Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

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Review of In My Brother’s Image

Jewish Affairs

Review of In My Brother’s Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust by Eugene Pogany

(Viking Penguin, 2000)

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to spend a month in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, the renowned memorial and center for Holocaust study. People often ask me what I, a Catholic priest, brought back from that intense experience. It was not merely new information, but the emerging realization that the Shoah (the Hebrew word meaning “catastrophe”) cannot be understood simply as one story concerning an abstract, unfathomable number – 6 million victims – but only as 6 million different human stories. Yet, the breadth of the loss is so staggering that the human story of each victim, the story of joys, dreams, aspirations, relationships, hopes, and struggles eludes us. When, on occasion, the human story breaks through, it seizes us in a way that historical studies usually don’t. One thinks of the story of Anne Frank.

In his new book, In My Brother’s Image, Dr. Eugene Pogany, a clinical psychologist who lives in Newton, tells the extraordinary story of his family in Hungary before and after the Shoah. In so doing, he puts a human face on the abstract and unfathomable. The account begins at around the time of the First World War when his paternal grandparents, newly married and both Jewish by birth, were baptized into the Catholic faith with their three little children, a girl and identical twin boys. While Pogany’s grandfather Bela seems to have converted for more pragmatic reasons – to secure a career in predominantly Catholic Hungary, Bela’s wife Gabriella discovered in Christianity a profound and personal experience of faith, and raised her children as devout, practicing Catholics. So devout, in fact, that one of the twins, Gyuri, entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1935.

The harbinger of the bitter events that would ultimately shatter this family emerged with the eruption of anti-Semitic hatred, and the onset of the Second World War with Hungary on the side of the Axis. It didn’t matter that the Pogany’s had been baptized and lived as practicing Catholics for decades. According to the Nazi racial laws, later adopted by Hungary, the Pogany’s were Jews. The writing was on the wall. Gabriella was murdered in the gas chamber in Auschwitz, where she died clutching a crucifix to her breast. Miklos, the other twin (and the author’s father), survived internment in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. But most unusual would be the destiny of Fr. Gyuri, who, on health leave, found himself (providentially?) in the south of Italy as a personal secretary to Padre Pio, the famous stigmatic mystic. Miklos, spurned by Christians but accepted by his fellow Jewish inmates, chose to return to his Jewish origins. For him the Church in which he had been raised, and to which he had struggled to remain faithful, was morally bankrupt. But for Fr. Gyuri, protected by the Italian Catholic townsfolk and priests among whom he lived, who knew of his Jewish past, the Church was a refuge and strength, a victim and helper - and his brother Miklos was an apostate. For the many years after the war until the death of Fr. Gyuri, there lurked beneath the twin brothers’ genuine affection a place of painful silence, unresolved grief, and mutual recrimination. Dr. Pogany’s book is a poignant attempt to bring to words the meaning of that silence between his father and his priest-uncle. It is a fascinating, unusual, and heartrending story.

Whereas recent sensationalistic, historically questionable books about the Church’s role in the Shoah do not forward the Catholic-Jewish agenda of dialogue and understanding, Dr. Pogany’s book takes a different tack: we are invited into his family’s experience, into their human story. And who could presume to judge or de-legitimize such a story? Instead, we are required to deal with the tragedy and human complexity on its own terms.

It is my hope that this book could be used as a tool for dialogue, to help to move Christians from a posture of mere defensiveness to one of recognition and moral ownership for the part that Christians played in the evil of the Shoah. Conversely, it is my hope that Jews will want to listen to Christians tell their story, their understanding of their history, their Church and themselves. The definitive historical account is neither yet written, nor yet fully understood. The human stories, however, confront us.

Fr. David C. Michael is Catholic Chaplain at Brandeis University, Associate Director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and Archdiocesan Liaison to the Jewish Community.