My Red Cross Story: Reconnecting with my Niece after 30 Years

Story by George Kantor
Edited by Patricia Billinger and Mike Dirks, Colorado Wyoming Region, Communications Team

George Kantor in his Denver home meeting with Restoring Family Links volunteers.

George Kantor in his Denver home meeting with Restoring Family Links volunteers.

My niece in Hungary and I skyped just the other day. It was the first time she could see me in over thirty years! She is now in her sixties in Ivanca, Hungary, and my life has led me to Denver with my wife Gretchen. I could not have reunited with her without the help of the Restoring Family Links program at the Red Cross.

My story of resettlement outside of my native country of Hungary began when I was discovered a stowaway without a passport or papers as on a British ship in the English Channel.

I was fleeing political instability after the Hungarian anti-communist uprising of 1956 and I feared for my personal security after being discovered as a messenger between student groups in Budapest and my grandparents’ town. When I fled Hungary, I left my mother and older sister behind.

I was nearly sixteen. I had escaped via a French contact to the European coast, then on to the ship to London. The ship’s officers were aware of what was happening in Eastern Europe and decided, “He’s made it this far, let him keep going!”

Although I remained in contact with some family while I continued my journey, I was completely severed from my family after my mother’s death in 1987. The mail system collapsed and it was nearly impossible to communicate efficiently. I received word of my mother’s death six months after the funeral.

George and his wife Gretchen looking at their first message from George's niece, Karolyne.

George and his wife Gretchen looking at their first message from George's niece, Karolyne.

During the 19 years I lived in Colorado, my wife Gretchen understood my unresolved, and hidden grief but encouraged me to try to reconnect. I am now in my early seventies and recently had a long and difficult recovery from surgery. It gave me perspective and I decided to return to Ivanca to investigate my past. I wanted to know what happened to my sister and find my niece.

In August 2013, I visited my mother’s grave and the old Inn that my family had operated. Kind residents led me to the town halls of my home village and the village where my sister reportedly lived. The secretary of the town hall even greeted me on a Sunday, which was gracious. I left word of my interest in finding my niece. It had been so long since I had been to Hungary and I strained to recall my native language. I was virtually a stranger. By the time I had to return to the United States, I had seen where my mother was put to rest, but I couldn’t trace my surviving relatives.

Robbe Sokolove, Restoring Family Links volunteer, and George Kantor reminisce about their first meeting.

Robbe Sokolove, Restoring Family Links volunteer, and George Kantor reminisce about their first meeting.

In February 2014, Red Cross volunteer Robbe Sokolove knocked on my door in Denver to tell me that the niece I had been searching for wanted to establish contact! I learned that several weeks after I left my hometown, my niece had also returned to my mother’s grave. The business owners and the town hall employee explained to her that I had been visiting from the US looking for relatives. It was a cultural imperative after decades of communism to keep my personal information and my niece’s privacy secure. However, during that period, Hungarians had always trusted the Red Cross. After my visit, they helped my niece send a message to me through the Red Cross humanitarian network.

I had always known of the Red Cross, but it was a shock to have them find me at a time when I needed help reconnecting with my family. I am still in shock that I can hear my niece’s voice and her excited laugh on the phone now that we are reconnected. She has even already written my wife Gretchen a hand written note in English. Although she could see me on our Skype call on May 13th, her computer did not have a camera. Now, I have to figure out how I can see her face for the first time in nearly thirty years.

The original message sent by George's niece through the Red Cross' Restoring Family Links program.

The original message sent by George's niece through the Red Cross' Restoring Family Links program.

For more stories from the Colorado Wyoming Region, please click here.