More than 70 years after she fled Hungary tomatoes are still Suzi Howle’s main memory of her last home there.
They’re tomatoes she never got to eat.
Howle remembers watching her mother work hard at putting the homegrown fruits up in jars, sprinkling them with salicylic acid and sealing them with cellophane. It’s a visual she has stamped on her mind.
But her mother carried a much more haunting memory with her through the years.
“She had disturbing memories of this house because it was in the Jewish quarter of the town and she could see the Jews being hauled away to concentration camps,” Howle said. “It was at this house she decided, against our father’s will, to flee Hungary before the communists took over.”
So in October 1944, when Howle was almost 7, the family tight-rolled small mattresses and some clothes and tucked them into small bags the little girls could carry.
Fleeing across Europe
Howle’s mother stuffed flour, sugar and cigarettes into a secret compartment of her sister’s large baby carriage.
“She would use the cigarettes to trade for food after the war,” Howle said.
They left the tomatoes behind.
They also left behind Howle’s father, who was in the army and planned to join up with them later. They crossed Austria, sometimes walking, sometimes riding on army trucks in convoys and sometimes riding on trains so crowded that the children had to be handed up through the windows.
They rarely stayed anywhere for more than a few days at a time. The miles kept piling up and so did the hardships. Clothes and food were hard to come by. As the miles went on Howle and her next-oldest sister, Ada, had to share a pair of shoes. Once they were bombed out of a school building where they were staying with other refugees.
At some point Howle’s father caught up with them on the road. But not too long after he was recognized as a soldier because of the boots he was wearing, sent to a prisoner of war camp in France and then imprisoned in Hungary.
They didn’t know if he would ever come back — others from the army were getting tried and sentenced all the time. So Howle and her mother and siblings moved on across Germany. They traded cigarettes for eggs and other things they needed. They didn’t have faith in God so they clung to each other.
But Howle says God was at work even then getting her to where she was supposed to be.
“I didn’t know yet that I needed Him, but He was getting me to the exact place and time where I could hear about Him,” she said.
As her family traveled God slowly put that path together. Months later Howle and Ada were digging up potatoes by the train tracks when they saw a figure walking toward them.
“It did not take us long to recognize our dear daddy. Oh, what hugging went on in that potato field,” Howle said.
He had escaped and he’d been searching for them ever since. Now with the family reunited, they could start looking for a place to build a new life.
It took a while but Brazil finally accepted the family’s application after the immigration officer met Howle and her younger siblings. He said he would take them because of the “beautiful” children.
“That was a miracle from God,” Howle said. “We embarked on a three-week voyage from Bremerhaven in January 1949, and our lives were never the same again.”
She said it was yet another part of God’s grand design to get her to where she could know Him one day.
But that wouldn’t happen yet — not in Brazil.
After the three-week-long ship ride there, Howle’s father became a night watchman at a brick factory. Howle’s mother made furniture for their apartment from shipping crates.
The older girls started first grade with no knowledge of Portuguese.
“Our first teacher was Doña Isabella. She was an angel sent by God. I remember her coming over to our desks and helping with our reading,” Howle said. “We managed somehow.”
During the next decade as Howle grew in her studies new opportunities came along — one of which was to study in the United States.
Second great journey
“The time had come for me to embark on the second great journey of my life,” she said. “Leaving Europe had been a turning point and now, unknown to us, the trip to the United States was to change my life forever. At 20 years of age I was ready to venture out on my own.”
The group of 39 students and two chaperones landed in Miami first then went to Mobile by Greyhound bus. From there they traveled on to Jacksonville State College (now Jacksonville State University).
What they found there, they liked — a bunch of American students who wanted to get to know them and see what Brazilians were like.
“Some invited us to picnics and some to their homes,” Howle said. “They took us shopping and sightseeing. We went to a recreation area near the college quite often. There we could sun on the beach, eat hamburgers at the snack bar or dance to the jukebox.”
And soon she found she had one dance partner she liked better than anyone else — a young man by the name of Bob Howle. He was a senior and an ROTC cadet, and after he graduated he was stationed in Georgia.
Most of the Brazilian students went back home at the end of the study abroad semester, but Howle stayed in the United States. Hoping to continue her studies she moved in with some family friends in New York and became their babysitter.
And she and the young army second lieutenant wrote letters to each other.
“He decided to visit me during his end-of-the-year leave,” Howle said. “He had bought a brand-new light green Mercury. He told everyone later that he had to impress me. Impress me he did, but not because of the car. My heart was his by this time.”
Epicenter of God’s plan
The two married Feb. 17, 1959. For years the two traveled with the army, including living in Germany again for a couple of years. But by the 1970s, and with three children in tow, they were back in Jacksonville — and at the epicenter of God’s plan for Howle.
“My husband was still in the army at that time and our two oldest ones were teenagers,” she said. “The youth from First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, kept inviting them to their functions and they went and really liked it and said we should go too.”
So the family started attending worship services.
“The pastor was very kind, and he would just say how happy he was to see us there and that we were welcome to come to Sunday School,” she said. “At that time I was not a Christian and I thought Sunday School was just for children, so that did not appeal to me at all.”
But something else did — the love of the people.
“The love of the people got to me. God used the people of the church to draw me to Himself,” she said. “I didn’t know who He was because I had never heard that there was such a thing as Jesus our Savior. I knew that there was a God and that there was a Jesus who died on a cross, but I didn’t know that we had to have a personal relationship with Jesus.”
But God was evidently drawing her through His people, she said, and one day she went forward to join the church.
“He knew my heart. He knew what I needed,” Howle said. “And He knew I didn’t just need to join the church — I needed Him. And immediately — immediately — there was a change in my heart.”
She was hungry for God’s word so she went to the grocery store, bought a Bible and devoured its words.
“It still gives me the shivers how God changed my heart,” Howle said.
Not only that — He changed her whole family. She and her two oldest children were baptized together on Feb. 4, 1975, and the rest of her family has followed. The fourth Howle child, born in 1978, is a follower of Jesus now too.
“I had so many beginnings in my life,” she said, but finding Jesus was “the most important one.”
In the decades that followed, Howle stayed deeply involved in her church and committed to sharing the story of her journey to faith with others. In 2018 she stepped back after teaching fifth and sixth grade Sunday School for 41 years.
Angie Casey, children’s director at First, Jacksonville, has been there the whole time and said she’s watched Howle impact a lot of children and families throughout the years.
“She’s done a lot of things in our church,” Casey said. “She’s always faithful to serve in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and is a big part of Woman’s Missionary Union and missions. She’s played a role in the spiritual formation of a lot of people.”
Howle said it’s the kind of story only God could write.
“No matter what changes come into my life His grace is enough and readily available,” she said. “He has always been at work even when I didn’t see it.”
Displaced persons then and now
Pivotal World War II victories by the Allied forces in 1944, including the invasion of Normandy on June 6 and the liberation of Paris on Aug. 25, would eventually lead to Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945.
But for many countries in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, that aligned themselves with Germany, a new era of communist rule was soon to begin.
Many families fled their homelands to escape communism. Thus began the largest population movement in European history with Germans, Jews and refugees from every country in Eastern Europe scattering across the globe.
Mass migration today
Today mass migration is at its highest level since WWII and continues to be a topic of national and global concern.
According to the United Nations, the number of migrants worldwide has continued to grow rapidly in recent years reaching 258 million in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000.
Drought, natural disaster, disease and war/conflict are the top reasons for mass migration. (TAB)