Refugee Camp Princess 

Renie Szilak Burghardt

Photo of the author.
Copyright 1998 by Renie Szilak Burghardt

                           1998 First Prize Nonfiction                                           

Photo of Renie as a young gir.

By the time my grandparents, who were raising me, and I arrived at the refugee camp in the fall of 1947, I was used to having nothing. We had lost everything due to the ravages of World War II in our country, Hungary. Soviet occupation in 1944 had not improved our lot, so we considered ourselves lucky to get out with the clothes on our backs and our lives intact. But at age ten I could remember the time when we lived in our own house, had nice clothes to wear, and food to eat.

The refugee camp, called a Displaced Persons Camp, was in Spittal, Austria. It was a self-contained world of old army barracks housing hundreds of destitute Hungarian and ethnic German refugees. And although the camp was crowded and dismal, it was a great improvement over the life we had known in the past six years. We had a roof over our heads, were fed daily, and donations of clothing arrived from the United States and other countries regularly and were distributed in the spring and in the fall.

Since most of us in the camp had no money to speak of, we looked forward to the clothing distribution. We lined up at the Distribution Center and rummaged through the boxes of clothes with great enthusiasm, picking out the garments that would come closest to fitting us. And if the clothes came from the United States, we fingered them in awe, for that's where most of us hoped to be allowed to immigrate!

Of course, the clothes were not new, but they were clean and good, and we were grateful to get them. This also meant no one outshone anyone else in the camp. We were equal in our hand-me-downs. Until the fall of 1950 that is, when lady luck smiled on me and turned me into a refugee camp Princess!

We were all lined up at the Distribution Center again for our winter garments, when the man in charge appeared with an announcement.

"This year a rich lady in America donated something special to the refugee effort. It is this beautiful multicolored rabbit fur coat in a young girl's size." He held up the coat for everyone to see. "Oh's" and "Ah's" rang out throughout the crowd.

"Since we have only one coat, and many young girls, it was decided that we should have a drawing for it. Girls can come up, try on the coat, and if it fits, they will write their name on a piece of paper and drop it in this box. Then we'll draw the name of the winner."

"That coat looks like it will fit you perfectly," Grandmother, standing next to me in the crowd, said. "Go try it on, and put your name in the box." So I walked up and did just that. The coat was soft and plush and incredibly beautiful, and I, almost fourteen and used to having nothing nice, wanted to own that coat! So did many other girls present.

Finally, after what seemed like eternity, the man with all the hopeful names in the box asked a small girl in the crowd to come up, reach into the box, and pull out one name.

"Reni Szilak," he said, waving the piece of paper in the air. "Come on up, young lady, and get your coat." I did so in a dazed state, not quite believing it was true. When I walked back, wearing the coat, I heard a voice in the crowd call out, "You look just like a princess now." It was Tibor's voice, the boy I had a crush on. I flashed him a smile and tossed my blond locks as regally as I knew how!

"That coat looks like it was made especially for you," my friend Piri remarked as we all headed back to our barracks. A year younger than me, she was the closest thing to a sister I would ever have. We lived in the same barrack, and since her father was ill and needed her mother at his side most of the time, Piri spent much of her time with me and my family. The coat was too big on her, so she had not put her name in the box.

Well, winter 1950-51 was memorable. I had turned fourteen, and I was a refugee camp princess! Everywhere I went admiring glances followed, and when I walked to school, boys, who usually ambushed the girls with snowballs, let me walk by untouched. And one day, while walking through the town of Spittal with Piri, an Austrian girl called out to me, "Hey, D.P. girl, that is a beautiful coat that you have on."

Then spring arrived, and with it the wonderful news my grandparents had been waiting for. Our papers had been approved, and in September we were to board the ship that would take us to our new country, the United States of America! I ran to tell Piri the news, thinking their papers had come through, too. I found her sitting in front of the barrack, her face sad, her eyes red from crying.

"What's wrong?" I asked her.

"We have not been approved. Papa has TB. Mama and I could go without him, but, of course, we would never do that," she said sadly. The joy that had been in my heart suddenly turned to sadness as I realized that we didn't have much time left together. We became inseparable for the next three months, but time flies when you want it to crawl.

On the first of August 1951, Piri and I were about to say our last farewell before we boarded the transport truck already filled with people. The truck was to take us to Salzburg, where our vaccinations would be updated before we would be taken on to the Port of Bremen, Germany, to board the ship taking us to America.

"Don't forget me. Write to me," Piri kept saying between hugs, as tears rolled down her pale cheeks. Her mother, standing next to her, was crying too. Suddenly, it dawned on me that not only would we never see each other again, but they would not be going on to a new life in a new country. I had to do something for her. So I broke away and ran after my grandfather, boarding the truck with a large box in his hand. I yanked the box from him, and raced back to Piri's side.

"I want you to have the coat. It will probably be too small on me this coming winter anyway. I love you, little sister, and I'll write as soon as we have a permanent address," I said, giving her one last hug. Then I ran to climb aboard the truck which was about to leave without me. Everyone waved frantically as we pulled out of Camp Spittal.

November was almost over by the time we did have a permanent address that I could send to Piri. I received her reply a few days before Christmas, 1951. There was a photo with the letter, too. It showed a girl with long, curly black hair and a beaming smile. She wore a rabbit fur coat, and she looked just like a real princess!

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