By Leslie Lindsay
Historical, family-oriented, and yet universal, Margaret McMullan delves into a little-known piece of her family’s heritage and brings it into the light.
I first ‘met’ Margaret McMullan with her interlinked short stories of another tragedy—the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, AFTERMATH LOUNGE—and then later, with her anthology, EVERY FATHER’S DAUGHTER. She’s also the author of seven other books, and her writing has appeared in USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and others.
WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED: One Family’s Story of Loss, Exhile, and Return (Calypso Editions, May 2019) begins in 2008 with the author’s visit to Israel’s Holocaust Museum, where she learns about a long-lost relative by the name of Richard. McMullan is thrust into a mystery–just who was this man and why hasn’t she learned of his existence before? She feels compelled to do some digging, tirelessly searching the history of her ancestors, the Engel de Janosis. Receiving a Fulbright cultural exchange, McMullan and her family (husband and teenage son), relocate to Pecs, Hungary to teach (and research Richard’s life) at a Hungarian University. This town is now largely Christian, but it is the place of her mother’s Jewish lineage. McMullan and her family now feel like outsiders–they are Catholic and American and perhaps this town does not want them?
Margaret soon learns the Engel de Janosi’s were influential and even distinguished royalty before the Holocaust, yet, very little information exists on them; it’s as if they have been obliterated. McMullan starts to piece the story of Richard’s life together. I felt very much ‘there’ with her as she went from archive to archive, taught her students writing, and connected with distant relatives and new friends.
Details of cobblestone streets, chipped buildings, the antique store where McMullan was never truly invited in (though she flashed shopping bags at the window as she strolled past) absolutely pop. WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED is a tale of isolation, of feeling like one doesn’t truly belong. The Holocaust was so widespread and horrific, and reading about when McMullan visits the Mauthausen, I am reminded just how truly harrowing and despicable this period of history was.
WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED is about remembering and honoring the dead, it’s about reconstructing our own narratives in order to explore our identity, our fears, and our hopes. I applaud McMullan’s tenacity to research this challenging time in history, to weave a tale of personal awakening while giving homage to a relative she had never met.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Margaret McMullan back to the author interview series.
Margaret, it’s a pleasure to reconnect. I think I understand your draw to Richard’s story and why you felt compelled to unearth—and reveal his history—but can you give us a sense of your ‘why now’ moment?
Writing WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED had a lot to do with the very real feeling of running out of time. I started the research after I had surgery. Then, after my father died, I was writing the book while also caring for my mother. The clock was ticking – time’s winged chariot was hurrying near, to quote Andrew Marvell.
I wrote this book for Richárd, for myself, for my mother, and for my son. I was in a hurry to fit all the pieces of my mother’s lost family together. So that we would know who they were, who we all were. But then I realized this is also a universal story about a country, WWII, hatred, love and betrayal.
While we were in Hungary, the prime minister, Victor Orbán had the country’s constitution rewritten, changing laws governing the media and elections. Orbán was an authoritarian running an oligarchy, not a democracy. Corruption was everywhere and so was anti-Semitism. It was all happening again, and it looked really easy. I couldn’t understand why Hungarians weren’t revolting against this unacceptable situation, especially after they fought so hard for freedom.
But then came our own 2016 presidential election in the United States and everything that followed.
I cannot recall a time when I’ve ever seen so many Swastikas in my every-day life. Or shootings in churches and synagogues.
A book about how easily things can fall apart – freedom, democracy, even families felt more than a little urgent.
I love this section of WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED, where you are told, “Why Richard? He was not the important one.” And yet you say something along the lines of, ‘it’s human nature to mourn and remember.’ Can you talk about that, please? And who’s to determine who—and what—is important?
My mother’s cousin, Anna Stein asked that question, “Why Richárd?”
The simple answer is that Richárd was the name that popped up on the data base at Yad Vashem. Here was my relative, a man I’d never heard of. And the Yad Vashem archivist gave me this assignment: I had a familial duty to remember Richárd.
Hitler’s aim was to wipe out the Jews. Even their history. In many ways, he was successful. I was not going to let that happen to Richárd or the rest of the family.
I’m going to quote from WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED here:
“If my grandfather had been successful, I would never have known about Richárd. But now I know and James knows. We know about other Engel de Jánosis who were murdered too. To forget Richárd, is to forget all of them—my family and all the others murdered in WWII. Each and every one ought to be mourned, missed, and remembered. As Aung San Suu Kyi said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “To be forgotten is to die a little.” Forgetting our dead would be murdering them twice.”
As I researched Richárd, I kept uncovering the remains of other family members. Adolf. Joseph. Erna. Marianne. They were so interesting, they almost took over Richárd’s story. I imagine that happened in real life too. Richárd was quiet and unassuming. He also had a secret love life.
I’ve always been most intrigued by the unlikely heroes – in real life and in fiction. And I do think of Richárd as a hero in life and in death. He lived during a terrible time in history, and as quiet as he was, he proved to be the brave one through his actions. I don’t want to give too much away, but just by being who he was publicly, he saved lives. And because I researched his life and death, Richárd led me to my few remaining living relatives.
An absolutely riveting story by an utterly engaging narrator–a triumphant blend of honesty, insight, research and imagination.
– A MOTHER’S TALE
Lately, art has become an interest of mine—especially with how it is represented in literature. Art saves—as in provides solace. It also physically survives long after the artist is gone. Erna, a relative of yours drew portraits of the Nazi guards and made them look handsome. She survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. As tragic as this was, my heart is also warmed. What are your thoughts?
At some point, I’d like to do a deep dive into Erna’s life and art.
She was a painter, a sculptor, and a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in Vienna. She married Richárd’s brother, Robert. His second wife. Even after she married Robert, she signed her name Erna C. von Engel-Baiersdorf, keeping her own aristocratic last name.
Erna and Robert never had children of their own, but Erna taught her step-granddaughter, Anna Stein about painting and sculpting figures and about pre-history at a time when it was not fashionable for women to have extensive knowledge of such things.
And now Anna Stein is a professional artist in Paris. What a gift Erna gave Anna. What an inheritance.
After the war, and after the liberation of the concentration camps, Erna returned to Pécs, Hungary with a full head of red hair. She had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. She was the only one who still had hair. Erna explained it to Anna: the Nazi guards allowed her to have her hair and her life because they liked the way she drew them. She told Anna she made them look strong and handsome.
She must have struggled deciding how to draw a flattering portrait, while all the while staring at someone she hated. Someone who decided her fate. Someone who could have just shot her.
Art saved her life.
Your grandfather, Friedrich, was a historian [in Vienna], but he did not introduce your mother to her own extended family. This baffled you as a writer. You believe your grandfather would probably have frowned upon your work as a fiction writer. Can you expand on that?
I think my grandfather might have thought being a fiction writer was silly. Frivolous. Let’s face it, no one really understands what writers do.
He was an historian and that’s a different kind of writing. His research involved a lot of archival work. But then, so does mine. He wrote that he wanted to re-create history to get to the truth. So do I.
When I read my grandfather’s work, in English or in translation, it’s impersonal and distant. Removed and without a point of view. But he was writing in a different time and place. Still, here was a man living very much in the historical moment. And he never wrote about it. Not that I know of. Some would say that’s a missed opportunity. Maybe it was the safest thing to do – not to write about what was happening.
When he left Austria in 1938, he told everyone he was the last Engel de Jánosi, even when he knew that was not true. Later, he told his only daughter, my mother, that she was the last of the family. Again, he knew that was not true.
I’m trying hard not to judge.
I always have to ask about homes, because they are my heart. You go with new friends, Renata and Zoli one sunny Saturday morning to the outskirts of Komlo, a town in southwest Hungary, to visit the family home of the Engel de Janis’s, Janosipuszta. It’s a big symmetrical stucco building with a small front door. It’s run-down. It’s falling apart. Is it abandoned? What more can you tell us?
You’re so right. Homes are our hearts!
My great great grandfather, Adolf bought Janosipuszta as a place for the extended family to gather — a big hunting lodge in the woods. There were orchards, vegetable, and flower gardens. The house was divided up so that about 4-5 families could stay in each section comfortably.
After WWII, during the occupation, the Soviets turned Janosipuszta into an orphanage. A woman contacted me recently – she read an article I wrote in The Washington Post and she said that she grew up as an orphan in Janosipuszta. She also said that she was very happy there, which was very nice to hear.
When the Soviets left, the orphanage closed and Janosipuszta was left to fall apart. People came and stole everything – even stripping it of its copper wiring.
It was important for me to see Janosipuszta. I felt I could imagine Richárd’s life – all their lives. They tried to keep the family together, even when they had trouble getting along. Even when Richárd couldn’t talk to his only brother, Robert. They kept trying to physically be with one another. It’s what most families do – we come together to talk, argue, eat. Under one roof.
Your family—the Viennese family—were in the lumber business. They had sawmills and a parquet flooring factory. Here’s what I like about that: it’s your foundation you are seeking answers to, and also, wood sustains. It’s a platform, a stage. Did you make that connection as you were writing?
Yes, and thank you for bringing up the wood and the lumber business!
A key moment in the book came for me in real life when I introduced my mother to her cousin, Anna Stein in Paris. They had never met, but they had a similar memory: the smell of freshly cut wood. They also recalled jumping up and down on wood planks at the factory. Anna in Pécs as they were loading the family lumber on the trains to Vienna; and my mother in Vienna as they were unloading the lumber.
The family’s floor business was parquet flooring. The lumber they recalled jumping on was cut into pieces. If you look at parquet floors, they’re essentially puzzle pieces laid down and fitted together into a design. Seeing my mother and Anna meeting, I felt as though I were witnessing puzzle pieces fitting to make a whole.
Regarding home, I see that you also have Chicago roots, in addition to the South. Ah! Same here. You say you want to be buried in Mississippi, that it’s ‘home.’ I thought about that—my own mortality—and I don’t know where I want to be buried. I don’t. I am not ready to think about that. Do you think WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED sort of invites us to consider where we lay down roots and where, ultimately, we want to lie down?
I think any story that’s about loss, memory, and family will invite you to consider your own roots, and your own mortality. I couldn’t help but think about it. Of course, I worried that I thought about it too much and that I was forcing our son, James to consider all this…at 15! But I don’t want him to be afraid of my death or of any death. Death is a part of life. And to know where you will be buried, or as you gently put it, “where we want to lie down,” is a comfort. I want to know. I like a plan. Then I can go on about the living.
Margaret, thank you for taking the time—it’s been most illuminating. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Leslie, you have asked such incisive questions here and you’ve given me ideas for future projects! Thank you for being such a wonderful reader.
For more information, to connect with Margaret via social media, or to purchase a copy of WHERE THE ANGELS LIVED, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Margaret McMullan is the author of eight award-winning books including the novel, In My Mother’s House, the story collection Aftermath Lounge, and the anthology, Every Father’s Daughter, a collection of essays about fathers by great women writers such as Alice Munro, Ann Hood, and Jane Smiley. Margaret’s young adult novels How I Found the Strong, When I Crossed No-Bob, and Sources of Light have received best book awards from Parents’ Choice, School Library Journal, the American Library Association, and Booklist among many other educational organizations.
Margaret’s essays have appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The
Boston Herald, Glamour, The Millions, The Morning Consult, Teachers & Writers Magazine, The Montréal Review, National Geographic for Kids, Southern Accents, Mississippi Magazine, and other periodicals. Her short stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Deep South Magazine, StorySouth, TriQuartly, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, Other Voices, Boulevard, The Arkansas Review, Southern California Anthology, and The Sun among countless other journals and anthologies. A recipient of a NEA Fellowship in literature and a Fulbright at the University of Pécs in Pécs, Hungary, Margaret has served as a faculty mentor at the Stony Brook Southampton Low-res MFA Program in New York where she also taught on the summer faculty. She was the Melvin Peterson Endowed Chair in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Evansville, where she taught for 25 years. She writes full time now in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Check out her website http://www.margaretmcmullan.com.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
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- Email: email@example.com
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[Cover and author image courtesy of M. McMullan and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this.]