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An Email From a Stranger Sent Me on a Quest for Family and Self

The email came from a stranger. “Dear Mr. Temple,” it said. “My name is Andrea Paiss, and I live in Budapest, Hungary. I do not know whether I write to the right person. I just hope so.”

It reached me in San Francisco on January 1, 2020, and told of a “Granny,” then 92, who wanted to know what had happened to her cousin Lorant Stein. Andrea had found a document online about Lorant in the Central Database of Shoah Victims at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It had been submitted by someone named John Temple. Could I be that same John Temple, she asked, the one who had filled out the form by hand 20 years earlier? “I would be happy if you could tell me how you [are] related to Lorant, as we have no information about relatives in America.”

At first my wife, Judith, and I were mistrustful. Could this be an attempt to get money, a scam of some kind? I had filled out the form, but I had no information about relatives still living in Hungary. The last, I thought, had been two sisters of my grandfather who died years ago.

When I was a boy, my family was small: my parents, my mother’s parents, and my older brother. That was it. My father’s mother lived alone in Vienna, and died when I was 10. His father had died in 1945. Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the 1950s and ’60s, we were different from my friends’ families. Unlike their parents, mine were immigrants, from Austria and Hungary, who spoke English with heavy accents. They also spoke Hungarian and German. They ate chicken paprikash and goulash, not hamburgers and hot dogs. All the same, they wanted us to fit in, starting with the vanilla names they gave us: Chris and John.

We were to be of the New World, not the Old.

Before receiving the email, I couldn’t recall ever meeting anyone other than my parents and grandparents who had known my uncle, Lorant, my mother’s brother.

Andi, as Andrea calls herself, told me that her Granny, Magda Gardonyi, remembered Lorant fondly. She still recalled vividly the last day they had arranged to meet. It was December 6, 1944, during the worst period of World War II in Budapest for Jews. Lorant never showed up. After that, she said, she never heard from him again. Now, more than 75 years later, she had asked Andi to try to find out what had happened to him. Magda didn’t know that Lorant had been arrested by the Germans two days later. That, along with almost 2,000 other Jewish men, he had been transported from Budapest to Buchenwald, the concentration camp in Germany where, on December 25, 1944, he became Prisoner No. 32317.

When I filed the form at Yad Vashem, I didn’t know those facts either. My parents always told me they had tried everything to learn his fate, to no avail. But the internet has made many records more easily discoverable, and as a journalist, when I had some time on my hands I would occasionally search for him. In 2013, a year before my mother died, I discovered his fate.  

In our first video call, Magda’s long face and deep smile seemed familiar to me. I told myself she looked like family. She had shelves stacked with books behind her, just as I did. She told me things I had never heard about Lorant. She recalled how he would visit her family with my grandfather every year after his bar mitzvah, during the High Holidays. High Holidays? I didn’t know they had been part of the rhythm of my family’s prewar life. Bar mitzvah? I didn’t know that Lorant had even had one.

Read entire article at The Atlantic