The year after my father died, I returned to Elwood High School to complete my HSC. I knew it was the only way forward. My father had instilled in me the belief that education could change the trajectory of lives. He had always wanted to go to University, but the war had intervened. By the time WWII was over, it was too late for him to realise this dream, but not for his younger brother. My father completed an apprenticeship, worked hard, and helped my uncle get his education. This was how uncle Lajos became a professor of history at Budapest University and my father a humble leather worker. I knew what I had to do to get on in life.
A kind teacher at school, who barely knew me, decided to put my name forward to the Returned and Services League for a $100 scholarship. In 1978, that was generous sum of money.
‘Your father fought in the war, didn’t he?’ she asked.
‘Yes Miss, he was shot in the knee.’ I answered enthusiastically. She ticked the ‘veteran’ box on the form.
Elwood High School only ever had assemblies for special occasions, as our hall had burnt down in 1975. It was difficult to line up over a 1000 students on the basketball courts to listen to speakers. It must have been an Anzac Day assembly as a retired major gave a speech which most of us couldn’t hear at the back. We were getting restless standing there for what seemed like a very long time.
This was when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The kind teacher, whose name I can’t remember, was signalling for me to follow. On our way up to the makeshift stage, she suddenly stopped and turned to look at me.
‘Where was your father from, again?’ she asked.
‘Hungary, Miss,’ I replied
This was followed by a long pause as she searched my face. ‘So, so he fought in the war?’
‘And Hungary was, Hungary was… whose side was Hungary on?’ she asked, suddenly realising she was more than a little rusty on her knowledge of history.
‘Sorry, Miss?’ I wasn’t sure what she was asking.
‘Oh, never mind. Just go up and accept the cheque. It may be best if you don’t say much while you are up there,’ she cautioned.
I went up, shook the Major’s hand and thanked him. It was a generous sum and it made a considerable difference to my ability to complete the HSC.