Snapshot: Margaret McMullan (Hungary, 2010/11)
The question of why my grandfather, Friedrich Engel de Jánosi, never thought to recall and record his own family history accurately has haunted me. He was an historian who did not want to be slowed down by his past or his family
A memory that encapsulates my Fulbright experience occurred when one day after class at the university, a group of my students asked why I’d come to Pécs. Of all the places, why this small, Hungarian town? I told them about Richárd and the rest of my mother’s family, all of whom were deported from Pécs in 1944. They didn’t say much. Later that night, they sent emails. So many emails! They sent directions to local Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and buildings that had once belonged to my family. They told me about a statue of my great great grandfather in a nearby town. My students led me to multiple sources so that I could eventually piece together Richárd’s life and death and write the book. While I taught my students, they taught me.
The moment I discovered the existence of Richárd Engel de Jánosi, a long-lost relative, at Israel’s Holocaust Museum, I began a quest to uncover a forgotten history of my ancestors, the Engel de Jánosis. In Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss, and Return, I write about my Fulbright journey to Pécs, Hungary, where I uncover my Jewish ancestry, a part of my mother’s past which my grandfather kept hidden.
The question of why my grandfather, Friedrich Engel de Jánosi, never thought to recall and record his own family history accurately has haunted me. He was an historian who did not want to be slowed down by his past or his family. He may have just wanted a fresh start when he came to America.
Where the Angels Lived tells the tale of a somewhat parallel universe that still exists —dealings with Soviet-style bureaucracy, skepticism, anti-Semitism, and the same sort of isolation and rejection my Jewish Hungarian family experienced in 1944 before they were forced out of Pécs and into concentration camps.
In Hungary, I discovered just how significant the Engel de Jánosis were before the Holocaust. With the help of my University of Pécs students, Hungarian friends, and newly discovered relatives, I slowly pieced together information about Richárd’s past I never would have found without traveling and working on a Fulbright in my family’s homeland, Pécs.
I’m from Mississippi so I grew up on William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Richard Wright. Later I discovered Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert. I’ve had the privilege of working with Phillip Lopate, who taught me so much about nonfiction. During my research for Where the Angels Lived, I was inspired by Miklós Vámos, Stefan Zweig, Imre Kertész, George Konrád, Primo Levi, Sándor Márai and many others great European writers.
Margaret McMullan is the author of nine award-winning books including the novel, In My Mother’s House, the anthology, Every Father’s Daughter, the YA novel Sources of Light, and the story collection Aftermath Lounge. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Herald, National Geographic for Kids, and Glamour among others. She received an NEA Fellowship and a Fulbright in Hungary to research her memoir, Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Loss, Exile, and Return. Margaret has served as a faculty mentor at the Stony Brook Southampton Low-res MFA Program in New York. She was the Melvin Peterson Endowed Chair in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Evansville, where she taught for 25 years.