Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Olga Zoltai, hero to refugees

Olga Zoltai
Olga Zoltai, above, and another activist, Victor Contreras, are to receive the 2012 Immigrant of Distinction Award from the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association at a naturalization ceremony on Friday, March 2, at the University of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Olga Zoltai remembers well the midnight phone call from Washington, D.C., four decades ago. As a case worker with the International Institute of Minnesota, she had been tapped to help lead the resettlement of Hmong families in the United States in the wake of the failed Vietnam War.

"There will be this family coming in 6 o'clock in the morning," the voice on the other end of the phone told her.

Zoltai called a church volunteer who gathered up blankets, and they waited at the airport on a frigid winter morning for the first Hmong family — mother, father and children -- who arrived with literally only the clothes on their backs.

"The little children had nothing on except a shirt, bare bottom, bare feet ... nothing!" Zoltai said recently.

It was a story with which she could relate.

Zoltai was 9 years old in 1944 when Nazi forces invaded her Hungarian hometown of Sopron, rounded up neighborhood Jews to be sent to their deaths, and then fled before the Soviet Union's advancing Red Army.

She clearly remembers the nightmare; how her middle class family escaped by donkey cart to Austria and eventually found its way to Alberta, Canada, only to find work as indentured farm laborers in the sugar beet fields. Two years later, the family moved to Toronto.

By this time, the man who would become Zoltai's husband, Tibor, had also come to Canada from Europe and the couple married. While he attended college, Zoltai worked in a Canadian factory, wiring and soldering television sets. Soon enough they moved again, settling in Boston with two young children so her husband could study at MIT to become a mining engineer.

After her husband landed a faculty position at the University of Minnesota, they made their last move, to the Twin Cities, and became naturalized citizens in 1967.

Fast forward a quarter century to the 1970s. With her husband now a professor at the university, Zoltai was raising the family's children in a comfortable St. Paul home and looking for an opportunity to do some volunteer work when she found a position as a case worker with the International Institute.

The opportunity came at an auspicious time: The United States had recently lost the Vietnam War, and in a chapter of state history that would change the face of Minnesota, Zoltai and others began resettling the first of tens of thousands of Hmong families.

Over more than two decades helping resettle immigrants including political refugees, she's heard many hair-raising accounts of abuse and escape that remind her of her own flight from Hungary.

Now, she's winning some accolades.

Zoltai and another activist, Victor Contreras, are to receive the 2012 Immigrant of Distinction Award from the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association at a naturalization ceremony on Friday, March 2, at the University of Minnesota.

"I was so lucky, you know?" she says, looking back on her life's story. When her chance came, "I was able to help."

Click on the audio link above to hear the latest in Dan Olson's series, "Minnesota Sounds and Voices."

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