A book by Eugene L. Pogány on his family history
This is the story of twin brothers whose lives in the shadow of the Holocaust uniquely reflects the history of Jewish/Catholic relations. Born Jewish in Hungary, György and Miklós Pogány were baptized as children after World War I. György found his calling through a lifelong commitment to the beliefs of Catholicism. Miklós, having survived the atrocities of a Nazi concentration camp, rejected the tenets of Christianity, and returned to his roots in Judaism.
The twins’ father, Béla Pogány, became a veterinarian in 1914. Upon the advice of his professors, he converted to Catholicism to improve his chances of employment in the public sector, with greater security for him and his family. His wife Gabriella became a devout Catholic. She made sure their three children were equally immersed in their newfound religion. The twin brothers, mirror images of each other, attended mass regularly since age 6 and served as altar boys. With outstanding spiritual guidance from local priests, both young men had considered entering the priesthood.
One of the brothers, György, chose that path. He graduated from the seminary in Vienna in 1935, where he was ordained a priest. He held his first mass in his parents’ hometown of Szarvas, much to his mother’s delight. His brother Miklós completed his law degree and started a professional career as an officer at a bank.
Once the “racial laws” were enacted, Miklós was forced from 1941 to serve in the Hungarian Labor Battalion. Some of our most admired writers, Antal Szerb and Miklós Radnóti, suffered the same fate that, in their case, included the “forced march,” from which there was no return. Once German forces started the deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944, it became clear that it was not the adopted religion, but the original racial identity that would determine people’s fate. Miklós decided to marry his childhood sweetheart, hoping that marriage might help them avoid deportation. Sadly, it did not help. In 1944, both he and his wife were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp via cargo train.
His brother György fared incomparably better. His local diocese sent him in 1939 to Italy to a thermal bath in Fiuggi, promising a cure for his kidney stones. A friend of his took him to San Giovanni Rotondo, the Capuchin friary with the famed Padre Pio, a reputed, mystical healer and seer. The meeting with Padre Pio made a lasting spiritual impression on György. The Padre insisted that György remain at the friary longer; he probably knew enough about the risks of returning to Hungary. What began as a months-long cure in Fiuggi became a 17-year-long stay in San Giovani Rotondo. There, a few people knew of György’s Jewish roots, but they kept it a secret. Given the secluded life at the friary, it was probably difficult to understand fully the ongoing atrocities in Hungary and elsewhere.
Back in Szarvas, the twin brothers’ father Béla died in 1943. The next year, their mother Gabriella was deported to Auschwitz, just like most Jews in rural Hungary. According to eyewitnesses, Gabriella entered the gas chamber clutching her crucifix, while praying to her Savior.
Miklós was fortunate enough to survive the concentration camp and returned to Budapest after the end of the war. It was his life’s happiest moment when he was reunited with his wife Margit, who had managed to return alive, notwithstanding her precarious health condition. It took her a year and a half to recover from the inhumane treatment at the camp and regain her original body weight.
At the earliest possible moment, the couple emigrated to Sweden, and subsequently to the United States. Having been accused by stone-throwing fellow Christians of being a Christ-killer, the notion of Christian love and forgiveness rang painfully hollow to Miklós. Instead, he clung to the community of Jewish family, friends, and fellow survivors, whose unwavering solidarity and support he experienced during the most challenging months and years of his life. He and Margit went on to have two sons and one daughter, whom they proudly raised in the Jewish faith.
In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a wave of refugees arrived in the United States. Hungarian-speaking people were urgently needed – including priests. In a stunning turn of fate, György left Italy and was assigned to the Hungarian parish of Newark, New Jersey, later to the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This way, the twin brothers were in physical proximity again: Monsignor Pogány as a beloved priest in Irvington (NJ), and Miklós Pogány as a social worker helping and assisting impoverished families in the Newark area.
At first, it proved nearly impossible for the brothers to reckon with the turmoil of their family’s history and understand each other’s standpoint. Of the many tragedies that had befallen their family, the most painful one was the fate of their mother. György found consolation in his mother’s martyrdom and prayed daily for the salvation of her soul for the rest of his life. As well, he could not accept any notion of Christian guilt during WWII. He defended the Catholic church and the pope against all accusations. Moreover, he was deeply concerned about his brother’s rejection of the one-and-only true faith. With that, he felt, Miklós was putting his eternal salvation at risk. But György never asked – and thus, Miklós never spoke about – what had befallen their family as Jews. The entire tragedy of the Holocaust remained an unspoken, dark taboo topic for the rest of their lives.
Somehow, despite these irreconcilable differences, the twin brothers eventually managed to coexist peacefully and affectionately. Many years later, Miklós’ son, Eugene Pogány (the author of this book) observed the requisite year of mourning as a Jew by praying the Kaddish every day for his Catholic grandmother Gabriella.
Eugene L. Pogany is a clinical psychologist in the Boston area with a special interest in the treatment of transgenerational and traumatic loss and grief. As well, he is currently developing a feature film based on his book, In My Brother’s Image.