By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The moment Margaret McMullen discovered the existence of Richárd Engel de János, a long-lost relative, at Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, Yad Vashem, she began an unexpected journey of revelation and connectivity as she tirelessly researched the history of her ancestors.
Propelled by a Fulbright cultural exchange that sent her to teach at a Hungarian university, McMullen, her husband and her then 15-year-old son all eagerly traveled to Pécs, the roots of her Catholic mother’s Jewish lineage. After reaching Pécs, a Hungarian town both small and primarily Christian, McMullen learned how difficult her mission was going to be.
Heart-wrenching, passionate and insightful, McMullan’s memoir “Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss and Return”(Calypso Editions)beautifully documents the relentless determination of a woman picking up the pieces of her family’s fragmented history throughout the Hungarian Holocaust.
McMullan, an award-winning author, speaks and signs books at a bagel brunch at Temple Beth Israel on Sept. 22 in Skokie.
Born in Newton, Mississippi, she was raised in Lake Forest where she attended a Catholic girls school and public high school. She says she welcomes the opportunity to return to the city’s north side and speak about her new book.
“There’s nothing like bringing something you worked on, five years writing about this, to a home that is really significant for me personally. Chicago is also a big city so it’s an honor as well.”
McMullan, a full-time author, was born in Mississippi and now lives in Evansville, Indiana where she teaches in the English department at the University of Evansville.
She was in Chicago two weeks ago, speaking at the Newberry, an independent research library. She returned the next day to Israel for a week during which she presented the Yad Vashem archivist with her book. She laid a wreath for Richard and met with students among other book tour events.
Her journey as a family memoirist started in 2008 when she went to Israel for a writer’s gathering. One day was set aside for a visit to Yad Vashem. “When I went there, I just typed in my mother’s maiden name in the database and up popped Richard. The archivist there told me this is your relative. You are now responsible for him. And in order to remember him, you have to fill out a sheet called the page of remembrance. I didn’t know anything about this person and I wondered why I didn’t know and who else I didn’t know about.”
She applied for a Fulbright to the University of Pécs. She took her son and her husband, a documentary film maker from Downer’s Grove. “I was stunned that so little was known about that period of time in Hungary’s history.” In 1944, the mayor of Pécs basically signed over the Jews in the city and transported them out of the country into various concentration camps. Her relative died in Mauthausen in Austria, where McMullan has also visited.
The family’s sojourn “threw us into a new world,” she said. Viktor Orban, a nationalist, had just become prime minister, setting out to change the constitution of Hungary to preserve the country’s Christian culture.
“I was reading about the time that Richard was living and I thought this is all happening again. What’s going on? So, it brought me back into history, but that also brought me back into the here and now. I had always assumed that history is history and the people know it and understand it and it can’t happen again.”
Her research and writing mission in Hungary was so difficult because, she said, “Hitler accomplished what he set out to – wiping out a good portion of the Jewish population in Hungary. There are very few Jews and synagogues left in Hungary and therefore very few people who know about that particular time. So, I think that history is getting whitewashed.” Hungary is hoping to open a new museum devoted to the Holocaust. The building is finished, but Holocaust survivors and scholars are worried that the House of Fates, as it will be called, will downplay Hungary’s role in the Holocaust. A former director was a Holocaust denier.
There was an internment camp for over 7,000 Jews in Pécs. “There’s no record of it except in Yad Vashem. I noticed that my students, when I was talking about anything Jewish, like Philip Roth’s “Everyman,” they had trouble understanding it because there were so few practicing Jews. The students were otherwise so smart, but they had no clue about the Jewish religion.”
McMullen describes her reconnection to an inexplicable past as “wonderful. That’s the big surprise and I think the more I talk to readers about this book, there’s a connectivity that happens when people approach me at these readings with their own stories.
“At a reading in Maine, a man stood up and said, ‘I know these people. I think we’re related. He was born in Pécs and we were related in a very roundabout way.
“I feel like I have this whole family in the world that I didn’t know about and it’s all because of researching Richard.”
Author Margaret McMullan speaks and signs copies of her her new memoir, “Where the Angels Lived: Our Family’s Story of Loss, Exile and Return” 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Sept. 22 at Temple Beth Israel, 3601 W. Dempster St., Skokie. Call 847-675-0951 for more information.