The events that brought author Eugene Pogany to a South Orange synagogue represented an unexpected coincidence as well as a serendipitous bridging of connections past.
Pogany, author of the Holocaust-era book In My Brother’s Image, spoke at Oheb Shalom Congregation’s book review event on Oct. 19.
Months ago, following the translation of his 2000 family memoir into French, Pogany, 63, tracked down and wrote a letter to his former high school French teacher, Ann Ginsberg, a congregant at Oheb Shalom. He let her know that he had been a devoted student of hers at Hillside High School in the 1960s and wanted to share a copy of the French version with her.
Learning that Oheb Shalom was planning to feature the book for its October Mae Zelikow Book Review discussion, Ginsberg’s husband, Bob, contacted Pogany and invited him to speak at the event as a 75th birthday surprise for his wife. The unexpected reunion of teacher and student was the first time the pair had seen each other in 45 years, ever since Pogany’s graduation from high school in 1969.
“Eugene was a quiet and intelligent student,” Ginsberg, a West Orange resident, said of her former pupil. “His book was very thought-provoking and I’m so proud of him.”
“The opportunity to reunite with my French teacher meant so much to me,” Pogany said. “I’ve never been so gratified as to be told by someone I admired so much that she’d read the English version of my book years ago and was proud to know me.”
“In life, we have many things to learn and many connections to explore,” said Oheb Shalom Cantor Erica Lippitz. “Perhaps one of the best things a synagogue can do is to create connections between people who thought they were strangers.”
Breaking the silence
After a breakfast sponsored by the Ginsbergs at the Mae Zelikow Book Review gathering, chair Sylvia Amato introduced Pogany to the more than 60 congregants in attendance. A New Jersey native, he lives in Newton, Mass., where he’s a practicing psychologist and a frequent writer and speaker on Jewish-Christian relations, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.
In My Brother’s Image recounts the story of identical twin brothers — Pogany’s father Nick and his uncle George — born in Hungary to Jewish parents who converted to Catholicism and raised their children in the church. During the war years, George Pogany became a Catholic priest and found sanctuary in Italy under the wing of a recently canonized mystical monk. Nick Pogany, categorized as a “Jew of Christian origin,” was deported to Bergen-Belsen. Moved by the acceptance he was shown from the Jews imprisoned with him, Nick, after surviving the horrors of Nazi persecution, converted to Judaism. The two brothers settled in New Jersey in the ’50s — George as a parish priest in Irvington — but could never fully reconcile the differences in their faiths.
“I wrote the book to help penetrate the silence that pervaded my family growing up and the wedge that had been driven between my father and uncle,” Pogany said. “My uncle was disappointed in my father’s renouncement of Christianity, and my father was disappointed in my uncle’s avoidance of the Holocaust and his seeming indifference to his brother’s suffering as a Jew.”
Pogany said that although the brothers eventually resumed a loving relationship, “there was blunted animosity and recrimination in the gaps and silences of their interactions, for the two never again spoke about religion or the events of the Shoa. As a result, confusion, shame, and estrangement pervaded our family relationships.”
Though he feared upsetting his father and stirring up his own grief as he began writing In My Brother’s Image, Pogany said that his father, who died in 2002, did ultimately open up and provide the answers that would come to fill the pages of his book. “I thank my father for sharing the suffering as well as the sweetness of his early life,” Pogany said. “I know him and I know myself better for it, and life feels fuller.”
In My Brother’s Image was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award in 2000. Pogany recently cowrote a screenplay based upon the book with Hungarian writer Tamas Harangi.