The Cold War's Greatest Escape

San Diego Profile: Frank Iszak

By: Jonathan Lancaster
Born in Hungary in the 1930's as an only child, Frank Iszak, the son a railroad worker received a scholarship to a private school run by a French based clerical order named Premontre St.Norbert. Having completed his eight years of study, his plans were to attend the University of Literary Sciences with personal aspirations to become a journalist, whereas the Communist regime thought otherwise. The Party clearly stated that there was no need for journalists, and thereafter chose a five-year plan to train him as a chemist. It was made very clear to him that it would be either chemistry or nothing. He chose nothing.

Connecting with Frank Iszak:

Q: Having lost that opportunity, what career path did you follow?
A: I worked in construction for a year and it came time to be drafted into the Army, something I surely did not want, so chemical engineering began to look better. The problem was that the courses began in the fall and I was being drafted in early summer. Since I preferred the university, I had to find a way to delay induction. I did a lot of boxing, so on a weekend competition match,I faked a concussion and went to see a doctor. He was suspicious of my claim and asked me to explain the problem.

I told him that I had two chairs and three monkeys floating around in my mind. Please take one of the monkeys or provide an extra chair and I would be fine. He entered me into a mental hospital for those four months. I then entered the university and was going to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, but I fell just short of having completed the course work. It just seemed that it was not destined for me.

Q: Being so strongly independent must have reeled against the norm. Were there many like you or did most acquiesce to the system?
A: Communism is collectivism. It does not support independent thought or action. It is too hard to speculate how many were against the Party, since obviously it was not something that was openly discussed. During the beginning of the 1956 revolution, during the first two weeks as the borders were unattended, several hundreds of thousands of young people escaped. It is just a sample of those willing to risk their lives to flee such a system.

Q: Did your parents show concern that you were challenging the system?
A: No, they were very simple people. My mom was a sharecropper and my Dad a coupler on the railroad. Very religious people and once the Communists took over; everything they believed in was destroyed.

Q: What in the beginning made you hope that Communism would work for Hungary?
A: The Communists promote idealism to gain acceptance, popularity and then power. They quickly joined with other smaller parties to gain local support and eventually eliminated them. All of the promises for change and hope after the Second World War seemed so comforting. A Socialist Utopia with an abundance of everything seemed glorious. Break up the big landholders to redistribute the wealth. In 1945 they broke up all of the big landowners and provided small acreage of lands to everyone. Five years later they came back and said that the land belonged to the State and that they would advise what to plant, how much to plant and where to turn in the harvest.

Q: At what point did you believe that something had to change to make sense out of your life?
A: I began chemical engineering in 1951, yet I could not suppress my desire to write. I began to write for the local Communist paper.Some of the hardliners were being pushed aside after Stalin's death, and there came a change in the Party line toward easing the terror and brutality, which change lasted for a year or so. It was a time that I could write more openly and my writings became rather popular.

Moscow then sent in more hardliners and purged the Party by execution or being sent to the Gulags. This was in 1955. I was writing for a Communist Party newspaper, so when the hardliners came back, my name would be on the list and I had to stop writing and get away. The purge was in full force. I found my way to a uranium mine for political prisoners and slipped in as one and became just an ID number. That lasted about five months. I left the mines and went from one job to another, trying to stay ahead of my identity. 

One such job was at a cement factory where I met an ex-military pilot who was disgraced by the Party and had similar feelings of discontent. There came a time when I mentioned how I wanted to escape the country and we agreed that crawling through the Iron Curtain was impossible, but flying above was another story. We talked and the plan was born.

Q: Deciding to flee the country, the stress from planning the escape and in trusting others to join you must have been overwhelming.
A: You don't trust anyone. The desire to escape overcomes your fear, however, bouts of paranoia are never far away.

Q: How much time had passed from having decided to act upon the idea to that fateful day?
A: The plan was hatched in early June of 1956 and we left Friday, July 13th, just one month later.

Q: Just three months after your escape, there came the October Revolution,which led to a Russian crackdown. Was there any indication, just three months earlier that such a movement was afoot?
A: No a single clue. Obviously, the Communists had none either.

Q: You must have considered the consequences to your family should you have carried this out. How did you resolve that within yourself?
A: I have never been able to resolve it within myself. Just prior to setting out with the plan, I went home to see my parents. I was actually looking for a gun that we had hidden. I told them that I would be back for Christmas knowing that I would never come back. It was the hardest thing that I have ever done. The only reason why they were not harshly treated, I believe, is that it became world news and international pressure worked in their favor. Certainly there must have been repercussions, but nothing like what might have happened.

Q: Was there ever a hesitation to carry out the plan?
A: Never. Always there were moments of real fear, but bridges were burned and we were committed.

Q: Can you express how it felt to be totally free after those many years of repression? What were the first experiences that overwhelmed you?
A: After all of the horrific events on the plane during the escape, flying without navigation along the Alps in a storm, exhausting our fuel supply just before setting down, not knowing which country we had landed the plane was riveting. Knowing that we were free was like being reborn.

Q: Having arrived in the United States, what career paths did you follow these many years?
A: Chemical Engineering to start.I could not speak the language, so journalism was not an immediate option. I did public speaking for three years.I started an ad agency, practiced and taught martial arts and thereafter, I became a publisher and retired at 50. I returned back to work at 55, got a certificate as a yoga teacher and founded Silver Age Yoga as a non-profit for senior citizens to help them improve their lives through yoga.

I was in martial arts all my life and it was time to find an easier way of tuning my body.It was my way of giving back for all of the good that had come to me by the goodness of America. It was time for reciprocity. We trained over 300 teachers who delivered some 17,000 seniors yoga classes over a 13-year period.The Foundation continues, however successfully, and I have retired as Executive Director.

Q: Have you ever returned to Hungary?
A: I first returned in 1992 having been invited by the Historical Society of Hungary. I went from air hijacker to hero in my homeland.

Q: What led you to the San Diego areal?
A: Serenity and the weather. I lived in San Francisco for a long while so I knew the coastal cities.

Q: You have written a book, now in its second printing, which certainly is a real page turner and hard to set aside. Is there a movie script in hand?
A: Yes. We recently completed the development stage.Actors and locations are lined up. We have found the exact type of aircraft back in Hungary. We plan to begin shooting the film this year We like to think that it is Oscar material. After all, it is a true story. I was there!

Q: Given that many young Americans take for granted the freedoms enjoyed as a birthright, does that seeming nonchalance about the freedoms that they enjoy trouble you?
A: It troubles me greatly. Freedom is never free. They have no idea, and at times seem totally unconcerned about what is at state should the be so nonchalant.

Book: Freedom Flight / Frank Iszak