Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.
A Converstion with Eugene L. Pogany, author of In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust
One of the more powerful moments in Eugene Pogany's new memoir comes when fellow inmates at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp welcome his father, a practicing Catholic, to celebrate Passover with them. Miklos Pogany, who is moved to tears by the makeshift seder, will nevertheless remain a mute witness to that ceremony for almost half a century. But despite his silence, recounting that memory preserves the very moment when Miklos sees two faiths intersect in his life--Judaism, the religion to which he was born and Catholicism, the one to which his parents converted him. In a recent interview the younger Pogany affirms that "the seder in the camp was a turning point moment in my father's life."
It also became a departure point for the ecumenical pilgrimage Pogany chronicles in In My Brother's Image. The journey itself is a collection of moments and scenes gleaned from the Pogany family's experiences during the Second World War in Hungary as Jews and Jews who converted to Catholicism. During the course of the journey, Pogany, a practicing Jew, eventually bridges his family's religious divisions by arriving at the point where he can in good conscience recite Kaddish--the memorial prayer said in honor of the dead--for his Catholic grandmother Gabriella, a woman who went to her death in a concentration camp reciting the "Hail Mary."
In My Brother's Image is also the work of a second-generation Holocaust survivor, a son who has gingerly prodded memories from his aging parents and pieced together a family history. Like many second-generation Holocaust survivors, Pogany, who is 49, returns to the place where his parents lived and almost died to find answers to a number of questions that, despite the many hours of interviews he conducted with them, he could not ask them directly.
Although Pogany made several trips to Hungary and Italy to research the book, he recalls that one of the the most arduous tasks in his decade-long endeavor to give his family history the coherence of a book-length memoir was "asking my father for his permission to say Kaddish for my grandmother. That was preceded by something even more difficult--asking my father about his mother. He talked about her during two extended sittings in front of a video camera. It was quite clear that she was a Christian martyr who died as a Jew. And I really couldn't deal with that like the Edith Stein affair. (Edith Stein was a Jew who converted to Catholicism and entered the convent. She died in Auschwitz and half-a-century later was canonized for her martyrdom there.) I honored my grandmother as a Catholic who never denied her Jewish roots. She was a woman who was comfortable describing herself as a 'baptized Jew.'"
Pogany's memoir also preserves the integrity of his unusual family story. He begins that story in Budapest in 1913, the year that his father Miklos and Miklos' twin brother Gyuri were born. By the time the boys were six-years-old, the Pogany family had converted to Catholicism primarily for social and economic reasons. Bela, the boys' father, was a veterinarian anxious to secure a civil service position. He eventually found work in a small country village. When he was forced out of his position, an event probably precipitated by anti-Semitism, the family settled in yet a more provincial town. The twins were sent away to be educated in a monastery and went on to attend one of Hungary's most prestigious universities. At university Miklos abandoned his plans for the priesthood, but Gyuri answered the call to a religious life and was ordained as a priest.
To that end Pogany writes eloquently about the day that Gyuri said his first mass with his extended Jewish and Catholic family in attendance. Pogany notes that to an American "this kind of mingling seems peculiar, but my father's family were disaffected, lapsed Jews. They were, in fact, more Hungarian than Jews."
Shortly thereafter, Gyuri was sent on medical leave to Italy for treatment of recurring kidney stones. An eight-month stay extended into years, the majority of them spent in the monastery of a mystic named Padre Pio. Back in Hungary Miklos, a university graduate, was assigned to a labor battalion cleaning the streets of Budapest, with time off only to attend mass on Sundays. Jewish conversion to Christianity, no matter how sincere, was considered null and void once the Germans arrived. Therefore, the twins' mother, Gabriella, was rounded up with the other Jews in her village. The only privilege that her parish priest could secure for her was the right to leave the deportation staging area twice a day to attend mass. She was escorted to church by two hoodlums whose only comments to her were anti-Semitic epithets.
The are other quietly devastating scenes of the Catholic Church's culpability in the Nazi genocide of the Jews in this nevertheless even-handed memoir. Even in his fascinating and generally sympathetic portrait of Padre Pio, Pogany implies that the Padre also bears some responsibility for the destruction of European Jewry. Although he refused to send Gyuri back to Hungary and protected him from local fascists, Padre Pio was critical of a German woman who sought forgiveness for lying in order to save Jewish lives. Pogany takes him to task for being more concerned with the purity of salvation than the sanctity of life.
In My Brother's Image will mean different things to different readers. It is an indictment, albeit a reserved one, of the Catholic Church for its indifference to the Holocaust. "I didn't want to make a political statement. I'm not a historian or a theologian. I was deliberately careful not to invoke politically heated issues. For example I deal with the behavior of the Vatican and Pius XII only through my family's experience. In other words, I used my family's experience to shed light on Church culpability."
That level of intimacy also permeates Pogany's recollections of his uncle who was known as "the Jewish priest." Gyuri eventually came to America and was for many years a parish priest in Newark, New Jersey. "My uncle would come over after mass every Sunday. But I remember him coming to only one seder when I was a child. He never came to any of the family Bar Mitzvahs."
Pogany realized in hindsight that his uncle's tacit yet deliberate separation from Judaism prevented him from fully committing to writing this memoir. "My uncle died in 1993. Two months later I knew I wanted to write the whole family story. I had previously interviewed my father, but felt freed up from my father and uncle's vow of silence. My father spoke a lot about that silence after his brother died."
A half a century later, Eugene Pogany assuages that silence with a power akin to midrash--the interpretive stories that fill in the gaps of silence of an ancient or biblical story. And to that end that long-ago seder in Bergen-Belsen, a ceremony of genuine faith, one that commemorated freedom and God's promise to destroy those who rise up against the Jews in each generation, became the cornerstone of the Jewish faith that Miklos Pogany passed on to his own children.