Judy Egett (J.E.) Laufer promised herself that she would complete her first novel about a pivotal event in her parents’ lives before her mother, Kati, turned 90 on May 15. Not only did Laufer complete the novel, “Choices: The True Story of One Family’s Daring Escape to Freedom,” it is officially being released on her mother’s birthday.
The novel, geared toward young adult readers, chronicles her parents’ harrowing escape from Hungary in 1956, as the Soviets invaded the country to crush a nascent revolution. Once in Austria, the kindness of a 16-year-old Catholic girl named Annemarie set in motion a final journey to freedom.
“My mother obviously cried a little bit reading the book, because a lot of it was sort of sad things that happened, but she’s very proud that I did this and she’s very proud to share it with her friends and she also feels, as I do, that we leave a bit of history, a little a bit of a legacy for the rest of the family,” said Laufer, a Phoenix-based writer who has written three books for young children.
Laufer has discussed this chapter of her family’s life before, especially in 2015, when she and her family reconnected with the now 76-year-old Annemarie, who long ago had given Laufer’s family shelter in her own home. Annemarie’s father would later help them immigrate to Canada.
Laufer’s mother had survived Auschwitz and her father, Adolf Egett, had endured life in a labor camp. They met and married in Budapest and had two children, George and Judy. But the happy life they had managed to build after the nightmare of the Holocaust came crashing down with the Soviet crackdown.
“At the beginning, Russian rule was more relaxed and people could leave, but as the years went on more restrictions were placed on civilians,” Laufer said. “When the revolution broke, out things were getting really tough, there was literally gunfire in the streets.”
The Egetts watched as more and more Hungarians, including relatives, began fleeing the country. Remembering how her father had wanted to leave Hungary after Poland was invaded by the Nazis but was dissuaded by friends and family, Kati feared that history would repeat itself.
“It had only been 10 years since the Allies had freed the concentration camps and my parents were afraid that this was going to be another Holocaust,” Laufer said.
After a dangerous escape into Austria in the dead of night with two very young children, the Egetts naturally recoiled at the idea of being sent to a displaced persons camp. Laufer’s father eventually went to a church and asked two priests for help. Annemarie overheard the conversation and set the wheels in motion for a happy ending.
“It was really my burning question of why she and her family helped us. It just doesn’t seem normal for a 16-year-old girl to invite a strange family into her home and willingly give up her room for us,” Laufer said. “All she could tell me was that she looked into my father’s eyes and there was a certain kindness that she couldn’t really explain, but that made her want to help us.”
Through Laufer’s mother, she discovered that Annemarie would bathe her and play with her, while her two younger brothers took Lafuer’s brother under their wing. Laufer’s mother helped with the cooking and tried to spend as much time away from the home in order to give Annemarie’s family space. Finally, at around Christmas time as Annemarie’s family was preparing for visits from relatives, the Egetts insisted on leaving and staying in a hotel.
“One day, Annemarie’s mother showed up and told my mother that a flight to Canada with four available seats would be leaving in an hour and my parents packed up and ran to the airport,” Laufer said. “It was kind of sad for Annemarie because after school she went to the hotel to check up on us and discovered we were gone and she never had the chance to say goodbye.”
A few years later, Annemarie’s parents would visit relatives in Canada and reunited with the Egetts, who repaid their kindness by buying them clothes and food.
While the novel focuses on how one person can make a positive change in the life of another, the book does touch a bit on the fact that the Egetts were never quite sure if Annemarie’s family knew they were Jewish when they first took them into their home.
“My mother says that she just wasn’t sure if they even knew we were Jewish,” Laufer said. “They never asked. Nobody ever asked if we were Jewish. Also, my mother spoke no German. My father would have been the one to know because he’s the one who really communicated with them in fluent German, but he has been dead for almost 30 years and I never asked him. My mother said there was nothing about them that would have signified to strangers that they we were Jewish. My mother had no concentration camp tattoo because Hungarian Jews were the last group sent to Auschwitz and by that point the Nazis weren’t doing numbers anymore.”
Regardless of whether Annemarie’s family helped the Eggets because they didn’t know they were Jewish or they did it out of some sense of guilt, Laufer believes Annemarie when she said her parents were devoted Christians who only wanted to help others.
“My feeling is that they were just truly good people,” Laufer said.
“Choices: The True Story of One Family’s Daring Escape to Freedom” is available for purchase on Amazon