certain age in this country all sound like Edward Teller, Sir Georg Solti, Ernie Kovacs, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Peter Lorre, along with other Hungarian character actors who helped make “Casablanca” first-rate entertainment directed by the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz.

You could hear Steve laugh from a block away. He’d hug you and kiss you on the cheeks just because you showed up for his amazing goulash. He cooked it in an outdoor kettle over a bonfire with his Turkish friend, Guner Eruren.

They stirred it for hours until it must have tasted like goulash back home in Gyula, the small town in eastern Hungary with the medieval fortress where Steve was born.

He had happy memories playing there as a child and had asked that his ashes be buried in the fortress.

Steve didn’t want to dwell on the past, but he must have hoped I’d write about his experiences — which I did several times over the 25 years I knew him — so history wouldn’t forget the ordinary victims of communism and fascism.

He told me once he’d witnessed the Holocaust as a child when his Jewish neighbors were deported to Auschwitz. The Nazis made his mother search the Jewish women for valuables before they were put in cattle cars to the death camp.

That was one of the few times I’d seen him fight back tears. The other time was when he talked about the 1956 Revolution. He didn’t want to sound like a hero: He was a 23-year-old fighter during the revolution and was shot at as he ran across a square in Budapest with his 19-year-old fiancé, who died in his arms.

Later, Steve and his friend, John Elekes, were caught in a Soviet ambush. They split up and never saw each other again.

Steve always wondered what had happened to his long-lost friend. Almost 40 years later, Steve walked into a bar on Markham Street in Little Rock.

The bartender said, “Steve, you’re Hungarian, aren’t you? I want you to meet a C-130 pilot from Little Rock Air Force Base. His name is John Elekes.”

John was his friend’s son. C-130 pilots deliver people and supplies into war zones and humanitarian aid to earthquake victims and refugees.

That’s what young John Elekes was doing: Flying high to make the world a better place one generation after his father and Steve Lehoczky were dodging Soviet bullets.

Steve asked the young pilot about his dad. The son said his father had passed away in New Jersey a few months earlier.

Now Steve Lehoczky is gone, too. There will be a memorial service at 4 p.m. Wednesday, July 29 at Ruebel Funeral Home in Little Rock, followed by a reception at Whole Hog Café, both on Markham Street. Someone might even slip in a small bottle of palinka.

He will then make his final journey to the medieval fortress in Gyula.

Nyugogjon békében. May you rest in peace, Steve.