It was Katalin Papp’s dearest wish to see all of her seven children united together, under one roof.
Although Papp died of a heart attack in 1998 after being able to raise only three of her seven kids, all of her now middle-aged children will be celebrating their mother’s survivor spirit when they arrive for what could be their first and last complete gathering.
Some of the siblings will be meeting for the first time after travelling from as far as Hungary and Winnipeg to the Red Deer reunion.
The complicated family history begins with Papp fleeing to Canada after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The student activist had to leave her three-year-old son, Janos Boti, behind, since it was a do-or-die situation, explained her younger son, Jozsef Rakos (Jr.), who was born in Canada.
Student revolutionaries were bring rounded up and killed by Hungary’s pro-Soviet government. “They had the trucks ready,” he said. “They had to jump in and go.”
Papp was smuggled into Austria, where a flight to Canada was hastily arranged. Papp later recounted her heart-stopping voyage across the Atlantic in an old plane that lost three of its four engines before landing in Gander, N.L. “They were flying only metres above the ocean,” said Papp’s daughter, Kathy Finley, who was also born in Canada.
The 24-year-old student activist, who had previously divorced Janos’s father in Hungary, settled in Montreal. Papp tried to bring her little boy into the country, but was unsuccessful. As a result, Janos was raised in a loving home in Hungary by his mother’s sister and her husband. But he always wrote to his mother in Canada.
Papp next met and married Imre Toth, another Hungarian refugee. She had three sons with Toth, but he turned out to be a controlling and deceitful spouse. Imre fraudulently admitted Papp into a sanatorium for tuberculosis. By the time it was discovered she didn’t have TB, Toth had fled with their three boys. Papp never saw these children again.
The boys — Barna, Peter and Tamas Toth — never knew why they were separated from their mother. They did not have a happy or stable upbringing after their father told them their mom had died in hospital. They were constantly moved across North America. Over some periods, the kids were put into foster homes or orphanages. Peter Toth said he always doubted his mother was dead. When he asked where she was buried, Peter recalled his father would clam up. “It was a taboo topic.”
Papp spent the rest of her life trying to find her lost children — although her search was hindered by her poor command of English.
She married her third husband, Jozsef Rakos, who had been a friend of Toth’s, because he seemed helpful and caring in her desperate situation. They also had three children together — Jozsef (Jr.), Marton and Kathy Rakos (now Finley).
But Rakos became an abusive alcoholic who moved the family across the country, while trying to stay out of jail for embezzlement. Papp, who was never allowed to work outside the home, eventually summoned the courage to leave the violent Rakos. She boarded a Greyhound bus with her three youngest kids and raised them as a single parent in Red Deer.
Kathy, Jozsef and Marton recalled a hard-scrabble but loving childhood.
“My mom had a very turbulent, hard life: She was physically and mentally abused; she lost four of her seven children; her English was not good; she suffered anxiety … but she was a good mom. She did what she could for us,” said an emotional Kathy, 49.
“She was a survivor,” added Jozsef, 52. “For her to have survived was a miracle …”
Her children’s reunion was also a near-miracle, since the three abducted sons didn’t know about the existence of their half-brothers and sister until they were contacted by Janos in 2004. Peter said he knew he and Janos were brothers because Janos had the same picture of Peter as a baby that he also had; “Thank God for the Internet!”
The 63-year-old Hungarian brother, now in Canada for three-weeks, had promised his mom during a previous visit, that he would help her look for her lost sons. Janos was relentless in his pursuit, contacting virtually every Toth family in North America — and Toth is as common a Hungarian surname as Smith or Jones.
Besides honouring the promise to his mother, he said “I was curious” about meeting his half-siblings, since he was raised as an only child in Hungary by his aunt, Julianna Papp and uncle Sandor Bella. Janos is happy to get to know his extended Canadian family.
“Janos told me I speak the best Hungarian,” said Peter, 57, who feels relieved to get beyond the lies his father told him. “Everybody needs to know their family.”
The siblings plan to gather on May 9 at Marton Rakos’s home in Red Deer. They are still waiting to be united with brother Barna Toth, 57, from Winnipeg, and Tamas Toth, 56, from Calgary.
The reunion is “very meaningful” said Jozsef.
“For our mother, this would have been a dream come true,” said Marton, 54, who suspects this will be the first and last time all seven of Papp’s children are together.
Kathy, who’s getting used to having six brothers instead of just the two she grew up with, is planning to have a family portrait taken.