By Len Lear
Joseph George Szabo of North Wales knew his true north and orbited in a galaxy all his own. I tried to contact him last month to find out how he was doing. Szabo, 65, was simply one of the most remarkable and courageous people I have ever met. Tragically, I discovered that Joe died recently, just two days shy of his 66th birthday. I had spoken to Joe on the phone a few times and had meant to get around to writing about him but never did (for which I feel supremely guilty), so I am doing so now.
Joe was born in 1950 in Budapest, Hungary, to Josef and Erzsebet (Solyom) Szabo. He graduated from the Academy of Journalism in 1974. On July 19, 1975, he married the former Flora Toth, also of Budapest. Joe’s dilemma was that he wanted to be a real journalist because he had a passion for justice, but that was impossible in Communist Hungary, where any deviation from the party line could mean unemployment, exile, prison, torture or even death. (The corruption was probably comparable to that of the current Democratic Party machine in Philadelphia. The difference is that here we are free to write about it, although doing so does not bring any real change, and the only real torture comes from learning about the inextinguishable corruption.)
In the late 1970s Joe actually was an assistant managing editor for Hungarian Nation, the biggest daily newspaper in Hungary. He had a nice house, car, salary and prestige and could have kept it all if he knew how to behave like most Philly Democratic ward leaders. However, he hated his job, to put it mildly.
“Journalists in a Communist country are considered a part of the political apparatus,” Joe told me once. “You’re not a watchdog, just the opposite. You are a lapdog. You are not there to print the news or to be objective. You are there to make the authorities in government look good and not to deviate from the party line. You are basically a public relations person for the rulers and oppressors.”
Therefore, even though they were actually living a privileged life, in 1980 Joe and Flora literally defied death by fleeing the Communist country and sacrificing everything in search of freedom. “I’d rather be poor in America than rich in Hungary,” he once told me.
Because of his privileged position, Joe, then 30, and his wife and five children were allowed to leave Hungary for a vacation in Austria in 1980. Instead of returning to his job and home and security in Hungary, however, the family drove to West Germany, where they applied for political asylum at an American consulate.
The family arrived in the U.S. in December, 1981, and wound up in a small town in Indiana. Despite sending out hundreds of resumes, Joe was unemployed for almost two years, partly because of English language difficulties, and was “very poor but free.”
A brilliant political cartoonist, Joe was able to sell some of his work as a freelancer, some of it to the Philadelphia Daily News.
Eventually, after borrowing money to live on a shoestring and writing thousands of letters to cartoonists and editors in dozens of countries, Szabo started a magnificent magazine in 1987 called “Witty World.” It contained political cartoons from dozens of countries, including those in which poking fun at the dictator could amount to a death sentence.
We all like to believe that we have high-minded principles and that we would act courageously if faced with a choice between evil and virtue, but the fact is that none of us knows exactly what we would do until we are faced with such a dilemma in real life.
Joe was faced with such a choice, however, and he gave up physical comfort and security, consigning his family to virtual poverty because he could no longer cooperate with evil. And even though he was far away from Hungary in North Wales, Joe and his family were still in physical danger because the tentacles of Communist and Muslim killers often reach halfway around the world to squeeze the life out of those who expose their cruelty and inhumanity, as Joe did in every issue of Witty World.
“Remember,” Joe told me once, “Joseph Stalin had Leon Trotsky murdered in 1940, although Trotsky was many thousands of miles away in Mexico. In the U.S. and western Europe, where there is freedom of movement, dictators like Vladimir Putin have had journalistic critics murdered. They could do it here, too. You are never really safe.”
According to an obituary in the Lansdale Reporter, “Joe was a passionate risk taker, boundless world traveler and world-class debater. He never once lost an argument. Joe’s friends described him as having an infectious personality with a continuous thirst for knowledge…
“Joe took fashion cues from no one. His typical attire consisted of a short-sleeved patterned button-up, cargo shorts with at least six pockets and brown sandals with black socks. Joe marched to the beat of his own drum and was a proud man. He loved his family dearly and excelled at giving gifts that were unique in every way imaginable. He thoroughly enjoyed telling stories and spending time with his children and grandchildren.”
The English philosopher Bertrand Russell could have been referring to Joe Szabo when he wrote: “Truth is subversive to privilege, comfortable habit and small-mindedness. Truth looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Truth is great and free, the light of the world and the chief glory of mankind.”