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One family's labor of love

The Vargas came to Baltimore with almost nothing and, with the help of a local church, built a life based on work and faith

By Peggy Rowe

September 2, 2012

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This is the time each year when America celebrates labor. When better for a story about a family who risked their very lives for the opportunity to work in America?

Despite frequent criticism of organized religion, there are times when the church gets it right. Such was the case in 1957, when a local middle-class congregation made a difference in the lives of a family from halfway around the world. Who would have thought that an act of kindness could have such a lasting impact on a family and a community?

The 1956 Hungarian revolution was an uprising against a Stalinist government and Soviet-imposed policies. It resulted in the deaths of 2,500 Hungarians and a mass migration of 200,000 men, women and children into Austria. They lived in refugee camps until they were gradually accepted into other countries. Thirty thousand were brought to the United States, where churches played a crucial role in their future.

Sponsoring immigrants was an ambitious undertaking for a church with limited resources. It meant finding employment and providing shelter, food and clothing. In short, it meant caring for them until they were self-sufficient and part of the community.

It was risky. There was a possibility of illness (mental or physical), poor behavior, laziness. Yet, the congregation of Kenwood Presbyterian Church, in the Overlea-Fullerton area of Baltimore County, pledged to be responsible for a couple in their 30s, and their 9-year-old daughter.

The church rented a small apartment in an older house on Maple Avenue near Belair Road, for $50 a month. A teenager at the time, I made countless trips to the apartment, helping my parents to deliver donated furniture, and food for the pantry shelves. The church ladies filled the tiny closet with clothing.

Lewis and Paula Varga and their daughter, Paula (now Paula Nyitrai), had made a harrowing escape from their home in Hungary and across the border into Austria. After four months, they received permission to come to the United States and were brought to Camp Kilmer, N.J. Days later, with the $50 cash they had earned working in Austria, and speaking no English, they climbed into a car with strangers for the final leg of their journey — to a place called Baltimore. They didn't choose the city; the church chose them.

With the help of a church committee and an interpreter from the Hungarian community, Lewis Varga began a job in the field he knew best. His daughter recalled that on the day after their arrival in Baltimore, her father went to work in a barbershop at the corner of Maple and Belair. He worked side by side with the owner, Walter Stevens, who would grow to appreciate not only his barbering skills, but his hard work,

and commitment to the job. Mr. Varga was embraced by the clients as well, for his calm, friendly manner.

When the second month's rent on the apartment came due, Mr. Varga told the church committee that he was ready to take over. The church had made its first and only payment on the rent.

Soon after young Paula was settled into the third grade at Fullerton School on Belair Road, Mrs. Varga began a job in a beauty shop, using the skills she had learned in Hungary.

Kenwood's congregation looked upon the quiet, industrious family, living far from their native land, with affection and wonder. Churchwomen maintained daily contact, and in some cases established lifelong friendships with the family. Lewis and Paula were given Kenwood's blessing to attend services in a church of their choice, the church to which they had belonged in Hungary. They attended St. Michael's Catholic Church in Overlea through the years, as well as Kenwood Presbyterian.

When I asked Paula Nyitrai if she remembered those early days with her parents, she responded, "Like it was yesterday." She described a terrifying, late-night game of follow the leader through a darkened forest — 100 people marching single file — falling silently to the ground from time to time like a row of dominoes, scarcely breathing, until it was safe. "Some thought we had been betrayed by our leader and wanted to hang him. My father said, 'No!'"

She remembered her mother being so thirsty that she drank the vodka meant to bribe Russian soldiers, had they been captured. "It was her first alcohol," Ms. Nyitrai said. "She was the only happy one in our group.

"And when we finally got to America, I remember two parents who gave new meaning to the word frugal. We lived on potatoes and, on a good day, there was a chicken in the pot."

The Vargas' work ethic was impressive. From the minute their shops opened in the morning until they closed at night, Lewis and Paula were on the job — six long days a week. In short, their happiness was rooted in their work.

A year and a half after arriving in Baltimore, the Vargas left their cramped apartment to realize the great American dream. They made a down payment on a new, $12,000 semi-detached house on Fairdel Avenue in Baltimore, where they would spent the next 29 years.

Dealing with the public in their jobs had eased the transition to a new language, and in 1963, the Varga family achieved what had once seemed unimaginable. They became American citizens.

In an attempt to pay forward the kindnesses shown to them, they, too, would sponsor refugees. When they discovered that the house with the tiny apartment where they had first lived was for sale, they bought it —and eventually, the house next door.

"They never missed an opportunity to work," said Ms. Nyitrai. "Sundays were spent making repairs to the two older houses they now owned."

In the early 1970s, Walter Stevens, Mr. Varga's employer and friend, had to retire. With the future of the barbershop uncertain, Lewis Varga purchased the business and continued serving the people of the community until his wife's poor health hastened his retirement in the late 1980s.

The couple who didn't know the meaning of immediate gratification were still clipping coupons and shopping the sales at the end of their lives. Said Ms. Nyitrai, "It was their life: hard-work, thrift and generosity. They thanked God every day just for the opportunity to work in this great country." The couple lived well into their 80s.

After our two-hour interview, Ms. Nyitrai looked at her watch. At 65, the wife, mother, and grandmother is still a busy real estate agent. "I just have this compulsion to work," she told me, her eyes glistening. "I can't imagine why."

She had been wrong about one thing, of course. The Varga family did not come to America with only $50 and the clothes they wore. They brought so much more — an incredible attitude about work, and a willingness to sacrifice for a better life.

Peggy Rowe, a former schoolteacher, lives in Perry Hall. Her email is peggy.rowe@comcast.net.