As a 25-year-old writer languishing behind the Iron Curtain, Frank Iszak decided he had only two options left: liberty or death. Born in 1931 in Hungary, Iszak couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his days in fear of his country’s oppressive Soviet-guided communist government. He’d already logged time in the Gulag for his journalistic efforts. Many of his fellow Hungarians had faced far more gruesome fates.

 

“I felt like I was always running for my life,” says Iszak, now nearly 81 and a beloved Rancho Bernardo resident. “Death was no longer a consideration when compared to freedom.” In 1956, Iszak hatched a desperate and dangerous escape plan. On July 13, he and six friends boarded a small domestic aircraft in Budapest, knowing they’d never reach the intended destination — at least not alive. Armed with cheap iron wrenches, the group forced their way into the cockpit and commandeered the plane. Chased by Russian Migs, they flew through thick cloud cover over the Alps and — against all odds — made it to a NATO base in West Germany.

 

The hijacking, which Iszak details in his nail-biting recent memoir, Free for All to Freedom, made international headlines and heroes out of the daring young men who’d risked it all to leave communism behind.

 

“Imagine you’re living in darkness for 25 years and then you open your eyes to the world,” Iszak recalls. “That’s what it felt like when we landed.” A year later, Iszak immigrated to the United States. “Everything I knew about America was a dream, and when I got here, I found it to be true. Individual freedom never flourished anywhere in the world like it did in the United States.”

 

In the decades since, Iszak has not wasted a single moment. The octogenarian has owned an advertising agency, published magazines, taught martial arts, and traveled the country as a motivational speaker. He still works as a private investigator. 

 

When he was 65, Iszak met his present wife, Serpil, who sparked his interest in yoga and Pilates. The two founded Silver Age Yoga, a charitable outreach that offers free yoga classes to thousands of underserved seniors, as well as the blind, in Encinitas and throughout California.

 

“It’s my chance to pay back my debt to this society that allowed me to be part of it and enjoy its freedoms,” says Iszak. “We are changing lives and hopefully making a dent in senior healthcare.”

 

Iszak, who spent seven years doing intense research for his memoir, doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either. He’s working on a screenplay of his story that he hopes to see made into a movie during his lifetime — and not because he’s seeking fame or glory.

 

“I want to remind people of what a fragile commodity freedom really is,” says Iszak, who was willing to sacrifice everything for it. “Freedom is never free.”    ANNAMARIA STEPHENS