In the middle of writing about resilience for my next post, word comes from my cousin Alex that his 97-year-old dad has just collapsed and died instantly. This is the same man who had regaled me two weeks ago with a clear and thorough report on the American presidential candidates with insights befitting a seasoned political analyst. That was my cousin Paul, survivor, former detective, executive, escapee from Communist Hungary and re-maker of life for his family in a new, unknown, cold country, my beloved “uncle Paul”, my mother’s only surviving male cousin after the war.
Resilience could have been Paul’s middle name. Born the child of a dynamic mother and a successful dad, he was a cherished only child who grew up in luxury and adoration. The extended family gathered at their home every Sunday to laugh and share the week’s events and to eat the great food his dad’s business provided. My mother’s description of those afternoons was of a lot of kids, happy to be together, and her mom’s brothers and sisters sharing their stories and challenges of the week. Politics was a big topic in those 1930s and 40s years.
A new era began in 1944 when Eichmann arrived in Budapest and a Nazi was installed as the leader of Hungary, putting an end to Horty’s reign and the beginning of the end for the large majority of Hungarian Jews, my family among them.
Paul’s idyllic life ended and he was sent to a labour camp along with most other young Hungarian Jewish men. According to his description, things were quite mild in his particular camp, but I was never sure if that was really the case or if it was his upbeat way of looking at life. Paul’s optimism under all circumstances was certainly a defining characteristic of the man I knew.
After the war, he went back to his parents’ home. This house became the shelter for his two returning cousins, my mom being one, and for his childhood best friend. Paul immediately joined the police and was named a detective. He told stories of how he interrogated suspected Nazis as well as how he hid his two girl cousins whenever the Russian soldiers in the town had had too many drinks.
Paul adjusted well to the arrival of the Communists, but never believed in the ideology. He knew to stay quiet in Stalinist times when people used to disappear for a wrong look or a loose word.
He married and became a dad and led the best life he could under trying. oppressive times. He was ahead of his time in being a feminist and encouraged his wife to study and to gain her accounting degree.
Once the 1956 revolution broke out, he was ready to leave Hungary, the Communist oppression, and living life as a quiet dissident. Taking nothing but his young son and wife, Paul set out for the temporarily open border with Austria. Escaping Hungary was not a simple thing. Although theoretically open, there were still border guards who were believing Communists and who were happy to shoot escapees. Everyone breathed a great sigh when they saw the Austrian guards and the ambulances waiting for any injured or sick Hungarians.
Paul and his family were welcomed by Canada and landed in Montreal. Speaking no English or French, and having no contacts, Paul immediately set out to get to know people and to find work. Nothing was too hard and Paul and his wife soon found work. Their son entered school and became a bilingual child. The family made many friends who became a warm community, and their son grew up to become a noted physician.
Paul never allowed his personal tragedy of the Holocaust to dampen his spirits. He was sad, he talked about the war, there was no denial, but it was not the centrality of his life. He always looked forward, was realistic, if a bit anxious, and kept his sense of humour.
It is ironic that he died during Sukkot in the time of Covid when we will not be able to have the large-scale funeral and shiva his death would bring given his large network of friends and acquaintances. Throughout his life, wherever Paul went, he quickly became popular for his upbeat spirit and warm, caring approach.
Paul, we will miss your laughing eyes and quick wit, your laser-sharp analyses, and your warmth. Resilience has no better definition than your life.