Judith Lehel

What a journey

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The first American Judith Lehel ever met was a soldier, who gave her the first piece of chocolate she had seen since the beginning of World War II. That was probably after the Nazis killed her uncle, but before she was shipped to a series of refugee camps and before she was shot at while escaping to Austria and shrapnel pierced her flesh.

It was after her father pretended to be a doctor to escape the Nazis but before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when she walked eight days and hitched rides on hay carts to flee the tumult erupting around her.

Whenever, it was that first taste of America that came to her lips that made enough of an impression to make getting to America a guiding force in Lehel's life.

And whatever the unlikelihood of the events that eventually befell her, Judith said, she felt that reaching America's shores was her destiny and when that destiny was fulfilled, she could be at peace.

Considering her past, Judith herself seems oddly nonchalant about the fact that she now lives in a quaint ski town in the mountains and works two jobs to pay for what she hopes will be a comfortable retirement.

Judith has lived in five countries on four continents; survived war, persecution and hunger; worked innumerable jobs and suffered innumerable hardships.

And though she is very serious about her job and her commitments and recalls her past with deep sadness, she is quick to break into a smile when she sees someone she knows. And by her accounts, she knows just about everyone in town.

"When you work at a doctor's office, you end up seeing everybody," Judith said in an accent that she describes as part Hungarian, part French.

Judith is the office manager at Steamboat Medical Group, where she has worked now for 11-and-a-half years. Above her desk in a small office behind the reception area, is a bumper sticker that screams "Chill Out" in red, white and black next to a peaceful scene of wildflowers in Steamboat. She spends each day working out payment plans and presiding over files and each night typing dictated notes for doctors.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, during World War II, Judith already was in the midst of the most tumultuous period in the past century her mother hid Jews in their apartment while her Jewish father went off to the Russian front in military garb and narrowly escaped death by pretending to be a doctor. After the war, the family lost everything, including the bond that had pulled them together, as her parents split up and each attempted to put their lives back together on their own.

"It's pretty scary that people can survive things like that," she said.

Judith lived with her mother and stepfather after the war for about five years in war-torn Budapest. Then at 4 o'clock one morning in 1950, their relative peace was shattered once again as a group of Hungarian soldiers brandishing bayonets rounded them up onto the back of a flat-bed truck with only a suitcase full of their belongings and no sense of where they were going. The soldiers drove them to a small village 750 kilometers away from Budapest, smaller even than Steamboat and much more rural, where the family lived in one room together for two years.

Two years in the tiny village for this budding intellectual, however, was too long. That's when Judith made the first of a number of escapes she would make in her life. She surreptitiously boarded a train to Budapest, fearing for her life, and eventually reached the home of one of her father's friends. There she would live for four years as the Communists took a stronghold on the city and the tension in the streets grew each day.

On Oct. 23, 1956, a group of Hungarians rose up, emboldened by the disarray in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of Stalin's death. The Hungarian Revolution was looked at as an attempt to gain freedom back from the repressive Soviet regime. But for Judith, it was just another fight in which she didn't want to get caught up. By November, the Soviets were in power again, setting up a puppet government and Judith was on her way to Austria on foot. She walked by night and slept in hidden spots during the day. At times during the eight-day trek, she was lucky enough to get a ride on the back of an ox-driven cart, hiding beneath hay as the vehicle rolled to Austria. On the way, Judith was caught and shot at, ending up with shrapnel in her ankle. While she attended to her wound, the bus for America left without her. Although the pieces of metal have since been removed, the memory of the event still haunts her.

"That was probably the worst moment of my whole life," Judith said. "And that is how somebody's destiny is decided."

The next bus Judith could get on was pointed toward France and a village called Chatellerault. There she lived in a refugee camp until a woman she had befriended helped her get a scholarship to go to a university near the village. Deposited in France without understanding a word of the language, Judith worked toward becoming (what else?) a French teacher.

And despite the stereotypes of the pretensions of the French people, Judith said the people there treated her well and took care of her so much so that she decided to stay in the country and move to Paris, where she met her future husband in a student restaurant. He was an Israeli studying economics in Paris and they got married while they lived in the City of Lights.

The couple decided, in 1968, to move back to Israel. They settled in Tel Aviv near the water and began the task of raising three children as Israel fought through a series of wars. Judith raised the children and took classes in the evening to learn Hebrew, her fourth language. They lived in Israel for 14 years. And though the constant threat of war hung over the region, Judith said she was content living there, in part because she did not experience as much discrimination as she had in the past.

In 1982, the family moved to Africa, because Judith's husband got a job on the Ivory Coast. And, by Judith's accounts, the life they lived for five years in Africa was a lavish one. The family had African guards armed with poisoned arrows guarding the home, in addition to a chauffeur, cooks, and people who did their laundry.

"I bathed in luxury," she said.

Meanwhile, her children began moving back to Israel to finish school and, in 1987, Judith and her husband moved too.

While she was in Africa, Judith applied for a visa to go to the United States. The U.S. was accepting 10,000 Eastern Europeans who would be chosen by lottery. And, according to a newspaper article Judith still keeps, millions applied.

The fickle winds of destiny, this time, blew in her favor. Now, when Judith says she "won the lottery," she beams like a minimum-wage earner who has played the same six numbers her entire life and then one day, they turn up.

Judith's life in America turned up in Chicago at first, though she would leave the city in a year because she "couldn't afford it." She had already seen Steamboat when she came from Africa to visit her sister in 1986. So, in October of 1989, Judith and her husband bought a home in Steamboat and she found a job at the medical center.

Although her husband left to return to Paris, Judith said she leads a very fulfilled life in Steamboat.

She said she likes the respect and appreciation she gets from her co-workers, who likewise compliment Judith on her organizational abilities and her leadership style.

"She is the 'behind-the-scene,'" said Camille Fischer, a registered nurse with the medical group, who has worked with Judith for five years. "She's keeping the family together. She takes care of everyone."

Judith said she still thinks about her past every day she is writing a memoir and it reminds her of just how lucky she now is.

"American people don't know how lucky they are," she said. "We gripe when we can't park next to our house. We gripe if it's snowing and we gripe when it's too hot. And people are dying all over the world. And I am just as guilty as anybody else."

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