My Arrival in America
by Laszlo Somogyi
Marika and I arrived by a refugee transport airplane from Vienna, Austria on April 5, 1957. Our first air travel took over a full day, requiring two refueling stops—one in Ireland and one in Newfoundland, Canada.
We were not told where we landed and later found out that we were in New Jersey. We were taken to Camp Kilmer, an inactive military base near Edison, New Jersey, where we went through the immigration formalities.
After our plane landed, we were greeted by an American soldier who spoke to us in Hungarian, and he gave us a welcoming letter from President Eisenhower. We still cherish the letter and recently showed it to our granddaughter; she cried when we read the document.
The first recognition of our new life took place the following day. When I woke up, I heard unfamiliar bird sounds, and then saw unfamiliar plants outside the barrack.
Soon, we took a bus to La Guardia Airport in Manhattan. I wished we could stay there, but our destiny called to meet our sponsor and fly to Hollywood, Florida. When we arrived in Hollywood, Florida, I had my first disappointing surprise. I inquired about the Hollywood movie industry and learned that it was 3000 miles away in Hollywood, California!
But soon my sponsor took us to a supermarket, which was an incredible experience. Even 11 years after World War II ended, food rationing still existed in Hungary. For example, we could never purchase eggs by the dozen—only two or three eggs at a time. After this impressive supermarket visit, we moved in with our sponsors–an aging couple who, 30 years earlier, worked at my grandfather’s factory in Baja, Hungary.
The couple wanted to help me find a job so we could start an independent life. Unfortunately, my job search did not work out at first because of my very limited English abilities. My good education in horticulture had limited use in the tropical Florida climate.
I finally got my first opportunity from a contractor, who was a relative of my sponsor. The job was painting houses. Because I never even held a paintbrush before, I soon lost the job! Shortly after, I was hired by a landscape maintenance group to clean and maintain gardens. The work was familiar to me because my father was the manager of the Royal Garden in Budapest. I grew up living on the premises of the garden.
I soon started taking English language classes at the University of Miami. I attempted to return to Europe when I had an unexpected turn.
I received a call from Cornell University saying that a very famous plant physiology professor, Dr. Jean Nitch, had a job opening for an assistant. He wanted to give the opportunity to one of the Hungarian refugees he had read about in the news.
At that time, I did not know much about Cornell and did not wish to move to Ithaca, in upstate New York. But my new American friends convinced me to explore such an attractive position.
My other concern was that with my very limited English knowledge, I thought it might be impossible to do scientific research. I discussed this with Dr. Nitch, and he still invited me to fly to Ithaca for a job interview.
I received a job offer as a research assistant and this initiated my career as a plant science researcher. Later, I received a PhD degree, and enjoyed a good career at various food companies and at Stanford Research Institute.