Author Margaret McMullan grew up Catholic in Mississippi. But when her great-grandmother was on her deathbed, a rabbi came to pray with her. That’s when she became aware that there were secrets hidden beneath her family’s history.
On Dec. 12, the award-winning author spoke of her new book, and her journey to discovering her hidden ancestors, at the Rehoboth Beach Public Library. The event was sponsored by Seaside Jewish Community and Browseabout Books.
“Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss and Return” is a story of the forgotten past as discovered in the Europe of today.
McMullan’s mother, Madeleine, grew up Jewish in Vienna. When Hitler moved into Vienna in 1938, Madeleine and her family became Catholic and fled the country. Her mother eventually moved to Washington, D.C., and became a member of the CIA.
“She was an expert in keeping secrets. Not only was she raised to be that way, but she was trained to be that way,” McMullan said. Her grandfather, Madeleine’s father, told McMullan that they were the last of the family, but McMullan would discover he was wrong.
McMullan researched her heritage at the Yad Vashemand Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and found a long-lost relative named Richárd Engel de Jánosi, a Hungarian man with no written history. Participating in Fulbright cultural exchange program, she decided to teach in Pécs, the last place her relative had been seen, to discover more about the mysterious past.
While teaching and researching in Pécs, McMullan began to notice that fear of the Jewish culture was rearing its head once again. Swastikas were spray-painted on synagogues. Many Hungarian citizens didn’t know of the 7,000 Jews deported from Pécs to Nazi concentration camps in 1944, McMullan noted. “There was a whitewash of history,” McMullan said, and people were denying that what has been called the Hungary Holocaust happened.
In a 2018 speech, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban saod the nation does not want to be diverse. “We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others."
One biographer wrote that Orban is running the country as a “soft autocracy,” electing like-minded peers into his cabinet and speaking negatively of immigration.
“The parallels between the past and present are shocking,” McMullan said.
The author spoke of her journey surrounding heritage, the forgotten Holocaust of Hungary, and the shocking parallels to modernity, pointing out the importance of keeping ancestors’ memories alive and sharing their memory, even if someone never knew them.
A section of her book asks “Is it necessary for us to have a connection to feel compassion?”
“All along I never thought I was part of the story,” McMullan told the audience. “Or that modern-day Hungary was part of the story, but when I was there, Orban was elected and claimed he wanted to turn Europe entirely Christian.”
“Things were changing, and it quickly felt like we were part of the tale.”
For more information, about “Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss and Return”, visit margaretmcmullan.com.