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Immigrant Autobiographies Recount Turbulent Lives - 2004-09-15

The United States is a nation of immigrants and each one has a story. Many of their stories are compelling. Mike O'Sullivan spoke to two immigrants who have published their autobiographies to share their personal tales of hardship and triumph.

Susanne Reyto was born in Nazi-occupied Hungary near the end of World War II. Her Jewish family survived the Holocaust with the help of two diplomats, Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Carl Lutz of Switzerland, who issued diplomatic papers to save tens of thousands of Jews from the Nazi death camps. But no sooner were the Nazis gone when a Soviet-backed regime was installed to replace it.

Her father was a successful businessman who suffered persecution again under the communists, losing his home and business. The family would spend 29 months in a prison camp, then witness the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union. In 1957, the family escaped Hungary and made its way to Australia, and later came to the United States, settling in Los Angeles.

Ms. Reyto says her grandson, who was studying World War II, asked her to talk about her experiences with his school class. She did, and later repeated the talk.

"I spoke to all of the eighth grade classes at that time, and I realized how much of a transformation the children experienced, especially a few days later when I received their 'thank you' notes," she said. " And one of the little girls said, 'Mrs. Reyto, I think you should write a book so everybody else can listen to your stories, not only us.'"

That suggestion and a later visit to Hungary cemented her decision to put her story in writing.

On a trip to Budapest, she visited a museum called the House of Terror. Located in a former prison and secret police headquarters, it documented the events of Ms. Reyto's childhood: the persecution under the Nazis, the confiscation of her home by the communist government, and the prison camps.

With the help of those documents, and recollections of her mother, she published her story this year in a book called Pursuit of Freedom.

Yervand Markarian, 84, has a very different story, with a similar happy ending. Mr. Markarian was born to an Armenian family in the Chinese city of Harbin. Located near the border of the newly formed Soviet Union, in 1920 the Chinese city was home to expatriate white Russians who were fleeing the Bolsheviks, and Armenians who had fled persecution in Turkey.

As a young man, he would join the French army to fight against the Nazis. To his surprise, he ended up in French Indochina, modern-day Vietnam, fighting communist insurgents for the French Foreign Legion.

After the war, he worked as a policeman in the French concession of Shanghai, then joined his father-in-law running two Russian restaurants.

After the war, the restaurants thrived, but survived only briefly after the communists took power in 1949. Mr. Markarian recounts, it was soon apparent the new regime would not be good for business. Officials visited to ensure that none of the married customers were having romantic liaisons.

"Or they would come up to a couple that would say, yes, we are married. [The officials would ask] do you come often to such a restaurant? Well, two or three times a week. How much do you spend? So much. How much do you make a week? So much. Well, we think you can afford another 10 percent of your salary to the state," he said.

Branded as capitalists, some of Mr. Markarian's business acquaintances committed suicide. Others like him eked out a living until they were able to leave. In 1951, he settled with five family members in Brazil.

Unable to speak Portuguese, he faced new hardships, but he finally found work in the Ford Motor Company's Brazilian operation. Eventually he took his family to the United States, were he also worked for Ford.

Mr. Markarian would build a successful business on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, where he recreated his Shanghai restaurant called Kavkaz. It soon became popular with film stars and directors.

"Roman Polanski, Dan Duryea, Simone Signore, Peter Ustinov," he cited.

Celebrity patrons also included the actor Omar Sharif, oil magnate Armand Hammer, and singer Barbra Streisand.

Mr. Markarian recounts his tale in a self-published book called Kavkaz, named after his popular restaurants.

The two immigrants say that despite their early hardships, they have kept their optimism. They are both effusive about the opportunities and freedom they have found in their new country. Mrs. Reyto adds that she is sharing a message.

"My message or theme is inspiration, the power of positive thinking, and hope and dream for a better tomorrow," she explained. "And without that, we just can't survive. And in the worst of times, there are always decent people in the world."

There is always, she says, light at the end of the tunnel.

The author says she has learned to take control of difficult situations because it is always possible to change them.