Ottawa author Agnes Bright of Szigetvar, Hungary publishes third book
Agnes Nemeth Bright, who was born in the quiet backwater community of Szigetvar, Hungary, recently released her third book, The House of the Yellow Star.
Published by Baico Publishing of Ottawa, the book is a fictionalized version of the haunting years of the Second World War, the fate of the mixed-marriage family members, and their Jewish relatives and friends. It is based on Bright’s personal story but written through the eyes of a teenager, not the child she was at the time.
Bright, now a resident of West Carleton Township, recalls Szigetvar as a place where "everybody knew everybody, and where I was safe no matter in which street I ended up on. These were my happy years as the only child, niece, and grandchild, the centre of a large, extended family.’’
As a rule, she recalls, children accepted their circumstances without question. "I, for instance, never wondered why my grandmother went to a Roman Catholic church, my grandfather attended the services at a synagogue, and my relatives came to our home to celebrate a very Protestant Christmas. Before the Second World War in Hungary – like in the other parts of Europe - intermarriages were not unusual.’’
Things changed during the war that brought to Hungary the so-called Jewish Laws, invented in Hitler’s Germany. The laws declared that religion was unimportant in who was who; what counted was race. In effect, similarly to how the descendants of slaves had been classified in America, people became 1/8th, 1/4th, ½, etc. Jewish. Our world morphed into a strange, dangerous entity, recalls Bright, who at this point belonged to one of the Jewish categories, despite her Protestant religion.
The House of the Yellow Star recounts how in 1943, Hungary’s government was eager to emulate its German master, putting into effect the Jewish Laws. The civil rights and dignity of those who are classified as Jews, were gradually taken away. As the situation worsened, desperate Jews used what might be called reverse identity politics, to try to survive by conversion or with the help of forged documents.
In her book, the Lovass family – Anton, Emma, and Lilian - is still able to live a quiet life, thanks to the father’s documented Christian ancestry. Teenager Lili’s concerns remain doing well in school and seeing her friends on weekends - especially her secret heartthrob, Gabor Rosenthal.
A few dangerous situations aside, it means very little that she was officially declared to be Jewish after being Protestant all her life.
In the summer of 1944, most of Hungary’s Jews are locked into ghettos, and then deported to the deadly concentration camps. Gabor is among them. But, thanks mainly to the Churches’ fight on their behalf, some of the baptized, the children of mixed parentage, and the Jewish spouses of Gentiles escape this fate. They are forced into guarded dwellings, however, each marked with the six-pointed Star of David, commonly called the Yellow Star. It is in one of these houses that Emma and her daughter, in mortal danger to the very end, wait for liberation and perhaps the return of their loved ones.
During the war, as the Jews of Europe are dying in concentration camps, Emma and Lilian Lovass escape the worst fate in Hungary because of the documented Christian ancestry of Anton Lovass, Emma’s husband and Lili’s father.
In real life after the war – Christian once more – Bright was accepted eventually by the Lowey Klara Leanygimnazium [Girls’ high school] that managed to keep up the standards even after the nuns had been long gone.
"But I was not so lucky when it came to entering a university: during Communist rule my father became an “enemy of the people” due to his senior position before the war. However, it was taken into consideration that I was a girl who wanted to go to the Budapesti Muegyetem [now: Budapest University of Technology and Economics]. Not many did.’’
History caught up with Bright again with the 1956 uprising.
"At first I thought that the students of the Muegyetem were crazy to tear up the cobblestones and build barricades, but in the end volunteered to become a messenger between two fighting groups. It was typical of the ‘tone’ of this uprising that they accepted me without investigation.’’
Bright escaped from Hungary on December 9, 1956 and arrived in Montreal with a student group after almost six months of refugee life in Austria. But having only “school French” and no English, she had a hard time fitting into Canadian society. Only after many menial jobs and several university courses, did the Engineering Institute grant her a degree. She was among the first Canadian “lady engineers”.
Although the combination of the name “Agnes” and the title “engineer” identified her as a European newcomer on job applications, she did land a good job at CAE Electronics. Engineers who were familiar with computers were relatively rare.
The FLQ crisis sent Bright and her husband to Ottawa where they both accepted federal public service jobs. "It was strange to be a computer programmer after my demanding job in Montreal, but it was better than trying to find an engineering position in 1970s Ottawa.’’
After her husband died young in a car accident, she started writing as an antidote to sorrow and loneliness. Some of her poems and short stories found their way into print and she won some awards. Her first book, The Beginner’s Book of Grieving is about the grieving process and the new tasks one has to learn after the death of a spouse. It was published in 2001.
Her second book consists of the 10 fairytales she wrote during the first years of widowhood, also as an escape from reality. She reworked them as a chain of connected stories, the adventures of The White Witch of Glend’or.
The House of the Yellow Star came out in the spring of 2009 and is aimed at young people who know little about history. The second, updated edition of The Beginner’s Book of Grieving is to be released by Christmas.
Bright attended classes at Carleton University and two years ago obtained a BA with highest honours.
The House of the Yellow Star is available at Baico Books, 294 Albert St., Ottawa, (613) 829-5141 and on the Baico Web site: www.baico.ca, at the Chapters Kanata Centrum outlet, and through the author at: (613) 831-2527 or firstname.lastname@example.org