Tribute to a Hungarian refugee who worked at the Star
He fled his native Hungary for Yugoslavia during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but Steven Varfi never forgot where he came from. After being temporarily separated from his wife and young daughter in a refugee camp, he built a comfortable life as a prominent member of Toronto’s Hungarian-Canadian community and enjoyed a quarter-century career as a as a linotype machine operator at the Toronto Star.
“He loved Hungary, his parents and his home life,” says his daughter, Ildi Lubertino. But the absence of fundamental freedoms in the country and the popular uprising against the communist government changed everything. “He knew it would never be the same again. He left to seek a better life for himself, my mother and me.
Born in the resort town of Baja, Istvan (“Steven”) Varfi was the son of Endre Varfi and his wife Maria Molnar, highly respected business owners who operated a bakery, cafe, and hotel. Endre comes from a long line of bakers dating back to the 1800s. Having nine siblings, most of whom worked in the same industry, Endre changed his family name from Vancsura for business purposes. (“There were too many bakeries with that name,” Lubertino says.) The Varfis fared better than most during the Great Depression and World War II. “Being in the food industry,” Lubertino says, “they didn’t experience it that badly.”
Even though he was an only child, Steven Varfi was never alone. His parents, especially his mother, adored him. “Steven was their little prince,” says his daughter. “He was everything to Maria and she wanted the best for him.” Popular and appreciated, Varfi loved sports: he swam, played competitive water polo and football.
After graduating from high school, Varfi planned to go to university, before being immediately recruited into the Hungarian army and commissioned for two years. (Between 1949 and 1955, the country intensified its efforts to build a large army modeled on the Soviet armed forces.) While on leave with a dislocated elbow, he began attending post-secondary courses in Budapest, where he met jewelry designer Gabriella Laczko.
“He approached her on the tram, where she told him to get lost,” says Lubertino. “He was persistent and eventually his good looks won her over.” They married in 1955 and the following year their daughter Ildiko was born.
“Hungary was already in post-war turmoil and the Hungarian revolution completely changed their lives,” says Lubertino. In December 1956, the uprising left thousands of Hungarians dead and nearly 20,000 injured. With the refugee border about to close, Varfi left his comfortable life in a refugee camp in Yugoslavia, entrusting his young family to his parents in Baja.
Although Varfi was treated well at the camp, Lubertino says, “he was very uncomfortable and worried about being reunited with his family.” It took several weeks before he could make plans for his wife and child, then only eight months old, to join a group that was to cross the border at night. With the sound of gunfire in the background, they walked for hours in knee-deep snow before reaching their destination.
The couple lived in separate camps for weeks before Varfi requested that the family move to Canada. Settling in Toronto, where his wife’s sister lived, he adopted her anglicized first name and rented an apartment on Pears Avenue. “He learned to work hard to survive,” says his daughter. Hired to fold laundry at the Park Plaza Hotel, Varfi was eager to find a better job and took evening classes to learn English. His work as a linotype machine operator for a local Hungarian newspaper earned him a job with the Toronto Star in 1964.
In Toronto’s thriving Hungarian community, the Varfis found their circle of lifelong friends. “Many were leading professionals who had great success in Canada,” says Lubertino. The couple attended performances at the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada and the annual Helicon Ball (celebrating Hungarian heritage), and vacationed across Europe, visiting with family and his friends in Hungary a priority.
As a father, Varfi was strict and encouraged his daughter’s piano, ballet, and competitive swimming. As a grandfather (he also became a great-grandfather), he took his grandson Eric Lubertino to meet athletes at the Olympics, where he was a special guest of the Hungarian teams.
“Whether it was road tripping across the country in Hungary or playing an intense chess match at home, we always had a lot of fun,” says Eric. “Looking back, his biggest impact on my life was his faith in God and the Catholic Church.”
Varfi never missed Sunday mass at St. Elizabeth’s Hungarian Church in Sheppard, and certainly not after his retirement from the Star in 1989, when he found himself with plenty of time. “He didn’t retire well,” says Lubertino. He took a part-time job in a a lottery kiosk to keep busy, spend time on his extensive stamp collection, play cards with friends and swim in the pool at the couple’s condo in North York.
Never changed by the revolution and his stay in the refugee camp, Varfi never spoke about it. “He was acutely aware of what had been taken from him during the revolution – he had a privileged life, but then the family lost everything,” Lubertino says. “He always enjoyed his life in Canada, but Steven’s love for Hungary and all things Hungarian never wavered.
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