The Tom Hanks character in last year's movie "The Terminal," trapped in a year-long limbo at JFK International Airport, embodied every traveler's nightmare -- and at least one person's reality. The fictional character, Viktor Navorski, was from an imaginary Eastern European republic, but the story was based on an actual experience.
A few years back, a real-life Navorski would have had a friend in Marta Maria Marschalko, who grew up in a real Eastern European republic, Hungary, and lived in the Washington area for many years. Airport or customs officials at Dulles International Airport knew to call her if they had a Hungarian- or Spanish-speaking traveler who was lost and bewildered, with no place to turn.
Mrs. Marschalko, who was 80 when she died of breast cancer Oct. 25 at a nursing home in Bethesda, worked throughout her life to ease the plight of strangers in a strange land. Her empathy grew out of her own experience.
Born in Budapest to a prominent Hungarian family -- her grandfather was a Hungarian prime minister -- she was a divorced mother of a little girl when the Soviet army invaded her homeland in 1956. With tanks trundling down Budapest's boulevards and Soviet soldiers kicking in doors and shooting resistance fighters -- some 10,000 Hungarians died -- she resolved to take her daughter and flee the country.
Friends counseled patience. Things will get better, they said. But Mrs. Marschalko wasn't one for waiting. She paid a substantial sum to a milkman who agreed to ferry a group of people in his delivery truck to an area near the border with Austria.
Her daughter, Christina Fitz, was 4 at the time. She recalled how her mother gave her a sleeping pill, the only one she had, shortly before they were to leave. But the driver decided it wasn't the right time. When the group of 11 began their harrowing journey a week later, hiding in the back of the milk truck, Mrs. Marschalko was terrified that her wide-awake daughter would betray their presence.
"My gloves kept slipping down," Fitz recalled last week. "I kept saying, 'Fazik a kezem' -- my hands are cold -- and my mother would put her hands over my mouth."
Fitz recalled how the driver left the group in a forest near the border, afraid to go farther. Border guards manning towers overlooking the forest were known to shoot at anything that moved. A young man carried the little girl on his back until they got to the edge of the woods, when he handed her back to Mrs. Marschalko. "If I get shot," he said, "I don't want her to be on my back."
"She grabbed me and ran for her life," Fritz recalled, her voice breaking at the memory. "My mother was incredibly courageous throughout her life."
Austrian officials helped them get to Toronto, where Mrs. Marschalko worked as a secretary during the day and a waitress at night. After a brief marriage to a Hungarian national who lived in Venezuela and took Mrs. Marschalko and her daughter to Puerto Ordaz, a Venezuelan town in the provinces, she wangled a job with the Hungarian Reform Federation of America. The job brought her to Washington in 1968.
A few years later, she began a long and happy relationship with the National Geographic Society and married John Marschalko, an American Express executive. In the mid-1970s, she and her husband lived in Moscow, where her husband ran the company's Moscow office and she worked for the U.S. Embassy.
She came back to Washington, rejoined National Geographic, serving as a senior administrative assistant to several officials, and, when her marriage ended, started over -- again.
The 1980s and 1990s were the good years for her mother, Fitz recalled. Tall, thin and statuesque, with her charming Zsa Zsa-style accent a part of her larger-than-life persona, she became the consummate Washington hostess for international visitors affiliated with the Meridian International Center. The nonprofit institution on 16th Street NW, which promotes international understanding, would give her a list of visiting scholars, artists or intellectuals, and she would arrange dinners for them in her Arlington home.
The elaborate events would be in the grand Austro-Hungarian tradition. She prepared everything from scratch and labored over her guest list to invite just the right mix of people.
"She took enormous pride in her table and how she set it," Fitz recalled. "These poor souls thought they were being hosted by an American, and here was this Hungarian in the European grand style, not an American in any sense of the word."
Mrs. Marschalko also was a private tutor of Hungarian language and culture for Americans traveling to her native land. In the late 1990s, she worked with Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, helping arrange cruise line tours that featured lectures on foreign affairs.
Keenly aware of the kindness of strangers, Mrs. Marschalko never forgot the benevolent Austrian Red Cross worker who, many years ago, gave her little girl a delicacy rare and delicious: an orange. Having never seen an orange, the young Christina thought it was a ball and tried to bounce it.
For the next 50 years, with her elaborate dinners and her flamboyant embrace of international visitors, Marta Marschalko was, in her own way, offering oranges.