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Discovering the hidden secrets of our past

Prof. Julia Creet, left, and John Lorinc

York University Prof. Julia Creet and journalist John Lorinc do not fit the typical Holocaust descendant narrative. They recently spoke to The CJN about how they first discovered their hidden heritage.

Lorinc: My father pulled me aside one evening when I was about 10 and we were out for an after-dinner family walk. I remember being confused about how anyone would identify someone who was Jewish. I vaguely remember asking him if Jews dressed differently. He told me that I must keep this piece of information secret, and I did.

Creet: My sister told me our mother was Jewish at my brother’s wedding, six months before my mother died. We never talked about it. In the beginning, it seemed more like a rumour, but the secret was so deeply held that I panicked whenever I told anyone. It took me another 10 years to find the historical facts. It turns out that secrecy was very common among Hungarian survivors.

Lorinc: The secrecy and the absence of accessible information about the Hungarian Holocaust – I’m talking now about the pre-Internet era – I think contributed to this strange sense that there was no there, there. I have learned over the years a great deal about the Hungarian Jewish experience and the history, including where it fits in to many bigger pictures. But when I was younger, it existed as a shadow. All of my parents’ friends were Jews, but with the exception of one, they absolutely did not observe or discuss their history.

Creet: Yes, the Hungarians – who had been German allies and were the last country to be invaded by Germany – felt so betrayed by the Germans and so ashamed of having believed in their alliance, that there was no easy route for them to reclaim their Jewish identity. This shame, combined with a highly assimilated population and the enforced hegemony of post-war communism, meant that even abroad, Jewish Hungarians were much more likely to claim Hungarian affiliation than Jewish. It all seems counter-intuitive now.

Once I pieced together my mother’s story and started to talk to old family friends – many of whom belonged to the United Church – it turned out that the closest ones were also Jews who had converted. None of them knew about each other because they didn’t talk about their pasts. And yet, an unspoken affinity drew them to one other.

Lorinc: So my question with this experience is whether your mother’s friends from the church genuinely didn’t know one another’s backstories, or if that’s the story that was given to you. In my experience, Hungarian Jews have extremely sensitive “Jewdars” and can almost always pick one another out of a crowd. Or maybe they didn’t need to come out to one another; the background simply didn’t need to be discussed. I’d also say that with my parents’ friends, there were virtually no gentile Hungarians in that crowd, with the exception of those who married in. All that shared experience and that shared secrecy – the unspoken affinity, as you put it – turned out to be very sticky glue.

Creet: Kingston, Ont., was a very Anglo-Protestant place when my parents arrived in 1958. There weren’t many other Hungarians around, so my parents gravitated toward other Europeans. My father was an odd duck, as well. He was an Armenian who had grown up in Calcutta, but had a British accent and passed well. Of the family’s closest friends, one was Polish and one Italian – both survivors, though neither had been in the camps. When I talked to them after my mother’s death, they both professed complete surprise about her past. My mother’s few Hungarian friends were certainly Jewish (including “Aunt” Ila, who had been a close friend in Hungary), though again, it would be years before I figured that out.

Lorinc: I like to joke that after coming to Canada, my parents eventually went into hiding in Lawrence Park, which was in many ways a Judenfrei zone. A few of their neighbour friends eventually put two and two together, but most didn’t. I, in turn, had friends from growing up whom I never told, at first because I had been told not to, and then later because it just felt awkward and strange to bring it up. The first time I wrote about this topic in public was in the introduction of a book I published in 2005. I remember meeting one of my oldest friends – we’d known each other since kindergarten, 33 years by that point – and his first reaction was, “John, I never knew.”

Creet: I find it really interesting that John and I started our public explorations of hidden Jewishness around the same time. I believe that being public about these stories is an important strategy for countering the shame that comes with a combination of trauma and secrecy. At least one of my siblings strongly disagrees with me on this question and would have much preferred if I had not made our mother’s story public in any way. But, for me, learning to be able to talk about this very difficult history has been a crucial step in my ability to come to terms with it in some way, and to work through the traumatic effects of secrecy itself.

Lorinc: I would add only that the secrecy has created this paradoxical condition, which is that it was the engine of my curiosity about this history, and also a kind of organizing principle for one aspect of my sense of identity. So while I strongly believe that secrets are almost always corrosive, I don’t know that I’d describe this one as a poisoned chalice, because it has caused me to learn about a history that was, and is, well worth knowing.

Creet: I absolutely concur. As difficult as it has been to sort through the emotional, familial and historical entanglements of this secret, I would not be who I am, nor would I have done the creative and scholarly work that I have, had I not had to grapple with this inheritance.

Julia Creet and John Lorinc will speak May 31 at the Lipa Green Centre in Toronto.

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