Judy and John Florian’s arrival in Bakersfield was heralded in the old “city hostess” column by Dottie Hiatt along with a slew of other new arrivals.
Hiatt noted the couple had come from Los Angeles for John’s job with Mobil and that “Hungary is listed as their natal home.”
The story beneath that brief listing is the stuff movies are made of.
I was lucky enough to bump into the Florians as they were shopping for finches at a recent exotic bird show at the Kern County Fairgrounds.
I noticed their charming accents and asked where they were from.
“Oildale,” John quipped.
It’s not often you meet such a funny and interesting pair, so I followed up to get more of their story.
Here’s what I learned.
COMING OF AGE
The Florians came of age in a post-World War II Hungary that had been ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the Allied forces’ divvying-up of Europe.
“We hated the Russian occupation,” John said, making a face still full of disgust all these years later. “The public here doesn’t understand the reality of communism. It’s depressive and mean. Any independent voice is considered against the regime and they’re willing to kill you for it.”
When the Florians were children, they attended local elementary schools named for Hungarian dignitaries.
By the time they entered what would be junior high for Americans, the Russians had obliterated all Hungarian school, street, park, etc., names, replacing them with Russian dignitary names.
“They tried to wipe out the Hungarian culture and ‘Russianize’ us all,” John said.
No more foreign languages, other than Russian, were taught.
“I still remember all the Russian dirty words,” said John, as Judy shushed him from repeating them.
“The Russian people were very nice,” Judy countered. “The soldiers ... they didn’t know why they were there. They just went where they were told. It was sad, really.”
MEANT TO BE
It was about 1954 when Judy was 16 that she met John, 17.
She had been going to pick up milk and catch the bus for school in a neighborhood not too far from her own for a couple of years.
She didn’t know it, but that was right in front of John’s house and he had noticed her right off.
He investigated, Judy said, to find out who she was and her religion.
“Because when you have kids, you know, that can be a problem sometimes,” Judy said, explaining how far ahead John was thinking.
The two officially met after a church service with Judy’s aunt in accompaniment.
From there, they “dated” by chatting on the bus to and from school.
“It wasn’t like it is today. Girls weren’t allowed to go out with boys without a chaperone.”
Things were going so well that in Judy’s final school year, the two became engaged, planning to marry after they were both done with their upper education.
That wouldn’t happen.
In October 1956, a student demonstration turned into all-out revolution.
For a time, it seemed the students might be making headway.
But that spark of hope was snuffed out in November when the Soviets invaded Budapest with tanks.
Ultimately, 200,000 Hungarians would flee the country.
“We hung in there until the last possible minute,” John recalled. “We were hoping someone would help us, America, someone.”
No one came.
“We discussed it with both our parents and they agreed it was good for us to leave. They were sad about it, but there was no future for us there,” Judy said.
They couldn’t marry before leaving because any change in a person’s status was recorded by the government and seen as suspicious.
They made up a letter inviting themselves to a friend’s wedding in a rural town near what was then the Yugoslavian border.
Then they took a bus south from Budapest, packed only for a short weekend stay and their “wedding gift” — a set of snow-white sheets.
Once in the town, they joined up with a married couple and the couple's 9-month-old baby.
After night fell, they all wrapped themselves in the white sheets and walked out into the snowy darkness hoping they blended in, hoping for a snowstorm.
“We were in a line with the man from the other couple, then his wife carrying her baby, then Judy and I were bringing up the rear,” John remembered.
They walked for 12 hours through the snow.
“The border is like a U-turn there,” Judy explained. “So we actually crossed into Yugoslavia, then back into Hungary, so we had to backtrack.”
They came close to a military tower at one point, which John noticed because one of the guards had come down to ground level to smoke.
“He inhaled and I saw the red glow of the tip of his cigarette.”
The group stopped and held its breath.
“To this day, I don’t know if he saw us and let us go or he never noticed us,” John said. “But we went on by.”
Yugoslavia was no picnic once they arrived.
They were held in refugee camps for eight months and kept separated because they weren’t married.
“Our communication was totally cut off,” Judy said. “And our families were going crazy.”
Somehow, the families arranged for a man to convince the authorities he was an “uncle” to the Florians.
Through him, the Yugoslavs learned the couple was engaged.
They were allowed into a co-ed camp and to find a justice of the peace to marry them, which they did.
“But the certificate didn’t arrive before we were shipped out,” John laughed.
COMING TO AMERICA
The American Congress had set a Hungarian refugee quota of 30,000 a year and that quota had been filled.
But President Dwight Eisenhower (“The best president ever, besides Reagan,” John blurted) had been watching the Hungarian situation and gave permission for more refugees to come temporarily with the possibility of permanent residence later on.
John and Judy got in under that temporary allowance.
Before they boarded the plane, American authorities offered to marry whomever in the group wanted to be married.
“And so that’s what we did,” Judy said.
They got a license this time.
But it’s in Serbian, which neither Florian can read.
THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM
They arrived in New York and stayed three days before Judy’s father, who had been living in Los Angeles, arranged for them to come out west.
As they got their footing, one of John’s first missions was to find a Catholic church where they could be properly married.
Through an interpreter, he explained their situation.
“The priest wrung his hands and wrung his hands and finally said, ‘No. You’re not 21.’”
But John implored him, saying they were already married in a civil ceremony so the priest was basically allowing them to “live in sin.”
The priest relented and had them come to a 7 a.m. Mass one Thursday.
Strangers from the congregation had to stand up for them as witnesses.
“And so, we were married three times,” John said, grinning.
From there, the two concentrated on work and learning English.
They got a TV and soaked up as much of the language as they could.
Within four months, they were out of Judy’s dad’s house and on their own.
John got a succession of jobs leading to the plastics work with Mobil (under which he had nearly two dozen patents approved).
Judy worked as well until their son Tom came along. She continued part time as a sewing instructor.
A 1977 fabric store ad in The Californian encourages students to come learn from its “European sewing instructor.”
Judy also became well known for sewing hundreds of tiny outfits for local preemies.
Though their first summer in Bakersfield almost turned them back around to Los Angeles, the Florians stayed and put down roots here.
Their son, who died about 10 years ago, is buried here and John said they will likely be buried here as well.
They never returned to Hungary out of fear they wouldn’t have U.S. protection should something happen.
They’re both U.S. citizens. But they have dual citizenship, meaning Hungary would be free to treat them as it wishes, John said.
That’s not something either is willing to risk.
“We didn’t want the Hungarian citizenship, but that’s the way it went,” he said.
The two, now 80 and 79, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this October.
(I’m assuming that’s the church wedding anniversary and not the two previous “weddings.”)
They live in a comfortable home with their many finches and three “bilingual dogs.”
Judy grows a lot of their own fruits and vegetables. John gets his exercise by still mowing his own lawn.
“We don’t take any pills, neither of us,” Judy said with a wide smile.
And they remain grateful for the opportunities this country afforded them.
As I am grateful for a chance encounter at an exotic bird show that led me to meet two such special people.