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‘So, I had a sister that lived in South Africa and she was able to sponsor me to come and live there. However there was still a four month wait to get an accelerated visa for South Africa. So during my time I went to work making pastries for sale, it was a very small production, like a café. That was the only time I worked in pastry. It wasn’t necessary that I work, but I wanted to do more than just sit around in the refugee camp waiting. My wife also worked as a translator, because at the time there was a huge influx of Hungarians, and my son who lives in Sydney, was thirteen during this time and was put to work as a helper for the gardener. I told him ‘Don’t say that you are thirteen, say you are fourteen’, because the age to work in those days was fourteen. So every day he got food and a pack of cigarettes…of which he sold of course’, Les ads quickly chuckling to himself. ‘So that was the four months, then we moved to Johannesburg in South Africa and that was that’. Les said this so matter- of- factly that you could be mistaken for believing it was a smooth and issue free transition.
‘There was a huge culture shock when we moved over, firstly, there was the language, we didn’t speak any English. Back then in Europe, German was considered somewhat of an internationally spoken language and Russian was compulsory when I was learning in school. I didn’t much take to that language, the only time I have used it was when building a factory in Asia in a province where they all spoke Russian! But that is another story. Anyways, in Johannesburg it’s English, Africans and of course the native population spoke a language called Bantu and every other tribe spoke their own language. So already we were out of our element.
To date there are eleven official languages of South Africa, none of which is widely spoken within Europe, Les and his family arrived feeling more isolated then before. ‘It was frustrating; we had no one to talk to. The most linguistic was in fact the natives as some of them came from South West Africa and they spoke German! I remember that there was a garage next to our business, a car dealership, and a bunch of guys that came from there spoke German so I could communicate with them. So it was a relief that I could talk to somebody. Anyway, within two weeks I had managed to purchase a small business making chocolate. My brother in law was kind enough to lend me the money after I estimated the cost, so two weeks is all it took for me to have a small shop front making chocolate out the back (I also taught my brother-in-law how to do it so together we worked in the shop). But you know, we weren’t making enough money making what everyone else was making, so we changed our products to be more European in style. That helped, because the only European chocolate you could get at that time had to be shipped by boat, and by the time they got to South Africa they tasted more like box than chocolate. So we had our chocolate shop, but we still didn’t like it in South Africa because of the current political situation, because we know that it is…boiling and sooner or later it was going to blow up.’
The political unrest that Les is referring to of course is the South African Apartheid that begun in 1948 and ended in 1994. During the Apartheid, the rights, association and the movements of the majority of black inhabitants and other ethnic groups were diminished, and white minority rule was maintained. During this time there were significant internal backlash as violence, resistance and trade embargo’s were placed on South Africa. With a series of protests that lead to imprisonment of anti-apartheid leaders the situation became militarised, the state responded with repression and violence.
‘We just didn’t feel comfortable’, Les said firmly, ‘We had just come from Hungary to a new country, a different state, and now we are still in the same pair of shoes…Maybe not the same, because we were not the one that got beaten, but you know, it’s always two sides of the coin. I told my wife, look…we wanted to go to Canada, it’s a nice country, quite, but before we didn’t speak any English, we had no money and no relatives there. Now we speak English, we have money (I sold the business), the only reason we are here is because I have relatives in South Africa.
So, it was decided that we would move away from South Africa to Canada. Once I sold the business I bought nothing but gold.’ When asked why nothing but gold, Les simply replied with, ‘Because gold is easier to move then paper money, paper money is for the birds. In Europe you don’t believe in paper money. There as a decision made at the time that immigrants could not be separated from immigrants, meaning that I would always be able to travel with my family. Once all the paper work was in order I sat in an interview, where they asked me what I wanted to do as a job once I got to Canada. I told them that I wanted to be a chemical engineer as was my profession. They said, ‘Hey, the largest chocolate company in Canada is offering a job in the UK looking at your qualifications you should write to them’. So I wrote to them, they said that as soon as I get into Canada give them a call. For once the process to leave a country wasn’t as hard as it had been before so as soon as I made it to Canada with my family I gave them a call and I was hired. The same happened to my wife, she saw a job on a bank window looking for tellers, she went for the job, but she had higher qualification and was offered a position as an investment banker. Moving to Canada was a hugely successful venture, especially in a time when people were struggling to find work and two good jobs fall into our laps out of the blue. It finally started to feel like we could live our lives again.’
While Les has escaped the political volcano that the South African Apartheid to a more peaceful political climate, there is still on more chapter to go on the journey that has taken Les across the world. Stay tuned for the last installment of Les’ story.