From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Apa’s Motto in Life

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Psalm 46:1

In Hungary, before World War II put an end to it all, my grandparents, who raised me, and I had a prosperous life. Apa, which means Dad in Hungarian, was the only father I knew. He was a judge in the village where we lived, and my grandmother ran the general store. They owned a farm where I often watched Apa till the soil with the help of his two oxen. He never shrank from hard work and took great pride in providing well for his family.

It is still so hard to believe that everything we had, everything we knew, could change so dramatically. When the war finally ended, life did not improve for the people of Hungary. Soviet occupation and the new communist government brought with it new atrocities. Because Apa spoke out against these, he was soon in danger of being imprisoned. In late fall of 1947, we fled to freedom.

A refugee camp, or displaced persons camp as it was called, in neighboring Austria became our new home. Spittal an der Drau, on the Drau River, housed hundreds of destitute refugees. Although dismal and crowded, the camp provided a roof over our heads. We were clothed with donated goods, fed cabbage and potato soup each day, and we were safe and protected from communist rule. So what did it matter that we were penniless?

To Apa, it mattered a great deal. He hated living off the charity of others and not being able to buy me the book I would glance at longingly when we passed the bookstore in town. Of course, the first thing Apa did at the camp was to sign us up to immigrate to the United States of America, where we would have a better chance at a new life, but he also looked for ways to make our life easier at the camp while we were there.

Just beyond our dismal home was another world. It was a beautiful, natural world of mountains, clear, cold streams, rolling, flower-carpeted hills, and small farms dotted with grazing animals. It was this other world that ignited my imagination with its beauty and gave me hope. Often I would slip away from the confined world of the camp, roaming and exploring the hills and valleys, and filling my stomach with wild blueberries. One day while out walking, I discovered the beautiful river, the Drau, just a half-mile from the camp. I returned often to the river where I sat mesmerized, gazing at the surrounding mountains and dreaming of better days. It became my favorite retreat, and one day I told Apa about it.

“A river?” he asked with great interest. “How far is this river from the camp?”

“I don’t know. But it takes me a half hour to walk to it,” I replied.

“Good. I will go with you to the river tomorrow.”

“Oh, you will love it, Apa,” I said enthusiastically. “It’s the Drau River, and it is so beautiful!”

He replied thoughtfully, “I have always loved rivers. Rivers benefit animals and people.”

The following morning, Apa and I set out on our walk to the river Drau. Once we reached it, I splashed around in the shallow, clear, rushing water, while he walked up and down the bank. Soon, I noticed he was cutting some branches from the river willows growing all along the bank. By the time we headed back to the camp, he had a large armful.

“What are you going to do with them?” I asked him as we walked together.

“I will make some baskets,” Apa replied. Then I remembered that in the past his hobby had been weaving. He had made a beautiful settee for my grandma, and an adorable table and chair for me when I was five. But in the course of the war, all that had been forgotten.

“And what will you do with the baskets?” My curiosity was aroused.

“I will try and sell them to the Austrians.”

Soon, Apa found some old boards and bricks, and set up a worktable in front of the barrack. Then, after peeling the willow branches, he began weaving his first basket. A large crowd soon gathered around to watch him, and some boys volunteered to get more willow branches for him.

“Good,” Apa told them. “And when I sell my baskets, I will pay you for your help.”

Within a short time, there were six beautifully woven baskets ready for market. Apa hung them on a long stick, flung them over his shoulder, and headed to town, much to my grandmother’s dismay, looking more like a hobo peddler than a village judge. He returned a few hours later with an empty hobo stick and a gleam in his eye; each basket had been sold. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled something out and handed it to me. To my surprise and wonder, it was the new book I had been longing for!

“Oh, thank you, Apa!” I shrieked, giving him a hug. “I can’t believe you were able to buy it.”

“You are very welcome. And never forget, the Lord helps those who help themselves. Where there is a will, there is always a way,” he said. Then he went off to pay the boys who had helped him gather the willow branches.

Apa continued with his new venture all summer, and even gave free lessons in basket-weaving to anyone interested. After he sold the next batch of baskets, he bought himself a fishing pole, too, and a large frying pan. He built a fire outside the barrack, cooked a batch of the large fish he’d caught, and shared it with our neighbors. (Later, he shared the fishing pole and frying pan as well!) The camp, with its barracks lined up like soldiers, was a dismal place, and it was most unusual to have the aroma of that frying fish wafting through it. This small thing was so uplifting to the helpless camp residents who hoped and prayed for something better.

Apa was the best father any girl could ever ask for. His example was an inspiration to many at that camp. His motto became my motto in life, and it has always served me well—the Lord helps those who help themselves. Where there is a will, there is always a way.

Renie Burghardt

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