The Rest­less Hun­gar­i­an: Mod­ernism, Mad­ness, and The Amer­i­can Dream 

  • Review
By – May 6, 2019

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.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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