On Wednesday, May 25, students in Robert Sassi’s SUNY Orange Modern Europe class at Valley Central High School had the opportunity to hear a first-person account of life, and subsequent escape, under the Iron Curtain.
In 1956, Hungarian dissidents led an uprising against the Russian occupation in Hungary. As Russian efforts to suppress the protesters intensified, fourteen-year-old Maria Pongracz along with her mother and eight-year old brother took a harrowing journey under Russian fire to escape. They fled to Austria, later settling in New York City. Eventually, Mrs. Pongracz moved to Orange County and raised eight children, all of whom attended Valley Central schools. She sits on the Town of Crawford Council and is an advocate for seniors in the area.
Mrs. Pongracz spoke to the class about her harrowing escape and her journey from former baroness to refugee.The class sat rapt and listened to Ms. Pongracz’s stories of hiding with her brother beneath a woman’s skirt as they were smuggled to the countryside, of watching Russian soldiers beat her mother, and of being pushed across the river to Austria in the freezing cold in a boat by her mother. At the end of her presentation, students asked many more questions about her life. When the bell rang, many students stayed behind and continued to chat with Ms. Pongracz.
“Ms. Pongracz is a living piece of history,” Mr. Sassi said. “We’re privileged to have her join our class.”