Bela Szelenyi died on March 5, 2019, just a few weeks shy of his 96th birthday. He had a very long and full life, passing peacefully in his sleep at his home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, where he had lived for the past 32 years. Bela was the eldest of three sons raised by his parents, Bela Sziberth and Gabriella Krebsz. Erno, the next oldest, still lives in Budapest. His younger brother, Pisti, died in 2014.
Bela graduated from the Hungarian Air Force Academy in April of 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end. After graduating, he was a night-fighter pilot in the Hungarian Air Force, flying a Messerschmitt 110, the only night-fighter active in WWII that was equipped with on-board radar.
As the Russians invaded Hungary in the spring of 1945, he scuttled his squadron’s planes and led a harrowing escape through Austria with his squadron and members of their families to Germany where he surrendered to the Allied Forces there in late April of 1945. His parents and brothers were left behind. He was just 23 years old,
and would never see his parents again. Hungary was off limits to former WWII Hungarian military officers because the Soviet Union had annexed the country. It
would be 29 years (1974) before he was able to travel to Hungary to visit with his brothers.
The War in Europe was over on May 8th, 1945, but the rebuilding of the continent would continue for many years. Bela’s fluent knowledge of both French and German made him a valuable asset, and he worked for the French Occupation Army, doing a variety of jobs, from 1945 until January of 1952, when he and his family were allowed to immigrate to the United States. He had met and married a local girl from Langenargen, Germany (Elisabeth [Liesel] Glatthar) in 1948. They were married for 57 years until Liesel’s passing in 2005. Their only child, Eva Maria, was born in Langenargen in February of 1949.
Bela spoke fluent Hungarian, German, and French, but had no English when he arrived at Ellis Island in January of 1952. Night classes and menial jobs got him and
his family through the first year in his new country, but his organizational and managerial skills were quickly noticed. He was offered a job managing a button factory in Waldoboro, Maine, and his career as a production manager began. A milestone in his life was achieved in 1957 when he, his wife, and his then 8-year-old daughter became naturalized citizens of the United States. After 12 years of being a man without a county, he was a proud citizen of the USA!
A few years later he took a job with Kraft Foods, in Portland, Maine, managing the production facility for making food additives from Irish Moss, a seaweed harvested along the North Atlantic coast. He spent the rest of his working life managing the production of natural-food emulsifiers such as carrageenan. His final working years were spent in Rochester, Minnesota, where he managed a state-of-the-art foodproduction
plant owned by Stauffer Chemical Corporation that converted whey into a variety of natural food-additives.
When he retired in 1987, his daughter and her family were living on Bainbridge Island. As luck would have it, while looking at houses along Koura Road on
Bainbridge Island, he happened upon Noboru “Nob” Koura, who offered to sell him a five-acre parcel of land on Koura Road. Bela purchased it from Nob, who had retired from farming strawberries on the land. Bela and Liesel had a house designed by his daughter, Eva Maria Gerdts, built on the property. He lived a quiet life after retirement, traveling with his wife to Europe every other year to visit relatives, and helping look after his granddaughter, Caitlin Elisabeth Gerdts, who lived with her parents just 2 miles away. His only child, Eva, died in 2010. He was very fortunate to have had a devoted group of homecare providers who made it possible for him to spend his final years in the home he had built on Koura Road.
Bela is survived by his granddaughter, Caitlin Gerdts and her husband, Josh Gruber, who live in the Bay Area of California; two great grandchildren, Clay (5) and Elliot
(2); his brother, Erno, who is two years younger and lives in Hungary; and his son-in-law, George Gerdts.
A private memorial service was held in his honor, and his ashes will be interred with those of his wife, Elisabeth, and daughter, Eva Maria, in Langenargen, Germany.