SBS broadcaster Les Murray has passed away at the age of 71. In tribute Dateline is running a story from 2011, following Murray’s journey to Hungary to find the man who helped his family escape the communist nation.
Les Murray is on familiar ground, but his mission to Hungary has nothing to do with football. For once his mind is not on the game.
REPORTER: So what makes you want to do this journey now, Les? What sort of triggered this journey?
LES MURRAY: Well, in Australia these days there's a lot of talk about people smugglers, and they are pretty well demonised and it occurred to me that the people smuggler I knew was actually a pretty good guy. So I'm here to find him, not to arrest him, or even admonish him, but to thank him.
Les has set himself a near impossible task - 55 years later to find a chain of paid smugglers who rescued his family, and he only has one of their names - Julius or Jula.
LES MURRAY: It was a network of people that helped us - it was part of a broad conspiracy. They took enormous risks to do what they did, and I believe it's my duty - not just a wish - to thank them.
Driving back to Budekesi for the first time on this journey, I was quite nervous because my greatest fear was that no revelations would emerge.
That's it there. See those houses with the red roofs, with the tiled roof. That's it.
That was the greatest fear when I set out on this entire journey. OK, now can we get an angle a bit back? First floor - so my mum would come out there and start yelling – ‘time for dinner’, and we would have to drop our football game and go inside. We went inside to do our homework.
REPORTER: First football plot for you, eh?
LES MURRAY: Yeah, it was. Quite emotional, you know. Amazing!
REPORTER: I bet.
Les Murray was born Laszlo Urge, the middle of three boys and grew up happily at this apartment until Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising of 1956 forcing the family to flee. Today he is hoping to find someone who lived here in '56 who may know who helped them escape. But he's not having much luck finding any names he remembers.
MAN (Translation): They are dead, sadly, in the cemetery. This family isn’t always here – only the mother. Two kids, they have already grown up – they live somewhere in the world…
Starting with his own childhood apartment, Les begins the first of a series of cold door knocks, chipping away at a 55-year-old mystery.
LES MURRAY: Well, when I was walking up the stairs I was - the old ticker was pounding seriously about knocking on the door and finding maybe, the residents who took over from us. This is the door. Let me see the sign on it. Shall I knock?
REPORTER: I think you should knock. You've come so far, Les. You gotta knock. Just ring!
LES MURRAY: There's no ring – no bell – there’s nobody home, I suspected that.
The owners of his apartment are away but there are a lot more doors to go.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Good afternoon, my name is Laszlo Urge – I am from Australia.
In particular Les is hoping to find the Keresztes family. The Keresztes’ planned the escape with Les' parents and together they all fled for the border. At the last step they were captured by the Russians. Les has never known what happened to them.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Keresztes.
WOMAN (Translation): I remember them, of course.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Are they still here?
WOMAN (Translation): No, they passed away – both.
LES MURRAY (Translation): The kids are not around here, do you know where they are?
WOMAN (Translation): No.
LES MURRAY (Translation): I understand, thank you, goodbye.
LES MURRAY: Well, when the revolution broke out on October 23 all our hopes rose. The revolution was crushed and all the hopes were extinguished. Some of them were defiant, like my father. You know, he opened his big mouth a few times and other people but the general population was very, very intimidated.
The uprising against the communists, which Les’ father supported, was brutally crushed by the Russians and then the hunt was on for those who had joined the rebellion, causing tens of thousands to rush for the border and the people smugglers were in business.
LES MURRAY (Translation): You were here in ’56?
WOMAN (Translation): Yes, we were. Actually we wanted to leave too, when we decided to go it was too late and the person asked us for 100 packets of cigarettes for taking us across the border.
LES MURRAY (Translation): The person who would take you?
She was here in '56 but she doesn't remember much.
WOMAN (Translation): I travelled back, I brought the cigarettes with me, but it was dangerous travelling by train and he backed out.
Like others here, this lady knew the Keresztes, but never knew they had tried to defect.
WOMAN (Translation): I never heard about that.
LES MURRAY (Translation): They never talked about it?
WOMAN (Translation): No.
LES MURRAY: There were secrets kept, very, very tightly. Nobody who was involved in such conspiracies as helping defectors ever spoke about them again because they were fearful of retributions.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Let me introduce myself, I’m Laszlo Urge, when I was eleven years old, I used to live here in Block D. Do you remember? May I sit down?
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): Yes. You were a little boy.
LES MURRAY: She remembers the family.
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): And the parents… you moved out, didn’t you? You swapped flats with Auntie Biro – or who?
LES MURRAY (Translation): I’ll tell you the story – we defected.
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): Where do you live now?
LES MURRAY (Translation): In Australia, Sydney.
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): Sweet Jesus! The other side of the world.
LES MURRAY (Translation): What do you remember, what happened after the Urge family disappeared? One morning at 3am a truck was waiting for us – it took us to the border – we disappeared. Do you remember this?
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): I don’t. I knew you left but I didn’t know where you went and later people talked about you and your defection.
LES MURRAY: The old people are great. I mean you can always rely on them, they remember everything - if we didn't have them we wouldn't have found anything.
LES MURRAY (Translation): I want to ask you about the Keresztes family.
LES MURRAY: She also remembered the Keresztes family very well and I was very, very keen to find out what happened to them.
LES MURRAY (Translation): They planned the whole trip together and what happened is….
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): My husband’s best friend was Bandi Keresztes.
LES MURRAY (Translation): I’m asking you, Auntie Lakatos, what happened to them.
LES MURRAY: She knew the Keresztes family and she told us what happened to them - that the parents had both died, and the son, who was then four years old when they attempted to escape, was now living in the Balaton district, which is a resort area. .. Great memory.
MRS JOLAN LAKATOS (Translation): And then…. They have a big restaurant at Lake Balaton.
LES MURRAY: And was running a restaurant with the name 'Keresztes' as the name of the restaurant. So that gave us our first lead, really.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Good day, can I have three return tickets to Lake Balaton!
LES MURRAY: I had a feeling all along that the Keresztes family would be quite bitter about what happened. I didn't know what to expect from him - whether he would embrace me, welcome me or whether basically tell me to go away because of what happened to them. I was tense.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Andor, is that you? Give me a hug – you were so small and I was this high.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): You were eleven years old.
LES MURRAY (Translation): I was. You have changed but not too much.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): It’s been a while since I saw you. Are you a beer drinker?
LES MURRAY (Translation): In Australia I prefer wine but in this weather one needs cold beer.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): My wine speaks seven languages.
Les learns more in these few hours than he has learnt in 55 years. That one of the smugglers, who he knew only as 'the one-legged man', was a distant relative of Andor's. Another relative owned one of the houses they were hidden in on the way.
LES MURRAY (Translation): This is very valuable, what you said, I never knew who financed the trip.
And surprisingly he learns who bankrolled the most crucial part of the operation - the final people smugglers who need to be paid in hard cash.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): Gossip or not, my mother told me that they got the money. She said my family paid more for the trip and we stayed here and you succeeded.
LES MURRAY (Translation): It’s quite possible, I remember my mother sent me to your mother to borrow some money, it happened more than once.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): So it’s true.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Yes, it’s true.
LES MURRAY: And then the savage irony that they're the ones who get arrested. They're the ones who get stuck. They're the ones who are turned back never to attempt such a thing again.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): My father was a fair man, he sent you first because you were the bigger family.
Andor's memories of the people smugglers they engaged aren't as fond as Les's.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): They got all the money up front but it wasn’t enough for them, they wanted more, but there was no more money and they threw us back.
Details aside, Les has more personal business to conclude. His parents never contacted the Keresztes again - doubly bitter now given how much he knows they contributed.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): Yes, that was hurtful, they were a bit offended – you really wanted to go to Australia but so did my parents. Australia, Australia…. They said, oh, maybe they are there. They are in Australia already.
LES MURRAY (Translation): But you didn’t hear anything.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): No, we only assumed.
LES MURRAY (Translation): I think my father was ashamed. In my opinion, he didn’t know how to contact his good old friend. I just think he couldn’t write it down.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): Yes, but life goes on. Probably my father was upset he lost his friend – that’s for sure.
LES MURRAY: My parents didn't contact them because they were too embarrassed to. They wouldn't have known what to say to them, and that embarrassment remained with me about that and I had to put that right.
ANDOR KERESZTES (Translation): My mother would go on about it - she was so sorry that in the end we couldn’t leave. She would say we could have been farmers over there – they always wanted a farm. How did you go?
LES MURRAY (Translation): For us it wasn’t paradise….Cheers. Cheers to you and thanks Andor.
LES MURRAY: Wow, amazing. Amazing experience, wow.
Armed with a few leads from Andor, Les starts his search for the traffickers with historian Dr Janos Rainer at the 1956 Institute. Rainer specialises in maintaining the records of the Hungarian uprising and researching the stories of those involved including those who dashed to the border when the revolution was crushed.
DR JANOS RAINER, HISTORIAN: Going to the frontier without permission was a very serious crime.
Rainer can fill Les in on the smuggling trade – the risks.
DR JANOS RAINER: There was about five years imprisonment.
The payments that smugglers received.
DR JANOS RAINER: It was about 1,000-1,500.
The type of people that did it.
DR JANOS RAINER: Knew the places knew the woods, knew the…
Anything but the names of any people smugglers from that time.
DR JANOS RAINER: It’s a great pity…
Les is on his own.
In the chaotic first week of December, Les’s family and the Keresztes family left Budapest on a two-day train journey to get closer to the border. But their chances of success didn’t seem high. Hundreds were being turned back on the trains.
LES MURRAY: And the people on the other trains who were heading back to Budapest were screaming at us, yelling out saying “Forget about it, don’t, go back, turn around, it’s hopeless they’ve closed the borders”.
As they approached the town of Körmend the police stopped the train, dragged off Les’s family, beating his father and marching them off to a nearby army base.
LES MURRAY: That could be it - that could be the building. See that grey building there, that rather drab grey building.
Les’ father had an elaborate alibi, presenting this official letter stating that his children were sick and were going to recuperate for the winter in Körmend at the large, warm house of the Durani family. In 1956 it seems, the name Durani was powerful enough to override the suspicions of police. But now no one has heard of them. The search for their house in Körmend is proving fruitless. But the old man sitting behind our fixer, Tibor, can’t help but overhear.
TIBOR: She told me that there is no Durani in the files.
MAN (Translation): I’m 83 years old. I have spent my whole life in Kormend.
Incredibly Les’s luck is in, he knew the Durani’s.
MAN (Translation): He was a lawyer, he lived across the street from the church and I lived next door to them. Zsuzsa was my sister Piroska’s best friend.
When Les last passed through these streets the final battles of the uprising were still being fought.
LES MURRAY: By then the revolution, don’t forget, had already been crushed – but there were still pockets of people still fighting or resisting.
And the Duranis - a solidly middle-class family were sheltering not just refugees, but fighters as well on the night that Les hid there.
LES MURRAY: This is the house. Two young freedom fighters walked in, and my father said to this boy who had a machine gun, he had a sash of bullets, my father said to him why don’t you come with us and find your freedom. And he said “Well we’d like to but we have some unfinished business here”.
Mrs Durani, who Les remembers best was old then and now long dead and probably took her heroic story to the grave. But Les takes comfort from hearing from her neighbour that the authorities never learned of her role.
LES MURRAY: The conversation with the old lady next door to the Durani house was important because it gave me comfort as to what happened to the Durani family, and that there was no retribution, they were never caught. Nobody ever knew that they were helping refugees, so it gave me a lot of comfort.
After a night in hiding Les and the Urge family left the Durani house on a horse and cart with an old farming lady who was probably part of the paid network. They drove to Pinkamindszent on the border, dressed as farmers with a story about attending a local wedding that got them past the Russian road block.
LES MURRAY: Ok, we’re coming into Pinkamindszent. About here was the checkpoint.
The lady with the cart delivered them to the house of a young man named Julius.
LES MURRAY: I’m pretty sure, yeah that’s the house. That’s the first house, this is our street.
With just two streets in Pinkamindszent, Les is confident he’ll remember it and he hopes Julius will be there, now probably around 80.
LES MURRAY: This is the house, this is the house – this first one on your left now – 94 – that’s the house. Just going to peer over this gate.
By this point I was starting to get seriously pensive because this was the moment approaching where I would knock on Julius’ door.
REPORTER: So are we doing the door knock and see?
LES MURRAY: I guess that’s all we can do… ok see what happens. And find out whether he was still there or not, more importantly whether he was dead or alive. Nice cute little dogs.
WOMAN (Translation): Come in.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Thank you.
WOMAN (Translation): What do you want?
LES MURRAY (Translation): I beg your pardon. I am looking for a gentleman called Julius…Gyula.
WOMAN (Translation): There’s no Julius here. We moved here. We don’t know this story. You should ask the elders these things…. Auntie Ilona knows the whole village – she knows everything.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Is it close?
WOMAN (Translation): It’s not that far. Let’s go.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Can I help you?
WOMAN 2 (Translation): It’s not heavy.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Because it’s empty.
WOMAN 2 (Translation): It’s empty.
LES MURRAY (Translation): There are capsicums in it.
WOMAN 2 (Translation): Yes.I like it here, since my husband passed away nine years ago, I have been happy living alone. I’ve brought some guests – don’t be upset.
WOMAN 3 (Translation): Why would I be? Come into the kitchen – I’m making cabbage.
LES MURRAY: So we talked to this old lady who’s been in the village a long time.
WOMAN 3 (Translation): There was a Julius in that family.
LES MURRAY (Translation): I’m interested in what happened to this Julius.
LES MURRAY: Yes, she said it must be the Orbans. They lived in the house and Orban was their surname. Where’s Julius? She didn’t know. But she said, why don’t you go to the house next door, because a member of the family, Julius’s sister-in-law still lives there by herself.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Okay, we are going to visit Auntie Anna.
WOMAN 3 (Translation): Yes, that is what you should do.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Will she let us in?
WOMAN 3 (Translation): Who knows? She will only let you in with me there. Let’s go.
LES MURRAY: So the lady says “oh she’s too scared, she’s in there, I know she’s in there but she’s scared she won’t respond”.
LES MURRAY (Translation): We are looking for somebody from the Orban family, I was an eleven year old boy when I was here and the Orban family helped us across the border. I want to thank them.
AUNTIE ANNA (Translation): You can thank them, but he’s passed away.
LES MURRAY (Translation): Julius? Julius died? When?
AUNTIE ANNA (Translation): But his son is still alive.
LES MURRAY: He died, Julius, three years ago. Three years ago. He was 81.
REPORTER: Oh Les, sorry.
AUNTIE ANNA (Translation): He has only one son. He owns a pub.
LES MURRAY: The best we can do is visit his grave.
REPORTER: And let’s see if we can find his son at least you can speak to his son.
LES MURRAY: Yes. Yes, I think that’s what we should do.
Julius seemed very honest and sincere. He was a typical country boy and I know he was decent in the way he stopped his father from taking my mother’s coat as part payment, and simply the way he took care of us. When he led us on the walk to the border he held my hand and my little brother Joe’s hand. He was the ultimate professional when it came to helping us through this danger.
REPORTER: If you had a chance to speak to him, what would you have said?
LES MURRAY: I would have said thank you. And that is all and I would have had a beer with him maybe and talk about the times, ’56, the adventures, the risks and about his life since then.
Les doesn’t get his beer with Julius but he gets one with his grandson Balász .
LES MURRAY (Translation): Cheers. To the memory of your grandfather.
LES MURRAY: Yeah it’s him.
REPORTER: That’s him?
LES MURRAY: That’s him all right. That’s dead set him.
Julius had never uttered a word about what he’d done.
BALASZ, JULIUS’S GRANDSON (Translation): I’m proud of him. Maybe he didn’t want people talking about what he did, even in a positive way.
LES MURRAY (Translation): He didn’t want t show off?
BALASZ (Translation): He was never like that.
Les tell Balász how his grandfather hid the Urge family from soldiers who were searching for them after the Keresztes’s were arrested.
LES MURRAY: But what happened after the old lady managed so successfully to negotiate the checkpoint with the Russian soldiers, she got cocky and went back picked them up the same day.
REPORTER: To come to the same wedding, presumably?
LES MURRAY: To come to the same wedding, and she told the same story to the soldiers with the Keresztes family, the soldiers got suspicious and arrested them. So then Julius hid us in the hayshed at the back of the yard. So this is all firewood, but if you can imagine a floor being across those beams and that’s where Julius told us to hide and we literally buried ourselves in hay so that if the soldiers or the police come in here they couldn’t find us anywhere.
REPORTER: And this is because you’d seen the Russians capture the Keresztes’ and the old lady.
LES MURRAY: I’m sure they would have put the squeeze on her where is the other family where is the other family that you took that you brought here. I don’t know what happened – it’s a mystery actually.
REPORTER: Maybe she didn’t do you in - maybe you might owe her a big favour too. She might have stuck to her guns.
LES MURRAY: She may have.
REPORTER: Not told them where you were.
LES MURRAY: In which case she would have been… she would have faced consequences.
At midnight the family made their dash for the border.
LES MURRAY: So from my memory we left the house, crossed the road diagonally, and then turned into these wild fields across this bridge. So within a short while we bashed our way through the scrub and came into an open clear field, which was covered in light snow and as we emerged we could see the towers in the distance both sides, roughly a couple of hundred meters to either side of us and we could hear shooting and Julius was holding my hand saying keep calm they are only shooting in the air. It was scary but the immense power of this man Julius is remarkable as I think back because we were so confident in him, he was so calming.
At this point we stopped and Julius said, “We have to stop here and say goodbye because this is now the border beyond over there is Austria and this is as far as I can go”. He wished us luck, he hugged us all, he kissed the three boys and turned around, and we all turned around to look at him, walk back and disappear into the darkness.
Julius told us earlier that we should just continue walking in the same direction and within a short time we would come across an Austrian village. Suddenly we were on our own with our future a total mystery.
1st August 2017