Paul and Elizabeth Torok crouched low in a cornfield in the pre-dawn darkness along the heavily-patrolled border between Romania and Hungary.
It was the summer of 1948 and the young couple were fleeing the communist regime in Romania for a new life which eventually took them to Canada. They later retired to the Penticton area in 1975.
Now the Toroks are donating $30,000 to the South Okanagan Similkameen (SOS) Medical Foundation to help provide medical equipment for the new tower at Penticton Regional Hospital.
Read more: Groundbreaking begins for new hospital tower
As the young couple waited nervously for the border patrol to pass by their cornfield hiding spot almost 70 years ago, retirement was the last thing on their minds. They had to race across a wide strip of cleared land along the border without being spotted.
“It wasn’t easy. They shot people on the border,” Paul said.
After a group of six Romanian soldiers passed by, they decided to make a run for it. Suddenly another border patrol member with a German shepherd appeared.
“We were still in the open field, but still there was a little bit of darkness,” he recalled. “I said to my wife: ‘Get down, get down on your stomach as flat as you can!’”
“We were very, very lucky that the dog didn’t smell us,” he said. “There was a breeze and the breeze was away from us.”
Being of Hungarian descent, the Toroks were able to get help from Hungarian farm workers who took them by horse cart to a nearby village. They made their way to Budapest and later crossed into Austria, which led to another border encounter. There was no sign of a border patrol, but after being caught in a heavy shower near the mountains the couple were soaking wet and shivering cold. A short while later they spotted a light in the distance.
“We went towards the light. There was a building, but we didn’t care what it was. We were so wet,” he said. “Actually it was the Austrian border patrol house.”
The commanding officer ordered them back across the border. However, the Austrian soldiers instead took Paul and Elizabeth to a nearby village when they boarded a bus heading to the post-war American-controlled western part of the country. They remained in Austria for a couple more months before moving onto England.
However, their escape also came at a steep price. They were forced to leave their one-year-old son with Paul’s mother who remained in Romania.
“It was too risky to bring him out,” Paul explained.
A year later, the Red Cross arranged to fly the toddler out on a plane to join his parents in England. But the little boy’s emotions changed his fate.
“He was on the stairs going up to the plane and my mother ran over and hugged him and started to cry. Then bingo, the child didn’t want to go further and went back with my mother.”
The Toroks’ son wouldn’t be able to leave Romania until he was 18. Paul and Elizabeth also had another son who was born in England and moved with his parents to Canada in 1951. Paul, a metallurgist/toolmaker and manufacturing engineer, quickly found work. In the early 1960s, an opportunity arose to take over a small castings and manufacturing firm in Toronto.
After selling the company in the 1970s, the couple retired to the Okanagan and purchased a 10-acre property on the Naramata Bench.
Paul, now 97, said he and Elizabeth are happy to help the SOS Medical Foundation’s PRH campaign, having experienced some health problems over the years.
Construction of the new tower at PRH is now underway and should be complete by early 2019.