Kaddish for Engel, 64240

Kaddish for Engel, 64240
by Margaret McMullan

Richárd Engel de Jánosi

Richárd Engel de Jánosi

There is a strange mineral scent in the air. As soon as we enter the compound surrounded by all the granite walls, the day turns colorless, shadowless. It’s early fall, neither warm nor cold, though we shiver in our coats at Mauthausen, the concentration camp in a lovely little Austrian town, impossible not to hate.

Inside the gates, we are nearing the end of a long three-year journey. My husband and our 15-year old son have helped me gather and piece together the life and death of my second cousin, Richárd Engel de Jánosi, in order to properly remember and mourn him, as I was instructed to do three years ago by an archivist at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. “You are the first to ask about him,” she said as she gave me a form called Page of Testimony. “You are responsible now. You must remember him in order to honor him.” All I knew then was that Richárd had lived in Hungary and that he died in 1944. I knew nothing more about this relative from my mother’s Hungarian family—he was a first cousin who my mother herself had never even heard of. 

I have no idea what good this memorializing will do. But I know that it’s important to remember. An entire generation of Holocaust survivors is aging and dying, and Holocaust-like events could happen again. They are, in fact, happening again—hundreds of thousands of people all around the world are fleeing their homes to avoid death and persecution. 

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In 1938, when Hitler marched into Vienna, my mother fled with her parents, making their way by train across Switzerland, France, and then to England where they split up. It was safer that way. My mother was ten years old. A family in Test Bourne took her in while her father taught history at King’s College and her parents found a temporary home in Cambridge. My mother was raised Catholic. Her father, a Catholic historian, never told her about his own prominent Hungarian Jewish family—the ones he left behind, the ones murdered. 

My mother does not consider herself a survivor, just a refugee. She is used to keeping quiet about her past, and she can. She has no marks, no numbers etched on her forearm, no shrapnel, and no external wounds. I taught my son what my mother taught me: you are never 100% safe. But he doesn’t believe it could happen again, not in the developed world. I tell him to watch the news. See? I say. It’s not the same, he says. Institutions like the United Nations are in place, which will keep people in line. He still trusts systems, and eventually I think, what’s wrong with that? Do I want him to worry? 

In order to remember, you have to know something. Through online research and interviews with eyewitnesses and those who knew him, we’ve learned about Richárd Engel de Jánosi. He was an engineer, who, in 1944, was the owner left in charge of his family’s lumber company, Adolf Engel & Sons, in Pécs, Hungary. He had short, brown hair, a neat mustache, and he did not smile for photographs. He maintained a strict, kosher diet, and he liked to hike. He was partial to tailored tweed suits.

In March 1944, after my mother and her parents found safe harbor in the United States, Germans began their occupation of Pécs, Hungary. The mayor of Pécs, Lajos Esztergár, signed an agreement with the Nazis and the Nazi-Hungarians (The Arrow Cross Party) to arrest all of the Jews of Pécs.

Even then, knowing he would likely be arrested, Richárd wouldn’t leave. The woman he loved, Theresia, a Catholic, begged him to flee Hungary with her. They could go to the United States or England, she said. But he would not. He stayed. 

On March 19, 1944 at approximately 1:00 p.m., SS officers arrested Richárd in front of his house on what is now called Rákáczi-ut in Pécs. He was held at the Laktis barracks with other prisoners, across the street from the train station in Pécs, and then the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Arrow Cross soldiers loaded him into a cattle car with hundreds of other Jewish Hungarian citizens and sent them away, out of Hungary to Austria. 

With Richárd gone, the Hungarian Royal Court of Justice appointed a new company director of Adolf Engel & Sons. The mayor of Pécs approved the appointment, writing: “The Jew owners Adolf Engel & Sons can’t lead the saw mill and the parquet company anymore because of other responsibilities.”

Richárd was among fifty-three members of the Hungarian nobility, politicians, and industrialists from Budapest who arrived in Mauthausen Camp in Austria on April 25, 1944. He was 62 years old.

According to weather records, it was raining that day. Forsythia and pink hyacinths were just beginning to bloom in the woods. 

Already, Richárd and the others had received little food. They walked three miles in the cold rain from the train station through the middle of the town and up the steep hill. The townspeople were used to seeing a parade of prisoners coming off the trains. They yelled and kicked at them. They threw stones. Mauthausen is a quarry town. There are plenty of granite stones. 

The whole town smelled of death. 

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We stand now at the “Wailing Wall,” where Nazi soldiers forced Richárd to strip naked outside with other men and women. Soldiers shaved their heads, then poured disinfectant over them. Then they stood in line to have numbers tattooed onto their arms or hands, branding them for life with indelible blue ink.

Richárd was number 64240. Records from Mauthausen show his last name Engel written in neat black script, without the de Jánosi, the part that marked him as nobility. There is also no accent on the a in Richard in the records. His birth date is listed 31.7.1882. Under profession: Masch Ingenieur, Mechanical Engineer. Never mind that by 1943, Richárd owned and ran the family business. Reason given for deportation: 54 Ung. Jude. The number 54 might mean that Richárd was among that particular group of Hungarians arrested and committed that day. Fifty-four happens to be the street number of Richárd’s permanent address, 54 Rákóczi-ut. Ung was, short for Ungarischer or Hungarian. Jude of course is Jew.

I have read that some people chose to recreate themselves in the camps in order to survive. When they were sheared naked and given a number, they hardened their hearts, created new personalities, changed themselves mentally to suit this unpredictable world. But at sixty-two, I imagine Richárd was past the point of recreating himself.

We walk past the “Wailing Wall” to the line of unheated wooden barracks where most prisoners were housed. They used straw to cover themselves when they slept. Everyone shared a bunk. Typhoid was spreading. The sick ones got shot.

The SS put most Hungarians in tents at Mauthausen. Two thousand in each tent. If and when they were fed, they received thin potato soup and watered down coffee. For whatever reasons, Hungarian Jews were given less food. Tents got so crowded that some prisoners were forced to sleep out in the cold. 

The three of us walk these grounds now separately but in the same slow way. Every now and then, we end up together, touching hands. At one point, I watch my son stand before the ash dump, where, for years, the ashes from the crematoriums were dumped. He is wiping his eyes. It’s disturbing to think that if the Holocaust had not occurred, my mother would not have come to the United States and would not have met my father—neither I nor my son would exist. 

In the cellar of the laundry barracks, we see the showers. I can’t help but taste ash in the air. I think I taste blood too, but I recall the mineral smell of the quarry. I lean against the stone walls, and listen for the hum of voices, the whisper of ghosts. I listen for Richárd.

He wouldn’t eat. In 1944, Richárd told a rabbi there, Rabbi Schweitzer, he was fasting. Political fasting had worked once before for Richárd. In 1918, during World War I, occupying Serbian soldiers arrested and imprisoned Richárd for protesting the ill treatment of Jews. He fasted and they released him. Then the soldiers left Pécs. People who knew Richárd say that he was “stubborn and rigid and when he decided to do something, it was so.” He was an engineer. He believed in a system of order. Maybe he thought it would work again.

But was fasting at Mauthausen really Richárd’s way of protesting or was it suicide? If he wanted to commit suicide, there were other ways. Some walked to the electric barbed wire fence, which had a 380V charge. Cyanide tablets went for about $1000 per tablet, but they were hard to come by and few had any money. Some were willingly shot in the neck. By not eating, Richárd had more control. Maybe it was his choosing not to eat that made the difference for him. He was controlling his death as much as was humanly possible. Controlling how he died was all he had left of his life. 

At school he had studied what his father wanted him to study. He wanted to marry the woman he loved, Theresia, but when his father told him he could not marry her because she was Catholic, Richárd did not marry her. Instead, he lived with her for more than 14 years. When his country told him to fight in World War I, he fought, risking his life for Hungary, a country that sent him to Mauthausen. When his father told him to run the family business, he ran the family business. Richárd had a younger brother, but Richárd was the one to care for his father until his father’s death. He was the obedient son, loyal to his family, his faith, and his country. 

Starving is not the same as hunger. The kind of starving Richárd felt surely has no word. As Primo Levi wrote of his time in Auschwitz in The Reawakening, “Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say ‘hunger,’ we say, ‘tiredness,’ ‘fear,’ ‘pain,’ we say ‘winter’ and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes.”

It was a cold spring in 1944, and he suffered in the most beautiful countryside. Did someone take Richárd’s hand? Did Rabbi Schweitzer pray over him, recite the Kaddish in Hebrew, or did Richárd recite it for himself as his body began to shut down? I imagine he yearned for the particulars of his lovely life—his music, his clothes, his food, his familiar routine, his duties at the factory, his synagogue on Kossuth Square, and his home in Pécs.

Did he call out for his brother? His father? Theresia? God? And how did he say goodbye to the world and in what language? Auf Wiedersehen! Búcsú ‭ ‬שלום‭ ‬

Maybe he thought, now I will join them. I will join my family, my ancestors, the Engels. Perhaps, in his mind, the Engels were already there—his angels watching over a loyal son.

He fasted for five days. 

There is a line drawn through “Engel, Richard 31-7-82 Pécs” on a Mauthausen document dated April 30, 1944, and in the margin, Richárd’s number 64240 does not have a line drawn through it, as though the number lives on. The reason for Richárd’s death: collaps; ak Herzschwäche. Collapse; acute myocardial insufficiency. Heart attack.  

One year later, in 1945, after Hitler committed suicide in his bunker and the war ended, the remaining SS at Mauthausen Camp began burning the paper work. And Mauthausen camp was liberated on May 25, 1945. On that day, Richárd’s rabbi, Rabbi Schweitzer ate food too quickly, and, as he lay sick, he told everything he could recall about his experience at Mauthausen camp and about Richárd to his son, who wrote it all down. Then Rabbi Schweitzer died. 

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Mourning is different when there is no body. We imagine him there before us both alive and dead. Richárd’s bones or ashes lay somewhere here on the grounds of Mauthausen. We wander further around the camp, searching for sacred ground until we realize this place is already sacred. I stand with my husband and son between two pine trees. 

I can’t help but wonder how many others like Richárd have been forgotten or will be forgotten. I recall how in the beginning, Richárd seemed like nobody at all. One more person in a sea of lost souls. Why mourn someone who died before I was born? Why mourn anybody for that matter? Because it is in our nature as civilized human beings to mourn and to remember. 

There is an ordinary kind of forgetting and a special kind. Many people willed themselves not to know about the murdering or simply to forget about it. Move on, they told themselves. We still tell ourselves this every day when we hear or watch the news. My grandfather forced himself to forget as well, perhaps thinking it was the right thing to do. He wanted his daughter to assimilate. He wanted to further remove her from his Jewish roots so that she might be safe. But when my grandfather, the historian, buried his heritage, he buried Richárd’s memory as well.

As I learned more about Richárd, I discovered other Hungarian family members, too, and I showed my mother photographs of relatives she never knew—cousins, aunts, and uncles. All had been murdered. Even at 86 years old, she wants to know any and all details about them. Together we memorize their faces, searching for our own features. 

If my grandfather had been successful, I would never have known about Richárd. But now I know, and my son knows. We know about other Engel de Jánosis who were murdered too. Not all of them, but most of them. To forget him, to forget Richárd, is to forget all of them—my family and all the other Jews of Hungary. Each and every one ought to be mourned, missed, and remembered. As Aung San Suu Kyi said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “To be forgotten is to die a little.” Forgetting our dead would be murdering them twice.

Later, after we return to the United States from Hungary and I finally mail the Page of Testimony to Yad Vashem in Israel, the archivists research all my research, and after a year, Richárd is added to their database of Shoah victims. He is included on the Wall of Names. Wherever we are, we can call him up on our computers. This feels extraordinary.

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My son finds three stones. Each of us takes one. I have brought candles in my backpack, and put them on a flat piece of ground. My husband lights them. We place our stones next to the candle, our makeshift tombstone for Richárd. 

Our need for this ceremony is undeniable, our intentions acute. I take out the prayer on the sheet of paper I’ve been carrying since I learned about Richárd three years ago at Yad Vashem. Is it necessary for us to have a connection in order to feel compassion? We are all of us tied to one another, and according to Jewish tradition, the descendants of the dead have especially strong ties. We have come here together, taken this journey together, searched for him together, and together we read a prayer meant to help the soul of the deceased on his journey. We don’t just say the words of the Kaddish. We mean them.

May His great name be exalted and sanctified
In the world which He created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom

And may His salvation blossom and His anointed be near
During your lifetime and during your days
And during the lifetimes of all the     
House of Israel

Speedily and very soon. And say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed
For ever, and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted,
Extolled and honored, adored and lauded
By the name of the Holy One, blessed be He
Above and beyond all the blessings,
Hymns, praises and consolations

May there be abundant peace from heaven,
And good life
Satisfaction, help, comfort, refuge

Healing, redemption, forgiveness, atonement,
Relief and salvation
For us and for all His people Israel; and say, Amen
May He who makes peace in His high places
Grant in his mercy peace for us
And for all his nation Israel; and say, Amen.

A slow red sun begins to set. It’s getting darker outside and the evening turns burnt orange. We came here out of love for a relative we never knew. I think of the dark graves all around. Have the dead been remembered and grieved for properly? It feels so important. 

Six years of war and six million Jews murdered, my mother’s family, and him, Richárd. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He is here at Mauthausen. Somewhere his ashes are now dust, languishing in the dark Austrian soil. 

He is a part of this earth. 

And he is a part of us now, too. §

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Margaret McMullan is the author of seven award-winning novels and editor of the anthology, Every Father’s Daughter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and National Geographic among other publications. Margaret received an NEA fellowship and a Fulbright to research and teach in Hungary for her new book, Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss, and Return.