My grandma: a gem shaped by adversity

On this International Women’s Day, I’m honouring an international woman who was incredibly resilient, resourceful and self-sacrificing: my 91-year-old grandma, Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Szakacs, who died last week. As the world faces increasing displacement of people through war and natural disasters, and Australians debate our migration policies, learning my grandma’s life story has given me enormous compassion and respect for refugees.

People like me, who have never experienced forced displacement, struggle to comprehend the hardships endured by refugees. First they suffer immense physical, mental and emotional stress in their own countries. Then, to escape death or persecution, they leave family and friends for a foreign land, where they don’t understand the language or culture. They begin their lives again from scratch, forgoing their educational and professional dreams and taking on menial jobs, just to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

When I was a child, going to Grandma’s place meant presents, playing with cousins and my favourite foods. I would salivate at the thought of Grandma’s chicken paprika with pasta, or a veal roast, cucumber and tomato salad and kifley. I didn’t think of Grandma as a person with an interesting past. She was an adult, she was old, and so she was to be respected. When we visited, she socialised with my dad and my aunts and uncles in the kitchen, while my cousins and I played elsewhere.

Time passed and I moved away and went to uni, and didn’t visit Grandma much. But when I had my first daughter, I stopped being so self-focused and started to wonder more about my family heritage. I also wanted my daughter to have an EU passport and the opportunity to live and work in Europe, so I looked into Hungarian citizenship. This involved multiple visits to the Hungarian Consulate and discussions with Grandma about where she was born and married and how she came to Australia.

What I’ve learnt about my grandma:

  • She was born in rural Transylvania in 1926 and had seven siblings.
  • Her mother died of pneumonia when Elizabeth was five. Her father died four years later, after a tree fell on him.
  • She ran away from her uncle’s house when she was 14 and worked as a babysitter until she could afford to travel to Budapest, where her brother lived.
  • She wanted to be a nurse but needed money, so had to work in a factory instead of studying.
  • She met my grandfather in Budapest in 1943, when she was 17 and he was 22. He was sent to war soon afterwards.
  • She fled Budapest three weeks before the Russians invaded, and found work in a German hospital as a nurse’s aide. Back in Budapest, the Russians imprisoned her brother.
  • She married my grandfather in Germany in 1945. They were afraid to return to Hungary, believing that the Soviets would send my grandfather to Siberia, because he had fought against Russia.
  • They migrated to Australia by boat in 1949 and were sent to a hostel in Cowra, where their one-year-old baby (my father) nearly died from whooping cough and diarrhoea.
  • She had four children and was devoted to them. They lived in hostels for thirteen years before their application for a house was finally approved.
  • She was forced to be thrifty, so recycled and reused everything. When she died, we found 250 margarine containers and 300 empty gherkin jars in her cupboards.
  • She was very hard working and did whatever work she could find, to support her family, though my grandfather disapproved.
  • For two decades, she worked as an aide in the maternity wards of Wollongong Hospital. She adored babies.
  • She loved dancing and was sad that Grandpa didn’t like to dance after the war due to injury.
  • She could be a little over-dramatic if you didn’t visit frequently enough: ‘It’s been so long since I saw you I thought you were dead’.
  • She was fluent in Hungarian, Romanian, German, Italian and English.

Grandma’s difficult experiences shaped her and the values that remain strong in me and her other descendants: hard work, good manners, devotion to family, saving for a rainy day, and being prepared to take a leap of faith. She made many sacrifices so her family could have a better life and more opportunities than she had, for which I will always be grateful.

I would like to thank my mother for encouraging me to pursue the story of my grandmother.

On this International Women’s Day, in memory of Elizabeth Szakacs, I urge you to remember the remarkable women in your own families, to treat refugees with compassion and respect, and to Press for Progress for women everywhere.