Author Helen Schmidt at her recent book signing at the Lake Forest community in Plattsburgh.
It was like something out of a horrible movie that you know can’t be real, except that it was real.
That’s how 95-year-old Helen Schmidt described the endless column of people fleeing Hungary ahead of advancing Soviet forces in 1945. Stretching from one horizon to the other, trucks, cars, mule drawn carts and people on foot, with just the belongings they could carry, plodded their way over mountainous roads into Austria and eventually into Germany.
One seemingly monolithic being, each person in that column brought with them their own story. Now, nearly 70 years later, Schmidt is telling her story of escape and survival in a memoir she just published entitled “Oh Memory Lane.”
“Our father made us promise that when they (the Soviets) came, we would leave,” said Schmidt in a still thick Hungarian accent, remembering the months leading up to her exodus from Hungary.
Together with her sisters Mary and Gabriella, her 3-year-old daughter and two other children, Schmidt headed her father’s plea and left. One of her brothers and a sister stayed behind.
Schmidt said that day after day on the march, she would carry her daughter as long as she physically could, but, eventually, the child would have to walk.
“It was absolutely God’s blessing that none of them complained. They didn’t even have food or drink. It’s unbelievable that none of them caught a cold or got sick.”
They found their way eventually into Germany where Schmidt, who spoke several languages, worked for a time for the American Red Cross as an interpreter. She was eventually separated from her sisters in order to take work in another German city, while she waited for the opportunity to come to America.
“We all came separately because the Hungarian quota was so small,” she said.
Schmidt met a Hungarian man named Rudolph in Germany, and the two got engaged. When their time came to emigrate, they eventually found themselves in Albany. Her older sister was already in Albany working, and Helen and Rudolph settled there and began a new life.
“The American people are so kind and so good, and it’s just a wonderful place to live. We finally were able to settle down and start to live.”
They lived in the Albany area until 1987 when Rudolph, a family physician, retired. After traveling and living in Florida, the couple moved to Plattsburgh in 2007 in order to be closer to one of their several children.
In the late 1990s, Schmidt’s daughter Peggy had given her a blank book and asked her to start recording her memories of traveling from Europe and starting a new life in America. That blank book was the start of what would eventually become Oh Memory Lane.
“My children wanted to know about it, and they pestered me,” Schmidt said. “So this past winter I was able to sit down and write it.”
She had considered writing the memoir in the past, but the process always stirred too many sad memories of the family she had left behind. Finally, though, she was able to write it.
“Now, before I leave this earth, I have put it together.”
Schmidt was lauded recently at a book signing at the Lake Forest community in Plattsburgh where she and Rudolph live. Friends and residents alike eagerly lined up for autographed copies of the new author’s work.
Copies of Oh Memory Lane can also be purchased online through Blurb Publishing by going to www.blurb.com and typing in “Helen Schmidt” into the search bar.