I was eleven when we fled our Soviet occupied country Hungary, in 1947, landing in a refugee camp in Austria. Our only worldly possessions were the clothes on our backs. We had lost everything because of World War II, but we were alive, and for that we were grateful to God.
The refugee camp housed hundreds of destitute refugees. Although dismal and cramped, the camp provided a roof over our heads, donated clothes to wear, and soup and bread to fill our hungry stomachs. So what did it matter that we didn’t have penny to our names?
But it mattered a great deal to Apa (Hungarian for Dad.) He hated living off the charity of others; hated not being able to provide for his family, as he always did in the past.
Just beyond our dismal camp home was a beautiful natural world of mountains, a crystal clear river, and farms with grazing animals. The river was the Drau River, and Apa and I discovered it on a summer day while taking one of our rambles through the countryside.
“You can enjoy the water, while I get busy with something else,” he said,.
So I splashed around in the shallow, clear water, while Apa walked up and down the bank. I noticed he was cutting some branches from the river willows growing all along the bank. Soon, he had a large armful of them, so we headed back to camp.
“What are you going to do with them?” I asked him curiously.
“I will make some baskets,” Apa replied.
“And what will you do with the baskets?” I continued, suddenly remembering that his hobby in the past used to be weaving.
“I will try and sell them to the Austrians.”
Soon, Apa found some old boards and bricks, and set up a worktable in front of our barrack. Then, after peeling the willow branches, he began weaving his first basket. A large crowd gathered to watch him. Some boys volunteered to get more willow branches for him.
“Thank you. And when I sell my baskets, I’ll pay you for your help.”
Within a short time, there were six beautiful baskets ready for market. Apa hung them on a long stick, flung them over his shoulder, and off he went to town, looking like a hobo peddler. He returned a few hours later minus the baskets. He had sold all of them!
Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the book I had been longing for, while we had walked around in town.
“Oh, thank you, Apa,” I shrieked, giving him a hug. “I can’t believe you were able to buy me a new book.”
“You are welcome, Sweetheart. Never forget–where there is a will, there is always a way,” he said. Then he went off to pay the boys who had helped him.
Apa continued with his new venture all summer, and even gave free lessons in weaving to anyone interested. After he sold the next batch, he bought himself a fishing pole, too, and a large frying pan, and building a fire outside the barrack, soon cooked up a large batch of fish he caught in the river, and shared it with our neighbors. It was most unusual to have the aroma of that frying fish wafting through the camp, where barracks were lined up like soldiers, and helpless people lived their lives in them, hoping and praying for something better.
My dear Apa’s example was an inspiration to many at that refugee camp. His motto became my motto in life, and it has always served me well.
"Any man can be a Father but it takes someone special to be a dad."
-- Anne Geddes
This story is from the book, “The Best Dad in the World” published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © April 2008.
A longer version of this story was previously published in Chicken Soup for the Father and Daughter's Soul. Apa was my dear grandfather, who raised me.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful weekend!