Too fantastic to be true — this was how Tom Weidlinger viewed the stories his father told about his life. After his father died, in 1999, he received a box of documents and discovered that while his father may have embellished some of his stories, they were all basically true. However, the most amazing story may have been the one his father never told: the fact that his family was Jewish.
Paul Weidlinger (1914 – 1999) was born in Budapest to a middle-class, assimilated Jewish family. He went on to become a renowned structural engineer who apprenticed to László Moholy-Nagy in London and to Le Corbusier in Paris, and worked with architectural greats including Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, and modernist architect Marcel Breuer in the United States. Like Weidlinger, Moholy-Nagy and Breuer were Hungarian-born Jews.
Weidlinger came to the United States in 1943 by way of Germany, Zurich (where he met Madeleine, the woman who would become his wife and Tom’s mother), London, Paris, and Brazil. Meanwhile, his family remained in Hungary until, finally, it was too late for them to leave. Although he was financially successful in Brazil, it is not clear how much help, if any, Paul gave his family in Europe.
With European anti-Semitism, Nazism, World War II, and his own communist affiliation as a young man, it is understandable that Weidlinger did not disclose his Jewish background as he moved from country to country. But that lack of openness continued when he settled in the United States, and went so far as outright denial when asked by his son if he was Jewish.
The issue came to light in 1984, when father and son travelled to Budapest, the son seeking to bridge the gap that had come between them, the father eager to share his memories of his native city, the two meeting with family members who still lived in Hungary.
One day, a cousin took Tom to visit the Dohány Street synagogue. Tom wondered why and asked him if he was Jewish. The cousin replied, “Of course I am, and so are you.” Tom was incredulous, but also angry that his father had never related this part of the family’s story.
Several months later, Tom asked him about it. His father answered “with feigned nonchalance, saying that no, we were not Jewish. He had heard that his family was descended from Seventh Day Adventists … I knew this was a lie, but I didn’t press him.… We never spoke of it again.” This notwithstanding that Tom interviewed his father in 1996, asking about his earliest memories.
It would be thirty years before Tom would unravel the full story. And while The Restless Hungarian is the father’s story, the son is part of it. He writes of getting to know members of his Hungarian family and how initially, he felt disconnected from their lives. They were all of interest, but in an objective kind of way. The impact didn’t come until he began writing them into his father’s story. Then, unexpectedly, he says, they became real to him. They were his family, and part of his father’s past. He couldn’t understand his father without them.
Unfortunately, beyond his initial incredulity and anger, he says little about what the revelation of his Jewish background has meant, and how, if in any way, it has changed his own life. He conjectures why his father didn’t reveal that he was Jewish, but doesn’t explore his own decades-long avoidance of the subject beyond that single episode.
In a measured tone that is at the same time compassionate and dramatic, Tom Weidlinger has reconstructed the life of the complex man who was his father, who succeeded against all odds in his career, but had much less success in his family life. The ghosts of his past continued to haunt him, and personal tragedies visited him in America as well.
In uncovering the secrets his father kept buried, Tom Weidlinger has found the understanding he sought and given readers a portrait of a remarkable man.