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Joe’s quest to build a better life for himself in the United States took many twists and turns, including time as a prisoner of war, a detour to Venezuela, and a public relations campaign in Detroit where he faced deportation. With perseverance, he created a fulfilling life for himself and his family.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1924, Joe cherishes childhood memories of celebrating Christmas with his family and taking summer vacations at a resort along the Dalmatian Coast. He remembers having a French tutor by the name of Bovary (but there was no Mrs. Bovary). By the time Joe was 20, Russia had invaded Hungary and captured both soldiers and civilians as prisoners of war, using them to rebuild the country.
A member of the underground, Joe forged documents and stole military uniforms, and was eventually captured and sent to a prison camp. In the camp’s dismal conditions, Joe suffered malnutrition and a life-threatening leg infection. A German doctor saved his leg and his life by transferring him to a Hungarian hospital.
There, aware that the Russian army didn’t record many prisoners’ names, Joe simply walked out of the hospital once he was well. Knowing he needed to get out of the country or be forced to join the Communist Party, he set his sights on the United States. He felt he had no other choice than to leave his family behind. It was a very difficult decision given his mother was dying of breast cancer, but she wanted a better life for him as well.
With nothing but the clothes on this back, Joe hitchhiked through Austria and Germany with Brussels as his destination. His next step was to get a U.S. visitor’s visa to stay with his uncle Julius, a druggist in Detroit, Mich. Ellis Island officials would not let Joe stay in the country. He had the choice of going to Australia or Venezuela.
He chose Venezuela and quickly learned Spanish. In Caracas, he dated a pianist named Hajari (later a world-famous musician), who helped him get a job at an international book store. The two conversed in German until his Spanish improved.
With persistence, Joe received a student visa to move to Detroit, and his uncle paid for his passage. At that time, Joe didn’t know English, but picked it up quickly a month before college started at Detroit University. Three months after he started school, an immigration official informed Joe about an outstanding warrant for his illegal alien status. The official was so impressed with Joe’s persistence in journeying from Hungary to the United States that he offered to find a way for him to stay if his grades were good, and Joe was required to check in with the immigration office monthly. He graduated with honors with a degree in political science.
Back at school, Joe told his story to his friend, Dick Jones, whose father helped broadcast Joe’s story. After the interview, he was featured in Detroit newspapers and received support letters from many strangers. Jones also started a petition to prevent Joe from being deported. Then on Jan. 8, 1951, a bill sponsored by Senator Homer Ferguson passed allowing Joe to stay in the country.
Joe’s first job after college was with Sears Roebuck in Detroit and then in Chicago, where it became his lifelong career, although his passion was collecting and selling books. Hoping to meet people in Chicago, he took a Spanish language class at Northwestern University and met his wife, Elizabeth Louise, who went by Betty Lou. They were married in 1955; and enjoyed 56 years of marriage. Joe misses her very much.
At 91, Joe lives independently in Kenilworth with the help of a caregiver. A member of the Caxton Club of Chicago since the 80s, Joe is a true bibliophile. He has spent a lifetime collecting books from all over the world and enjoys reading history.
Even though Joe had many detours on his way to the United States, he succeeded in creating a fulfilling and happy life for himself and his family.
Joe, second from left, enjoying a holiday with his parents at a resort on the Dalmatian Coast.
Joe’s mother, pictured here, was dying from breast cancer when he emigrated to the United States, as a young man in his 20s. He left behind all his immediate family and never saw them again, although he did correspond with his parents.
Once Joe received a student visa, his uncle Julius, a druggist in Detroit, Mich., paid for his passage from Venezuela to the United States.
While a student at Detroit University, Joe was featured in local newspapers following a television broadcast about his citizenship. The public relations helped spur a U.S. Senate bill allowing Joe to stay in the country.
This U.S. bill , sponsored by Senator Homer Ferguson, granted U.S. citizenship to Joe.
As a young man facing the realities of war with Russia and Hungary, Joe knew he had to leave his country to create a better life for himself in the United States. After his U.S. visitor visa expired, he sailed to Venezuela. He worked at an international book store in Caracas for about a year.
After graduating from college, Joe worked for Sears Roebuck—first in Detroit and then in Chicago, where he met his wife, Betty Lou, in a Spanish class. His daughters, Sulie and Stephanie are shown here with their beloved dog, Boomer. Betty Lou completed a doctoral degree from Northwestern in systemic malacology, specializing in the study of snails. (Her snail samples are at the Field Museum in Chicago.) Her work took her to the 25 Pacific Islands, and she served as president for the Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women's Association (PPSEAWA) from 1994 until 2000. She went to conferences such as the Conference on the Status of Women and worked as a member of the UN Conference of Non-Government Organizations board in Vienna and New York. Betty Lou passed away in 2011; after 56 years of marriage, Joe still misses her very much.
Joe celebrated his 90th birthday in 2014 with his daughters, Stephanie and Sulie, and his granddaughter, Meg. Stephanie lives in Wilmette in the house Betty Lou grew up in, and works at the Winnetka Library. Sulie is an opera singer and has lived in Vienna for 17 years. She travels all over Europe, and Joe and Betty Lou travelled to see her perform. Meg currently works in Washington, D.C., and also has traveled all over the world.