Family Story Uncategorized

Story of the Egri-Angel Family

From Győrsövényháza to California

As I sit down to write a brief history of my family, I am horrified by the current daily news reports. It has been over 6 weeks since the Russians invaded Ukraine. The destruction and devastation is overwhelming! It brings back so many memories of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. I remember my seven-year-old self, looking out of our second story window on Aradi Vértanuk street in Győr, as the Russian tanks rolled by. My Mom shouting at me to get away from the window because the soldiers had guns. 

Until the geopolitical events beginning in the late 1930s, my parents were proud of their Hungarian heritage. Their Jewish ancestry, as far as we can trace it, lived in the land of the Magyars for ages. 

Mom, born Perl Zsuzsanna, in August 1921, was raised in Győrsövényháza. She came from a loving family consisting of her parents, two sisters and two brothers.  Her father was an inn-keeper, butcher shop owner, and wheat farmer of 100 acres. He managed dozens of employees. Mom described having had a very happy childhood. Her parents were strict and had high expectations. Her family was one of only two Jewish families in their village.  She attended Catholic primary school (the only school in the village) where she liked to tell us she was a top student in Catechism. Mom’s parents had to hire a Hebrew teacher from a nearby town to teach her and her siblings to read Hebrew and learn the prayers and Bible stories. Likewise, the family had to walk to another nearby village to attend High Holiday services and other religious affairs.

Mom (r) with siblings, Miklós, Gyöngyi and Sári (their half-sister), around 1926-27

Mom and her siblings had to travel even farther, to Győr, to obtain a higher education. This was an expensive project made more-so because they had to take a carriage and then a train daily. The value of education was drilled into the Perl children.  But by the time Mom graduated from business college at age 19, she, (like the other 5 Jewish girls in her class) couldn’t find work.  She eventually lucked out and was able to work in a laboratory and support herself in Budapest. 

When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1943, Jews were compelled to wear the bright yellow star on their clothing to identify them, harass them, spit on them and loot their businesses. Within months, my mother’s family was rounded up and taken to concentration camps. Mom and her younger sister, Gyöngyi, were rounded up in Budapest and initially marched in near freezing temperatures to Lichtenwörth camp in Austria. They were held there for six miserable months. Mom described the conditions, the inhumanity, the hunger, the cruelty of those months. She also shared that they encountered some kindhearted folks from nearby villages who sneaked bits of food to the captives when they were able.

With luck, determination and spirit, Mom was able survive the Holocaust. The rest of her family was not so fortunate. She, her sister Gyöngyi and her brother, Miklós were the only ones in her family to survive. Both of her parents, her older sister and younger brother-were murdered in the gas chambers in Auschwitz, along with numerous aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Incidentally, Mom’s Mom was taken to her death on her 46th birthday.

Liberation came to Lichtenwörth on April 2, 1944, Easter Sunday. Russians arrived at the camp with truckloads of bread and canned food. The people cheered and hugged and kissed the soldiers.  The soldiers were repulsed by the starving filthy masses.  Once fortified, they eventually returned to their childhood home and joyfully reunited with the other family members who survived. Their joy was tempered by their sorrow upon learning how the others had perished.

Little by little they began to rebuild their lives.  Mom and her sister eventually rented a small apartment and found jobs in Győr. Some of the belongings of the Perl home were saved for them by friends after their deportation. Among the items were a watch that had become rusty in its moist hiding place. Mom asked around if anyone knew of a Jewish watchmaker who might be able to repair the watch. This is where my personal history begins.

Mom took her watch to be repaired by Egri Jenő, also a Holocaust survivor.  At that time, money was scarce, so he asked for a home cooked meal as payment for the repair.  He was lonely and started visiting Mom and her sister quite frequently. Their ease with each other resulted in a very short courtship and culminated in a proposal of marriage.  At a Christmas gathering with Mom’s brother (who married his high school sweetheart and converted to Catholicism) Jenő (my father to be) reached into his pocket and held forth five wedding bands. “Pick one” he said to Mom, and the rest is history. On December 31, 1945, they wed under a Huppah officiated by a local Rabbi in a simple ceremony attended by very few family members and friends.

Mom and Pop in 1946

My father’s history, of which I know a lot less than Mom’s’, is in some ways even more tragic.

Born in Győr on September 2, 1908, “Pop”, as I used to call him, learned the trade of watchmaking because Jewish boys were prohibited from entering many professions. His father, a furniture craftsman, was the only family member who died a natural death of a heart attack, at the age of 57. The rest of his family—his Mother and his only sister, perished in the concentration camps.

Pop’s (2nd from r.) parents and sister

Mom was my father’s second wife. He had been married before and they had two little girls named Eva and Marika. Together with their mother, all three were victims of the gas chambers. When most of the Jews of Hungary were deported to various concentration camps, my future father was sent to Labor camps.

Pop’s little daughters, Éva and Marika, murdered in Auschwitz

He rarely talked about those times. I can think of no greater horror than to lose one’s entire family so tragically. The ‘conventional wisdom’ at that time was not to talk about painful parts of their lives; that talking about it would only make it worse. Now we know just the opposite is true. By nature, my Pop was very congenial. As a young man, he traveled all over Europe with friends on his motor bike. He was an avid reader, liked to sing and to play cards. He was a hard worker.

After the Russians liberated Hungary at the end of the war, they sent their proxies to occupy seats of government. They urged the Hungarians to join the Party. Shortly after my parents were married, they moved into a lovely large condominium above my dad’s watch store. My father was thought by the Communists to be a wealthy man who hid jewels and gold prior to the war.  Since private wealth was not permitted, the Communist Police began to harass them. They banged on our door at all hours of the day and night, searching every inch of our home for their imagined loot.

Other than the political situation, Mom described pleasant social life filled with friends, strolls in parks, birthday celebrations. We lived relatively comfortably for 11 years, but my parents did not want to raise their children under that regime.

By ‘their children’, I mean my brother and me.  Misi, who later became Michael, had been born in September 1947, and I arrived 15 months later. I am named Eva, after my father’s first daughter. Mike and I were very much loved, and raised with all the opportunities available.

The only thing my parents lacked was their freedom. When the Hungarian patriots revolted against the Soviets in October 1956, after careful consideration my parents decided to flee. They said goodbye to some friends and relatives, and joined another Jewish family in a rented truck and headed toward the Austrian border. That was on November 10, 1956. When the truck was allowed to go no further, together with the other family, we had to cross the border on foot—in muddy terrain, pocked with holes from excavated landmines.  Exhausted, with only two pieces of luggage, having left everything else behind, we crossed into Austria. What a relief!

We were welcomed by local villagers who helped us get to the first refugee camps, where my parents joined others and tried to figure out what to do next. They knew what they were leaving but not where they were going. We eventually got to Vienna, where my father completed applications to go to Australia. As luck would have it, we met an American lady who was Hungarian by birth. The conversation my parents had with her altered their vision and their plans. The following day, my Father obtained the necessary forms to go to America!

A few days later, we were aboard the second military airplane chartered by then president Eisenhower, bound for the United States and were among the first 5,000 refugees who arrived with a permanent permit of residency. What amazing luck!

Newspaper cuts, 1956 and later

When we touched down in San Francisco on December 5, 1956, we were the first Hungarian refugees to arrive there. I still recall the amazing reception we received there—newspaper reporters, photographers, radio interviewers. Through an interpreter, our parents told the press how grateful we were to come to this land and my father, showing off his three newly learned English words pronounced “God Bless America” to their applause. 

For a while we were front-page news. Thanks to the publicity, both parents found jobs, and an apartment was found for us. Mom was able to work in a children’s clothing factory and Pop was employed (temporarily) by a reputable watch and jewelry company.  Michael and I were enrolled in grammar school, and treated like celebrities (mostly). We learned English quickly, and totally lost our accents.  Our parents attended night school. Their progress was slower, but they could get by with Mom’s fluency in German. My parents also changed their surname from Engel to Angel, per a friend’s recommendation—more American. After a while, they bought their first car: a 1948 Packard for $50.00 (!).  With the help of social workers, they were introduced to other Hungarians who had come to San Francisco years before.

After a couple of years, when Pop was laid off from his job, we moved to Los Angeles. They got new jobs and once again they developed friendships and a new community. We became American citizens in 1962. They worked hard, saving as much as they could so Mom was able to fly to Israel to see her sister for the first time after 14 years of separation.

The job in Los Angeles was a heavy burden for our father. He had to travel to downtown daily.  He had heart problems. Then, he saw an ad in a trade newsletter for a Jewelry store for sale in Ontario CA.  A suburban town with a population of 50 thousand, offered an opportunity for our family to lead a more relaxed lifestyle. Our parents were able to purchase the store and adjacent home. Michael and I went to High School in Ontario. We all made new friends, but kept the old. We were thriving. Life was good. 

Michael and I both went to Universities (UCLA). He got a Law degree and I obtained a Master of Social Work degree. Our parents were proud, they achieved a lot in a short time.

Mom and Pop dancing their 25th wedding anniversary, 1974

Michael and I both married and each have two children, now adults and parents themselves. I worked as a medical social worker most of my adult life, but only part time when my girls were young. I retired when I was 65 years old. My daughters, now 44 and 46 years old, were wonderful children and are wonderful adults and parents. Parenting them has been my greatest joy. 

Now at age 75, Michael still enjoys working. In his spare time, he rides his horses.  He claims that his love of horses and riding began in his early childhood years when we spent summers in our uncle’s ‘falu’ (village) Sövényháza.

My brother, Misi, the “cowboy”, around 2010

Sadly, my father died of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 67. I have no doubt that his life experiences contributed to his early demise. He was able to be a part of both Mike’s and my weddings, but he died just 6 weeks before his first grandchildren were born. It saddens me to this day that he missed out on that joy!

A friend of mine introduced me to my would-be husband, a doctor from Argentina.  After we married in Los Angeles, we moved to Laguna Hills CA, and lived in a lovely community called Nellie Gail Ranch—where we raised our daughters, Nicole (1976) and Danielle (1978).  Mom moved from Ontario to a retirement community called Casta del Sol in Mission Viejo, a town just a few miles from ours. Recently widowed, Mom was a major part of our lives as our family grew. We had an active family life which included membership in our large Reform Jewish Congregation. Both daughters went on to get their Master’s degrees, both in the San Francisco Bay area.

Mom and grandchildren, around 1990

Mom was always a very important part of our family! As a widow, she made new friends and traveled extensively, often visiting friends and relatives in all corners of the world, including Győr. She loved to cook and entertain. She had a fantastic relationship with our children and they admired her, respected her and loved her very much! At the age of 74, Mom joined our father in death in 1995. She is missed every single day. We have our precious memories and that is a blessing!

Mom’s last birthday with Michael and me, 1995

My daughters are both married and each of them have blessed me with two wonderful grandchildren. Now I am able to have a close relationship with my 4 grands, just as my Mom had with hers…

Zoe’s (my eldest granddaughter) Bat Mitzvah, August 2021

Story noted and communicated in April, 2022, © photos by Eva Monastersky

Featured image © Pexels