MIAMI COUNTY — He kissed the ground on Ellis Island and shook hands with Vice President Richard Nixon.
That was Frank Raskay Jr.’s first day in the United States of America on Jan. 1, 1957.
Pictures and posters of friends and family are hung up on display for all of those who stop in to see him in his shop in eastern, rural Miami County.
Through the slight haze of smoke from his Winston cigarettes, Raskay, now 75 years old, shared the trials and tribulations of how he and his family fled his native homeland of Hungary during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at the age of 17.
Raskay was one of nearly 200,000 “Freedom Fighters” who sought refuge in the United States during the Hungarian Revolution which broke out on Oct. 23, 1956. Thousands of Hungarians like Raskay fought oppression by the Soviet Union government.
Raskay flies the Hungarian flag each year on Oct. 23 in remembrance of those times his native country tried to break free from Soviet rule.
“Hungary was under the communist regime,” Raskay explained. “Our dream was listening to voice of America radio, they’d free Europe. We had the false belief, of course, that dollars hung from trees, golden pavement, but that was our life ambition.”
FLEEING THE HOMELAND
In a heavy Hungarian accent, Raskay said he was involved in the revolution as a teenager.
His father, a World War II POW, his brother and himself made the decision to flee their home after the turmoil erupted Hungary.
“People who was in revolution, (Soviets) gathered them and shipped them to Siberia, so we decided to escape,” Raskay said. “I was 17, fresh out of high school. So we decided since the Russians didn’t have such a strong border patrol, lot of people took advantage of it and escaped for a better life.”
Raskay, his brother Joseph and father Frank Sr. left their mother and sister behind in their home in Tolcsva, a village in the eastern part of Hungary.
The agreement was to sell their home and vineyard and be reunited in the United States once the men were settled in the U.S.
“Well, sad it didn’t work out because they made my mother divorce my father in order to get the home in her name,” he said. “It didn’t take too well, so our family broke up. It was sad. It was sad to leave. I was still young and had a lot of friends. It was a hard decision, but we were hoping for the best because America — you know America had a better name 60 years ago.”
The Raskays headed to the Austrian border in mid-November, crossing creeks and even hiding in fields as patrols searched for those trying to flee the country.
“We was in the mud in the countryside. At one time, one of the Hungarian boarder patrols with a Jeep came along with a spot light on it. We was under the spotlight in the mud,” he said. “Either they didn’t see or … if you got caught trying to escape Hungary you was the enemy of the Communist government and they’d shoot you on the spot.”
Narrowly escaping the border patrol, the men jumped on trains to get close to the Austrian border. The plan was to enter Austria on foot through villages, so the Raskays paid villagers one month’s wages to escort them to the border.
“They handed us over to the Austrian border patrol. They put us in a camp and we were interviewed by the authorities,” Raskay said. Raskay and his family were interviewed by American immigration authorities who were trying to find the true immigrants from Soviet spies during the height of the Cold War.
Raskay said his father’s cousin in Dayton sponsored the family and they were able to leave the camp earlier.
“It was a scary time. We didn’t know the language, didn’t have a trade and we didn’t know what we were facing. It was the unknown. What we know and read about America, it was second to heaven,” Raskay said.
Raskay boarded another train with 1,700 refugees known as “Freedom Fighters” to board the naval troop carrier U.S.S. General LeRoy Eltinge. On Dec. 17, 1956, the ship left Germany for what was supposed to be a seven-day trip to America’s harbor in New York City.
LADY LIBERTY WELCOMES FREEDOM FIGHTERS
Raskay along with thousands of other Hungarian refuges sailed in to the harbor on Dec. 31, 1956.
“We hit a storm and it took 14 days to arrive in Brooklyn, New York,” Raskay said. “On New Year’s Eve in ‘57, we was in the harbor of New York.”
Raskay shared his first initial impression of the United State of America “was weird.”
“You know, Manhattan lit up on New Year’s Eve. Never in my life had I seen so many lights, of course,” Raskay said. “Then I saw the Statue of Liberty. I thought I was dreaming! Don’t let me wake up. I mean, America! I still couldn’t believe it. It was overwhelming. I had mixed emotions.”
On Jan. 1, 1957, the Raskays were greeted by Vice President Richard Nixon after the ship docked. Raskay, his brother and father even appeared in the New York Times, which documented the ship’s welcome.
“How did I end up in America? That was our life dream, everyone who was not a communist, dream!” Raskay recalled that day.
“I kissed the ground. And then we shook hands with Nixon,” Raskay said. “Because Eisenhower approved for the immigrants without the quota. And they passed a special bill to add the Hungarian Freedom Fighters because we fought for better life, better regime and didn’t believe in communism. And that was an unforgivable sin in Hungary.”
Raskay still has the bag he had with him during his escape from Hungary, including a journal he kept until they day they arrived in America — Dec. 31, 1956.
“I still have my train ticket from leaving my hometown in this bag,” Raskay said. “This is all we had.”
WORKING AND LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM
Raskay and his family went to a former World War II Army post in New Jersey and received fresh clothes and food from the Red Cross. They also made arrangements with their cousin in Dayton who sponsored them to come to the area.
“I had mixed emotions. What’s waiting out here? I didn’t know the language. The family was separated. What’s going to be next? Knowing we arrived being in America … that was a good feeling,” he said. “My dad was 51 years-old and we was afraid how he’d pick up the language… it was a tough time.”
Raskay also shared how many Hungarians were not able to adjust and returned to their homeland.
“The first year I just wondered if we made the right choice? Are we going to fit in? Get a good job?” he said.
Raskay and his family eventually made their way to Dayton where he was placed in high school to begin to learn English.
Raskay said he never once felt discriminated throughout his life in the United States.
“I’m grateful to many people who mentored me, help me with the language tried to get me a better job,” Raskay said. “I’ll always be grateful for every American. They accepted us.”
Raskay said there was joking of course, but he said it didn’t bother him.
Raskay attended night school to learn English and another night school to learn a trade while holding down various jobs.
His first job was selling newspapers on street corners. Sunday mornings Raskay would help his brother sell papers to Daytonians leaving church.
“I stood on the corner of Salem and Grand Avenue in Dayton on Sunday morning peddling papers,” Raskay said, saying his earnings went for his smoking habit and entertainment like 25 cent movies. “I was living high, man.”
Raskay held a variety of jobs including chauffeur, Biltmore Hotel cook, bottle collector and fur cleaner.
One of his favorite jobs was at Good Samaritan Hospital.
“That was the best job I ever had — they had the nursing program there,” said Raskay with a grin. “All girls. They had dances and those girls were great. I was a busboy and they became good friends and I be always grateful for them. They helped with the language.”
Raskay borrowed $35 from his father’s cousin to learn how to become a machinist.
“Someone suggested I should get in to machine shop,” he said. Three nights a week he learned a trade, the other two nights he took English lessons.
Raskay eventually landed his dream job as a machinist and toolmaker at a GM plant in the experimental engineering department in 1976. He retired in 2004.
“I was a workaholic,” Raskay said, noting he only took off 13.5 hours of work during his career.”It was the best job I ever had.”
Raskay said he worked every weekend, holiday and overtime opportunity he could. Raskay admits he missed a lot of moments at home, but enjoyed working so he could give his children, Scott and Melissa, a better life.
With pride, he shares how he made the brakes for an Indianapolis 500 pace car in the late 1980s.
Raskay still works each day in his shop, making various tools and parts for local businesses.
SHAKING HANDS WITH JFK JR.
Raskay shared his story how he shook the hand of President John F. Kennedy — twice in the same day — as he campaigned for president in the fall of 1960.
“He came to Dayton and spoke at the courthouse. Me and my buddy got there early, we was in 40-feet of his podium,” Raskay said. “Of course I weaseled myself in, I mean, shaking the hand of the President of the United States, a future president. I thought that was something. So I shook hands with him.”
After Kennedy’s speech, Raskay and his friends followed Kennedy to the Biltmore Hotel where he once worked as a cook.
“Me and my buddy raced downtown,” he said. “We knew he has to go in on the side door, so I was at the door and you know what (Kennedy) told me? He says,”Didn’t I shake hands with you before?” I had this red and white striped motorcycle shirt on, but he shook hands with me again.
Remember, there was thousands of people and you know that was his day. When you campaign, you shake hands with hundreds and thousands of people,” Raskay recalled. “That left impression on me. I would have voted for him if I was a citizen, but I couldn’t, but I think if he had stayed with us … things might have been different as a country.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
Raskay did return to his native homeland in 2005, and again in 2009.
“My daughter and her husband they insisted I go back,” he said. “I had a wonderful visit, but everything changed.”
Raskay said it was an emotional visit to his native country and to see the village where he grew up and then left.
“It was an emotional trip,” he said. Raskay said he enjoyed seeing the fall harvest season in Hungary and recalled harvesting wheat by hand.
Rakay’s father was a barrel maker in Hungary — all made by hand — so he enjoyed seeing the Hungarian vineyards once again.
“We had thousands of gallons of wine — I could take a bath in it!” Raskay said with a chuckle, noting his enjoys brandy more so than wine.
Raskay has photos of his boyhood home in Tolcsva in his shop, along with photos of his father and his barrel making business. His mother and sister never made it to the United States.
Today, Raskay said he stays in touch on the phone with his sister who still lives in the family home.
“I religiously call my sister — every week or so we talk on the phone,” he said.
Raskay became a naturalized citizen Dec. 17, 1997. He said he delayed his U.S. citizenship because, “I didn’t want to miss work.”
Raskay also made his own flag pole where he flies the American flag each day in front of his home. He flies the Hungarian flag twice a year to commemorate the important Hungarian holidays.
“I fly the American flag every day. I don’t take it for granted,” Raskay said. “I’m American.”
All around his beloved machine shop are pictures and memories of his life in Hungary and United States as well as photos of his two children and his five grandchildren.
“Good job, good kids and the opportunities,” Raskay said. “It’s a good life. I am a blessed man. I love America.”