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By Margaret McMullan


The Montréal Review, March 2011


The last remaining synagogue in  Pécs, built between 1865-1869. The quotation from Isaiah 56:7 encircling the clock is written in Hebrew: "For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all the people." The outside clock shows European time, while the inside shows the time in Jerusalem.




Even though Pécs, Hungary is very much alive, it has its own tombstone at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Pécs is one of the lost cities. It is considered to be lost because it is among the 5,000 Jewish communities in Europe that were destroyed or barely survived in the Holocaust. The name Pécs is engraved on one of the 107 stone walls in the Valley of the Communities, where I stood in the fall of 2008. This was the day I first learned about my great uncle, Richard Engel de Jánosi, who died in Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria in 1945. I had never heard about this relative of my mother's because my mother never knew of him. She was raised Catholic and her father never spoke much at all about his Jewish family in Pécs.

When I printed the single sheet of information on Richard, the archivist at Yad Vashem told me that this was the first time he had been called up. In other words, no one had ever asked about him and no one had ever printed out his name. The archivist made it perfectly clear: I was now responsible for remembering Richard properly and honoring his life. She gave me a form to fill out, a sheet called "Page of Testimony" which she told me I had to fill out now and send back to Yad Vashem so that others could remember him too.

Two years later, as a result of my trip to Israel, I came to live in Pécs, Hungary with my husband and 13 year-old son. I applied for and was granted a Fulbright to teach Literature of the American South, the Contemporary American Novel and creative writing at the University of Pécs. I also came here hoping to piece together Richard's life.

Pécs is a gorgeous, Mediterranean-like city, which happens to be a 2010 European Cultural Capital. All around there are stylish Bauhaus-style public statues -- one of a chair, another of a thumb. The beautiful squares have been restored and everywhere there are cafés and wonderful restaurants. Nearly every day there is an outdoor festival for dance, wine and Palinka, music, or art. We live on Jókai Utca, a street named for Mór Jókai who is considered the Hungarian Dickens. Reminders of failed Soviet rule stand outside the city center - the "towering mistake," the tallest derelict building in Central Europe, along with other ugly concrete block housing. And there is interesting graffiti. We keep seeing the word NEED? spray-painted on buildings and signs. Sometimes the question mark is an exclamation point.

I came to Pécs with a great deal of anticipation and misgivings. I was excited to teach creative writing and the literature I loved, southern literature written by people I admire, people I consider friends. But would students in Hungary "get" Faulkner, O'Connor, Welty, and all the others? Granted, I came here primarily to find out about a relative I didn't know, but we were going to live and work in a city that had once deported my people and sent them to be murdered. How comfortable could we possibly feel?

At one point in her life, while working on a new story, Eudora Welty wrote, "This story promises me fear and joy and so I write it." For the same reasons, I came to Pécs with my family.

There is no Rosetta Stone for Hungarian. Friends told us it was an impossible language to learn. One former Fulbrighter even told me I would never have a "meaningful" conversation with another Hungarian because I didn't know Hungarian. Still, before we left the United States, we cobbled together ways to learn with CDs and language books. We learned in our first lesson that to pronounce the word Magyar, it helps to think of the word endure.

At the Fulbright orientation in Budapest, our language teacher told us about vowel harmony. She illustrated the darker sounds that come from the back of our throats, and the lighter sounds that come from up front. It's not so very troublesome, she told us. We also learned from a different lecturer that Hungary is supposedly not a very welcoming country. Hungarians like Hungarians. This made complete sense. I was born and grew up in Mississippi, where even an Alabamian is considered an outsider.

And just as it is in the American South, it is here in the Hungarian South - relatives keep popping up. I have spoken now to a distant relative, Peter, who speaks English and now lives in New York and who saw Richard being arrested by German soldiers and taken away. Peter had just come home from school. It was spring and it was 1944. He and his father saw the German soldiers escorting Richard out of his house and into a waiting car. Peter's father put his hand on Peter, then turned around and told his son to walk the other way.

On March 19, 1944, right after the German occupation, the old aged home in Pécs was confiscated and taken over by the Gestapo for their headquarters. Fifty-four wealthy members of the Pécs community were taken from their homes and sent to Mauthausen. Among them was my great uncle, Richard Engel de Jánosi.

After seeing Richard being taken from his home, Peter and his family hid and stayed hidden throughout the remainder of the war. Peter says that the street they walked that day was the street where many if not most of our family lived. Hunyadi útca. My newly found distant cousin, Christof, tells me there were many other family members taken that day. He shakes his head and his eyes get watery. We sip more of the good, dry, red wine made here. Still, even so, seeing Richard getting arrested saved Peter and his family. I wonder, how many other family members might have seen and thought to save themselves?

Author's son, James outside one of his great great grandfather's homes which is now a tax office on one of the busiest streets in Pécs, Hungary.

All her life, my mother thought she was the last of the Engel de Jánosi's. But no. While we've been here, we keep finding relatives. And with their help, I'm beginning to piece together Richard's life. Everyday I learn something new.

He was named after Richard Wagner, even though Richard's father, Joseph, wrote an article against Wagner's anti-Semitism. In naming his son, he reasoned that Hitler's favorite composer had two sides, and his son would be emblematic of the creative side.

When the Serbs occupied Pécs during WWI, Serbian soldiers kicked my great-great uncle and his family out of their house (it was a big, four-story affair with the town's first elevator) and set up headquarters there. Representing the Jewish community of Pécs, Richard protested the Serbian treatment of Jews. He was the only Jew to be arrested because he was the only one to speak out. He was put in prison and eventually released.

Richard's brother, Robert converted to Catholicism. It is said that his conversion caused a lot of family tension. When Richard and Robert sat at their father's table, the brothers did not speak to one another. Robert died in 1943, shortly after Hungary put into place The Jewish Laws, and confiscated Jewish property. Robert's granddaughter, Anna, an artist who lives in Paris now, says that her grandfather Robert died of a broken heart. Robert is buried in the Catholic Church in Pécs, which was once a Turkish Mosque.

After the Ottoman-Turks captured Pécs, they tore down St. Bartholomew's Church between 1543-1546 and used the stones to build this mosque, which the Jesuits later turned back into a Catholic church. This is the interior of the church, where Richard's brother is buried.

Their father, Joseph, was a troubled man who said that his son, Richard was too good, too "creative" to work in the family business - they owned coal mines and wood factories which produced parquet floors for a good deal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At one point, Richard went away to Munich, fell in love with a woman, whom he was not "allowed" to marry because she was Christian, and then he came back to live with his father in Pécs. Richard never married and was said to be a "depressive."

The synagogue in Pécs which my great-great grandfather helped build still exists, though it is only open during the high holidays. This was the third synagogue built in the city. It is now the only one. Before 1944, there were 4000 members. Now, there are approximately 300, but that's an overstatement. One person at the local museum says it's more like 40. When I was there for Sabbath in December 2010, there were 17. Half of the building is used to sell second-hand clothes.

Oak interior of the synagogue with the double gallery. On March 19, 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary. 4,200 citizens were forced to wear the yellow star. About 4000 were deported, mostly to Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps. Richard was among them.

I have pictures of houses, houses where the Engel de Jánosi's lived. My great-great-great grandfather Peter Engel was the first Jew to own a house in Pécs. Our apartment in Pecs is just down the street. Most of his son's and grandson's 19 th century houses still exist, even my great-great grandfather's last home, Janosipuszta, which he built on the outskirts of Pécs. Janosipuszta means Janosi Castle.

In his brief, 30-page memoir, "From My Life," Adolph wrote about Janosipuszta, about the swimming pool and "cold mineral water bath" he built for the town, the temple, gardens, and where he also began his operations in parquet floor manufacturing. He wrote that as Jews, his family was among "the tolerated ones." He wrote about his family and the family business, "Engel and Sons." He acquired several estates, but when he bought and restored Janosipuszta in 1880 from the Duke, Alfred Montenuovo, he most wanted this place to be where family gathered. Richard went here for meals and family gatherings. So did my grandfather. My mother never saw it.

At an Information center in Pécs, I ask a woman how I might get to Janosipuszta. "So sorry," the information woman says in English. "But the castle is broken."

Here in Pécs, I've learned the name of the mayor of Pécs, who in 1944 signed the permission to arrest Richard: Lajos (Louis) Esztergár. I've also learned, among other things, just how much Hungary pushed back as an occupied country under Hitler. I've learned just what kind of bad bargain the Hungarians made, because in the end they lost not only the Jews and the industry, but the territory as well, and then? Then they were left with the shame of it all. It's no wonder the Hungarian National anthem is nothing but sad and desperate: "this nation has already suffered the price for the past and the future."

I don't believe in collective guilt. I'm from Mississippi where we live with guilt just as we live with the past. But still, just as it is in Mississippi, in Pécs, the past is very present. There is a saying: when all the Russian tanks left Hungary, their ghosts remained. If that is so, would it also be so of all the other occupying forces? I doubt anyone can reconcile the past with the present and, really, we have to stop being so needy for "closure," but wouldn't recognition be a start?

At orientation, we learn the word for the poppy seed noodles my mother liked so much when she was a girl growing up in Vienna. Mákostészta. We learn what to say when you bump into someone, Bocsánatot. Then we learn what to say for no problem: Semmi baj. We learn to say we're sorry when we don't understand: Sajnálom, we say. De nem értem. I'm so sorry, but I don't understand. Our language instructor is a kind woman who asks us to repeat it over and over. Sajnálom, we say again and again. De nem értem. Sajnálom

I feel a little ashamed to say, we love it here. It wasn't supposed to be so. At our son's school, they offer to tutor him in Math, Hungarian, anything. They offered my husband a job teaching English - they really need English teachers here. I walk to and from the university, passing bakeries and cafés, listening to violin music coming from one window, Janis Joplin from another, B.B. King from yet another. Once upon a time, during Soviet rule, only a small percentage of Jews were allowed to attend the University of Pécs. Now, I teach here. I wave to the old woman standing outside her front door, holding onto to the collar of her German shepherd.

I think of this town in different times, when there were Germans in pike-gray uniforms and I think of the Pécs citizens in 1944, some of them with canary y ellow stars, each six-by-six centimeters, machine-hemmed onto coats and jackets, sewn tightly enough to keep a pencil from going under threads so as not to put it on just for show or taking it off when you felt like it. I feel these people, my mother's people beside me on these same stone streets. I am walking among them. This is a land of occupations, a kingdom without a king, but I no longer feel any occupying forces.

Here, we don't get lost anymore because we use the historical buildings and the houses of my ancestors as guideposts. Mornings, we walk to the bus stop, right across from the pink house that once belonged to Richard's brother, Robert. My husband and son get on the bus to school, and I walk past the Synagogue which houses the Book of Tears attached to the Torah lectern listing a portion of my relatives who died in the Holocaust. I head towards the four-story house on Széchenyi Tér that once belonged to my great grandfather, the same house previously occupied by Serbian soldiers. I pass Gázi Kászim pasa dzsámija, the church turned-mosque-turned Catholic Church where my great uncle Robert is buried, then I follow the Roman wall that leads to the monument dedicated to the memory of all the lost ones of WWII. Pro Patria, it says. Our Father.

At the university, my students try to teach me how to say their names. They understand Faulkner like no other students I've taught. "The mother is decomposing," says one young woman of Addie in As I Lay Dying. "The whole family is decomposing because their world has fallen apart." They are astounded by the existence of the Ku Klux Klan. "How can such hate be possible?" they ask.

After class, one student stays to talk more about the similarities between the American South and Hungary. "They both lost big wars," she says in English. "They both carry around a lot of guilt over the past." Other students gather to get in on the conversation. Then the girl asks me, "Why are you here? I mean, why would an American come here?"

I hesitate to answer. I hesitate for us all. "My mother's family is from Pécs, but they were deported in 1944." Here, that's all you have to say. 1944. Students know their history. They go silent.

The group looks at me. I feel badly. I want to take it back. Sajnálom, I want to say again and again. I want to say it's okay, it's in the past. I want to tell these bright young students it's not their fault. I want to make it right somehow, but I can't change what happened.

"Well," my student finally says. "We're glad you're here. We're glad you came back."

So am I.


Margaret McMullan has written six novels including In My Mother's House (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s), Cashay, a Chicago Public Library 2009 Teen Book Selection, When I Crossed No-Bob, a 2008 Parents’ Choice Silver Honor, and Sources of Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010). Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Southern Accents, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, The Southern California Anthology, Other Voices, Boulevard, Ploughshares, and The Sun among several other journals and anthologies such as Christmas Stories from the South’s Best Writers and the upcoming Christmas Essays from the South’s Best Writers. She has recently received an 2010 NEA grant in fiction, and just returned from Pecs, Hungary where she was a Fulbright scholar.

Margaret McMullan's website: www.margaretmcmullan.com


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