Immigrant Voices: Judith Lehel
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Judith Lehel, a Steamboat resident since 1989, spent much of the early years of her life in a bomb shelter in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II.
She was born in 1939, and Hungary was being bombed both by Nazi Germany and the Allies.
Lehel’s father, who was Jewish, was taken to a forced labor camp in Siberia.
She was left with her mother, grandmother and older sister.
At a very young age, Lehel knew well the sound of planes approaching, followed by the loud whistling noise of a bomb as it barreled toward the city.
After the war ended, deportations began by the new Russian directed Communist government.
When she was 12 years old, Lehel’s family awoke one summer morning at 4 a.m. to the sound of soldiers with bayonets banging on their door.
“Four (in the morning) is still a turning point in my life,” Lehel said, reflecting seven decades later.
She wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to this day.
The family was allowed one small suitcase each — the rest of their belongings were confiscated.
“They took everything from us,” she said. That included Lehel’s dog, Pipo. Lehel had begged her parents to get the dog — even though it wasn’t appropriate at the time. She adored it. Lehel never saw the dog again.
“You become wise more than your age,” she said. “You know you can’t trust someone you don’t know deeply.”
Lehel’s sister, a champion swimmer, was not deported.
Lehel finished middle school in the village to which her family was deported. In order to continue her education, her parents decided she should try escaping back to Budapest. It was terrifying, but she made it.
Her family arranged a room with a family and she continued her studies, until her parents could no longer pay for the room. She left school and went to work in a factory, walking to work at 5 a.m. through the bitter cold winters. Her landlord wouldn’t allow her to use hot water, as it was too expensive.
“It was not a fun childhood,” she said. “But I don’t regret the life I experienced because I had a loving family. Unfortunately they suffered.”
In Budapest, word spread of a revolution. Lehel joined the crowds in the streets with a few friends.
When she was 17, her mother died, and Lehel decided to escape to Austria — walking for over a week, staying hidden as much as possible, and getting hit in the ankle with shrapnel during the journey. Once in Austria, Lehel was on her way to a bus taking people to the airport to board a U.S.-bound airplane.
She first had to wait in line for rubber boots because her ankle was bleeding so bad and she couldn’t continue the journey in shoes. By the time she got back to where the bus was supposed to be, it had already left.
There wouldn’t be another bus for several weeks, she was told. Lehel had nowhere to stay. So she boarded the next bus that came, not caring where it went.
That’s how Lehel made it to France. It was 1956, and she found a home in France and was able to continue her education. It was also where she eventually met her former husband, who was Israeli.
Lehel moved to Tel Aviv with her husband and they had three children before moving to Africa’s Ivory Coast for a five-year stint for her husband’s job.
She loved her time in Africa, but didn’t want to return to war-torn Israel.
Lehel’s sister was in the United States by this time, and Lehel and her family decided to move to Chicago, where she had a cousin.
Starting a flight school for pilots in Ohio, Lehel’s sister had found her way to Steamboat in 1982 on the recommendation of a student she taught to fly.
Lehel followed, and loved Steamboat from the start. “Everyone was so nice,” she said.
Speaking four languages and possessing an incredible determination and work ethic, Lehel had no problem finding a job.
She spent 22 years working for Steamboat Medical Group, starting as a receptionist and ending as the administrative director.
When Lehel shared the story of her life prior to arriving in France at an event last year at the Heart of Steamboat United Methodist Church, many people who had known her for decades never knew her story. They were astounded to learn about her childhood, she described.
Lehel said she has always felt welcomed in the Yampa Valley, and never felt discrimination. When she was first hired, Lehel said there was discussion of whether her accent would be an issue. That quickly dissipated, and it didn’t take long for Lehel to become an invaluable member of the team.
She worked hard, and saved her earnings. Over the years, Lehel purchased a condominium, as well as several rental properties.
Her sister, who also stayed in Steamboat and continued training pilots, remained Lehel’s best friend until she died three years ago. “I was devastated,” she said, choking up.
But Lehel has found many other community connections, especially after she and her husband divorced and she said she became much more socially outgoing and involved.
While married, Lehel describes herself as “kind of a recluse.” But “that changed very fast because everyone was so good to me.”
Today, she cherishes her independence. And she is tough.
“I’m 81, going on 82. And nobody is going to push me over. I’m honest. I don’t lie. I help people who need help,” she said.
While difficult, Lehel’s childhood gave her the strength “to resist against people who are nasty,” she said.
Lehel retired from the medical office in 2011 before taking a job as an interpreter with Integrated Communities. Because she speaks French, Lehel primarily works with immigrants from West Africa. Given her connection to Africa in the time she spent living there, Lehel is known as “Mama Africa.”
She loves the Africans she has met through her post-retirement work and has developed close friendships. And she is a fierce advocate for them. She knows some experience racism, and she insists they report it to her. She ensures they are treated well in their workplaces. “It just kills me,” she said. “What difference does it make what they look from the outside. They have a heart. They have a brain.”
Lehel is deeply grateful for her life in the U.S. She is tremendously proud of her three children, two of whom are living in the United States. She has five grandchildren.
“My life is so different from the way it started,” Lehel said in her speech last year at the church. “I am happy that I had the courage to escape and most of my days are happy and joyous. I owe all this to the United States — a country that took me in its arms and took care of me.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.