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The Nazis took everything from my mother’s family. What good would reparations do?

How the Holocaust erased one Hungarian town's Jewish past

A house that used to belong to Adolf Engel de Jánosi, whose property was seized by Nazis in Pécs, Hungary. (Photo by Patrick O’Connor)

Last month, 14 Holocaust survivors sued the Hungarian government and its national train corporation, MAV, for cooperating with the Nazis to deport more than 500,000 Hungarian Jews and confiscate their property during World War II. The lawsuit seeks to create a fund for Hungarian Holocaust survivors and their families, which could be worth billions of dollars if it’s successful.

But as a descendant of Hungarian Jews, I can’t imagine how such a fund could repay my mother and her few surviving relatives scattered around Europe. No amount of money can replace what they lost.

In 2011, I spent five months in the small town of Pécs, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant to research my Jewish Hungarian relatives, most of whom died in the Holocaust. When people from Pécs found out that my great-great-grandfather was the wealthy Adolf Engel de Jánosi, a leading industrialist and philanthropist who lived there in the late 19th century, they asked if I had come for restitution. “Have you come to take what’s yours?” they’d say.

I had not.

Before arriving in Pécs, I had no idea how much property my family had owned there. A walk around the town square revealed that the Engel de Jánosi properties were glorious and substantial. One beautiful home was now a tax office; another was a three-story apartment building. The synagogue, which my great-great grandfather helped finance in 1865, was still a synagogue, but a long-neglected one: There are a few Jews left in Pécs, but not enough to justify turning on the heat. It’s open now only on high holy days, and half of the synagogue is a used clothing store.

As I saw these magnificent buildings for the first time, I wondered whether any of them really should still belong to my mother or her relatives. Were people asking if I had returned to claim these properties because they thought I had a right to them? I was not the original exile, after all — I am merely a remnant.

* * *

In 1880, my great-great-grandfather, then known only as Adolf Engel, bought and renovated a country estate that had belonged to a Hapsburg prince, Alfred of Montenuovo, according to Engel’s autobiography.

He also rebuilt the town of Jánosi and, in a gesture of good will, the town’s Catholic church, which came with the estate’s property. He went on to build one of the largest coal mines in Hungary, as well as a railway to transport the coal, houses for the miners and a school for their children. Emperor Franz-Joseph I of Austro-Hungary granted Engel and his heirs Hungarian nobility in “recognition of economic virtues.” With nobility came the addition of “de” to his surname. Engel decided to be “of Jánosi,” or “de Jánosi.” That’s how important Jánosipuszta, Jánosi Castle, was to him.

When I asked about Jánosipuszta, everyone in town told me the castle was “broken.” The mayor said it was a shame. He wished the town could afford to keep the place up, but the mines had been closed for decades and there were no jobs and nothing much on the horizon. If I wanted to purchase my family’s property, he suggested, I could apply for help from the European Union, but the time for compensating Hungarian victims of World War II had passed: “Unless you are very rich, you cannot buy back your own property.”

The Germans seized all my family’s Hungarian land in 1944, including the castle. When the Soviets came soon after, they turned Jánosipuszta into a home for old people, then into an orphanage. Everything in the now-abandoned house has been stripped and stolen. The house is a crumbling shell, a carcass torn open. The brick has been hammered and shattered, the copper wiring all pulled out and pawned.

My mother, who was born in Vienna in 1929, never visited Jánosipuszta. Nor had she ever met her Hungarian relatives because her father did not take her to Hungary for family visits (he had converted to Catholicism in the 1930s). Raised Catholic, my mother grew up in a small palace called the Hofzeile, the sixth and last of Engel de Jánosi’s estates, originally built for the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Grand Duke Rudolf. When Hitler occupied Vienna, the Jewish laws put my mother and her parents in danger. After my mother’s family fled, the Nazis seized the Hofzeile. A long time ago, my mother took her own mother’s advice to never look back, and she never returned. (If she had, she would have discovered that the house had been destroyed during the war, presumably by Allied bombs.)

After all the survivors have died, the Holocaust will seem as dry and dusty as the Civil War

But my mother’s Hungarian cousin, Anna Stein, spent her summers at Jánosipuszta. I first met her by coincidence when she came to Pécs to attend a ceremony honoring Adolf Engel de Jánosi.

In 1944, when the Nazis occupied Pécs, the police arrested Anna’s parents. As the couple sat before the police chief, they saw their names on papers marked “Zsidó,” meaning Jew, alongside another file with the Hungarian word “megöl” — kill. As Anna tells it, the police chief knew her parents, so he looked at the papers and said, “If you leave now and disappear, these papers will disappear, too.” They left with Anna and their son that day. Her parents arranged for nuns to hide the children in the Hungarian countryside, while they hid in farmhouses. They survived both Nazi and Soviet occupations, and Anna finally left Hungary for Paris with her brother in 1956. Her parents left for the United States.

* * *

The afternoon of the ceremony five years ago, the few remaining Engel de Jánosi family members gathered in Pécs to honor Adolf, and together we walked down the same street our relatives walked with their yellow stars, after Hungarian police arrested and marched them towards the train station. And there were many. In 1944, 2,952 Jews from Pécs were rounded up and deported, most of them murdered in concentration camps, according to the archives at Yad Vashem. Over 50 were relatives of mine whose names appear in “The Book of Tears,” kept in a plastic display case near the Torah lectern in the town’s synagogue.

The mayor’s office had built a wooden stage by my great-great-grandfather’s house, which the city had converted into the tax office. The mayor, tall and dignified in his dark suit, climbed the wooden steps, hung a wreath and gave a speech, saying that Adolf Engel de Jánosi did a great deal for the community. He built; he gave generously to charities still named for him. Because of his hard work and industriousness, and because of the jobs he created, the city of Pécs experienced an economic boom. Even though everything was working against him, he prevailed.

The mayor never once referred to my great-great-grandfather as a Jew.

The Holocaust and Jewish identity

We relatives were all asked to say a few words. I thanked the mayor for honoring my ancestor. Another cousin from New York did the same, in fluent Hungarian. Then Anna stepped up.

This wasn’t the first time she had returned to Pécs. Her mother is buried there. Anna is an artist, and Pécs is an artist’s town with galleries that continue to show her work, so she keeps in contact with people there. In Hungarian, she said there was altogether too much thanking, and she had no one to thank. She was there to blame — the mayor, the town and all of Hungary for stealing the Engel de Jánosi land, businesses and houses, especially this house right here, where the ceremony was taking place. She was the rightful heiress, she said. Not the town of Pécs and certainly not the mayor. All of this, all of it — it all belonged to her.

I watched her look out onto the crowd in her own hometown. This town, these Christian townspeople, had deported her and her family, then stole their possessions. Anna still saw them as robbers. How could she not?

The mayor waved for the band to play the sad anthem of Hungarian coal miners as the crowd dispersed. It was difficult to smile for pictures for the local paper that day.

* * *

So what should Hungary do now? It could take a page out of Germany’s playbook, fess up and apologize more publicly and adequately for its role in the Holocaust. Hungary has not really acknowledged its that role. Outside of Budapest, there are very few public statues or memorials. It is not possible to repair the damage the Holocaust did, but it is possible to pay it forward. Germany took in 1.1 million refugees last year. Meanwhile, Hungary has closed its borders.

My mother is not interested in Hungary’s restitutions. At 86, she’s beyond all that now. She’s more interested in Syrian refugees and how other 21st century immigrants will find a welcoming country and a place to live, as she did more than 70 years ago. “What’s past is past,” she says.

Two years after the ceremony in Pécs, we all gathered in Paris one night for the first time. Anna, my mother and I sat down to an elaborate Hungarian feast Anna prepared in her small apartment — rabbit paté, deer stew, confiture and poppyseed cake. The linen napkins were embroidered with our family crest, and Anna gave me two as a gift.

My mother and her cousin both lost everything and nearly everyone to the Nazis. One chose to try to forget her past in order to move forward; the other chose to bring her past back to life through her art. For me, the two linen napkins from Anna, a relative I never knew existed until I met her in my family’s former hometown, are my own personal restitution, one which I cherish and keep stored away, safe.