My paternal grandfather, Pali Visontay, had three wives but the family only spoke about two of them. The first, Sara, was blessed with an easy charm, a sharp wit, and a hearty appetite. She was murdered in Auschwitz in the prime of her life. Sara’s tragic experience is a cornerstone of our family history and her memory is revered. Her name has been memorialized on a plaque at our family synagogue in Sydney, archived by the Sydney Jewish Museum, and imprinted on the grandchildren. A sepia-toned photo from my grandparents’ wedding stood proudly in our hallway while I was growing up.
Pali’s third wife, Roszi, entered his life a decade later, when she walked into the delicatessen he owned in Kings Cross, Sydney’s bohemian neighborhood, just a few years after he had arrived in Australia from Hungary. Unlike Sara, Roszi had little time for food and cooking, which made her a poor fit for a delicatessen owner. She was “artistic”—a fashion designer who loved clothes, oversized sunglasses, and dressed like a proto-version of the New York pocket dynamo Iris Apfel. Roszi created an émigré salon of Impressionist imitators in her sunroom, and later turned her hand to writing a saucy memoir. The walls of their house were full of Cezanne copies; the conflict in their marriage was original. Though she is long dead, the legend of her colorful life gives us plenty to laugh about at family get-togethers.
In between Sara and Roszi came Olga, who was all but invisible. We never saw a photo of her or learned how she and Pali met, what she was like, or how she died. Unlike Sara, whose name lives on, and Roszi, who was buried alongside the rest of our family, Olga was farewelled with an isolated grave in a separate cemetery on the other side of the city.
I first saw it five years ago. I’m 62 years old; that’s how long it’s taken me to start interrogating her absence. When I set eyes on the grave, the plot speckled with weeds and conspicuously neglected, it took some time to accept that she was a member of my family. The surname was the same but the overall inscription was almost absent of intimacy. The headstone, its weathered typeface hard to read, carries a brief “vale”—In loving memory of my dear wife, Olga Visontay—followed by the date of her death. That’s it. No birth date, no mention of my grandfather Pali or his only child, my father, Ivan. Neither of them wanted to claim her.
After Pali passed away, it was as if my father spent his life willing Olga out of existence. Only my mother, Eva, when pressed, would mention her in the vaguest terms: She’d come to Australia with Pali from Hungary, died soon after they arrived, and there was some murky problem arising from her will.
My parents are both gone now: my father 10 years ago; my mother less than two. Now it’s just my brother and me, their two sons. COVID has given me time to sift through documents that had been sitting in strongboxes and files, waiting to be explored. My father was sentimental and kept meticulous records of their life together. Some papers were yellowed and thin, others were stiff like parchment. They included the only existing letter written by his mother and father together (“Istvan, thank God, is a giant of a young man, he will turn 12 this November. My son loves his stomach just as before. At Passover he polished off ten large matzo balls with ease,” Pali wrote), a psychologist’s assessment of Ivan’s postwar mental health (“an intelligent, technically-leaning, imaginative, ambitious, well-meaning but depressed youth”), the bill for the Rolls Royce Ivan hired for his wedding, the receipts from the motel in Surfers Paradise where my parents stayed on their honeymoon, and even an inventory of the furniture made for them by my mother’s uncle, a prominent cabinetmaker. An extraordinary trove of family memories.
In among the shoeboxes and folders, I found details here and there of Olga—a marriage certificate, travel documents, passport photos, rental addresses from when she, my grandfather, and father arrived in Sydney. Tidbits, nothing to shed light on her personality. In the few snaps I found of her with Pali on the ship that brought them here, there was not even the hint of a smile. Her face had the stern, granite look typical of postwar documents. Life did not seem to have been kind to her.
In the course of my search, I spied an envelope with a bunch of thick papers. Inside was a court order, typed on starchy yellowed paper, that seemed to be a request for money from my grandfather. The penny dropped. It appeared that Olga had relatives in New York who had succeeded in taking back some portion of her estate. I searched their names online and discovered that Olga had received a substantial inheritance from an uncle, a prominent antiquarian bookseller in New York named Gabriel Wells, who left a will so complex that legal commentary on it popped up on Google when I entered his name.
Wells was a figure of some stature, who earned an obituary in The New York Times. It described him as “an international figure in the field of rare books and manuscripts,” who mastered eight languages in his youth but arrived in Boston from Hungary, age 30, unable to speak a word of English. From this inauspicious beginning, he forged a celebrated reputation as a bookseller in New York, highlighted by the purchase and sale of a Gutenberg Bible, as well as a jeweled edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Wells’ nephews and fellow beneficiaries contested Olga’s will. One of them, Francis (“Frank”) Dobo—a close friend of the Hungarian arthouse photographers Brassai and Andre Kertesz, as well as of novelists, Henry Miller, Celine, and Raymond Queneau—also received an obituary in The New York Times, which anointed him as “the epitome of a 20th century intellectual.”
From having no background at all, Olga was now endowed with a large, fascinating family. My interest piqued, I tracked down Frank Dobo’s son, who, it turned out, inherited his father’s photography bug. Michael Dobo achieved celebrity as a rock ’n’ roll photographer in the 1960s-’70s, worked as Annie Leibovitz’s assistant at Rolling Stone, had photos published in Time, Life, and The New York Times, and shot iconic images of Frank Zappa, Bob Marley, and other music icons. I left a rambling voicemail for him at his home in Connecticut and, to my surprise, he emailed me the next day.
Now the story moved to a different level. Michael told me to email a Hungarian historian named György Nemeth, who lived in Manchester, England, and had been in contact with him. György was researching a group of 20th-century Hungarian photographers for a Hungarian photographic institute, Andre Kertesz and Brassai among them. Michael had inherited their correspondence with his father and György was hoping to get access to the letters.
A few emails and a torrent of documents later, György was my new best friend. Marooned in Manchester by the pandemic, and with vast Jewish Hungarian databases on his hard drive, he cheerfully pieced together Olga’s family and background for me.
She was born in Vac, provincial Hungary, in 1900, the younger of two sisters. Their father, Antal Illofszky, was a timber merchant who died when Olga was just 13 years old. The family moved to Gyöngyös (my father’s hometown an hour’s drive from Budapest), and she married Karoly Weisz, a wine merchant there, in 1925. The couple had no children. Olga’s mother, Regina (nee Weiss), died in 1929, and in 1944, her husband was deported to Auschwitz; he did not return.
As I cross-checked György’s documents, an extraordinary coincidence emerged. The records stated that Olga’s husband, Karoly, and Pali’s wife, Sara, had died on the same day in Auschwitz. Could that be true? I emailed György, who shot back a historian’s answer. “The Jewish population from Gyöngyös was rounded up [in May] and put in a town 40 km away. The transport left for Auschwitz on June 12 and arrived there on June 14. Around 2,000 people were collected from the town; that’s probably one transport,” he wrote. “Olga’s husband and your grandmother were on the same train.”
I was flabbergasted. And there was more. Olga’s elder sister Margit also died in a concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, which meant Olga was the sole member of her immediate family to survive the war. The big picture was that her uncle, Gabriel Wells, the antiquarian bookseller, made a fortune in New York while his five siblings struggled back in war-torn Europe. Wells had no children, and when he died in 1946, he left the estate to his siblings, most of whom had perished in the camps, or to their offspring. Olga’s sister was first in line for the inheritance but since she passed away before Wells did, it went to Olga.
Why does any of this matter? Well, money matters a lot when you’re rebuilding your life in a new country. When Pali met Olga, little did he know she would soon become a wealthy woman. When the family sailed from Genoa to Australia in 1952, they did not arrive as impoverished refugees, as many Jews did. Olga’s inheritance, which she had received the year before they landed in Sydney, enabled Pali and Ivan to start the delicatessen at Kings Cross, which they called the Minerva (after the popular theater around the corner), reviving the family business they had run in Gyöngyös.
Although their decision to buy the shop seems obvious in hindsight, it was not the original plan. When I was a young boy, my father told me the family intended to migrate to America after the war, not Australia. He had been accepted into Rutgers University to study electrical engineering, thanks to a family connection. I never thought to ask him for more details. Our life was in Sydney, which was all that mattered. It now seems clear that the “family connection” was Olga, and this contained a cruel irony.
Ivan, who was 22 at the time, was given a U.S. visa but Pali and Olga were not. That put America out of the question. Ivan sacrificed the university offer in order to stay with Pali and they looked around for another country, also far from Europe, that would accept them. After hearing other people mention Australia, they made inquiries and received landing permits without any trouble. Within a year, father and son were standing behind the counter again, wearing white aprons.
Olga’s inheritance was $21,000, which seems modest by today’s standards. But it was more than enough to bankroll the purchase of the delicatessen business (and three times what my father paid for his first house a few years later). Ivan would become, like many postwar migrants, a workaholic in an effort to rebuild his life. He put in long hours, barely took a holiday, and was rewarded with a thriving business. In the 1970s, the shop even received a visit from Colonel Sanders, who was impressed by the “Mothers Own” chicken Ivan marketed to compete with the Colonel’s famous Kentucky Fried Chicken, with its 11 herbs and spices. Ivan later installed a commercial fridge in our family garage and drove the cheese and smallgoods home each day to put them in cold storage. Throughout my childhood, the family car reeked of gorgonzola.
Olga, the stepmother he refused to publicly discuss, thus emerged as the financial rock on which he rebuilt his life. Sadly for her, she never got to enjoy the fruits of her inheritance. Just as things were looking up for the family, Olga died suddenly from a stroke, a mere 18 months after they had arrived in Australia. According to the Australian probate, Olga did not have a will, allowing Frank Dobo and his cousin to contest her estate. They claimed Olga’s aunt (Frank’s mother) had “advanced her money” after the war, and demanded that Pali and Ivan repay a portion of her estate, $4,000, in compensation. (I can never prove it but my guess is the “money advanced” was to help Olga with the Rutgers application for Ivan.)
The unexpected financial hole compounded the debt they had from starting the business, creating a huge burden for them. Pali and Ivan had to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, for five years to get back on their feet. “Five years later, we were back to square one. We lost five years,” Ivan said, in an interview as part of a survivors’ history project with the Sydney Jewish Museum, adding that the financial burden even delayed his marriage to my mother.
While those five years of hardship scarred their memory, they were not the only reason for Ivan’s hostility toward his stepmother. The lack of a will was surely an oversight: Olga would not have expected to die so young, at age 52, nor so soon after arriving. I always believed the underlying cause was much harder for him to acknowledge.
Even now, this is not easy to write. During the war, Pali was deported to Mauthausen concentration camp before Sara and Ivan—who was then 14 years old—were sent to Auschwitz. Pali came home first, and while trying to get news of their whereabouts, started working in the delicatessen, which was intact and had not been confiscated. Ivan returned home, alone, two months later, in 1945. Pali did not have the stomach to ask Ivan what happened to Sara, and Ivan could not bring himself to broach it with him. It was two days before Pali finally mustered the courage. Ivan told him, and then did not speak of it again for nearly 40 years, until the interview with the Jewish Museum, whose distance from the family made it easier for him to open up about such painful memories.
Sara and Ivan were met at the gates by Dr. Josef Mengele, who sent mother and son in opposite directions. Ivan was deloused, tattooed, and sent to work at the crematoria, sorting the clothes and valuables of the dead. Three days later, he saw his mother’s corpse lying on the top of a pile of bodies outside the ovens. It was an experience so devastating that he was unable to talk about it for many years, instead saying in general terms that after the “selection,” he never saw his mother again. The scene is seared in our family’s collective memory; it is hard to imagine how a 14-year-old boy would deal with such an experience.
The psychological report I found in my father’s papers, written by a psychologist after he finished high school in 1948, described him as follows: “He is a tall, well built, strong boy. An only child. He has no friends and he often feels this lack. He is strongly marked by the deportation to Auschwitz. He is strongly dejected by the death of his mother who died during the deportation. He complains that he encounters malice everywhere even now, so he trusts nobody. This distrust manifests itself in his being very cautious in his statements, deliberating what he says. He misses his mother a lot to whom, it appears, he was strongly attached.”
Pali’s marriage to Olga, in 1946, barely a year after Sara’s death, must have felt like an act of unspeakable betrayal to my father, after what he had gone through, and I suspect that it was much easier for him to blame Olga for reinforcing the loss of his real mother than to blame his own father for their overly hasty marriage. After losing his mother in Auschwitz, Ivan felt a singular bond with his widowed father, united as they were in a private grief. Olga’s presence drove a wedge through their intimacy. Ivan felt so alienated that when the family later decided to leave Hungary after the communists took over, he went over the border to Austria ahead of them, escaping through the mountains to settle in Vienna and form his own jazz band, which had the memorable name of Jose Dymont. Although Pali and Olga followed six months later, he had been prepared to risk not seeing his father again.
It was not until later in life, when Ivan recorded his survivor’s testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, in 1995, that he spoke publicly about Olga. “We did not own any property before the war. The house where we used to live was hit by a bomb,” he said. “We had to find accommodation; there was a Jewish woman whose husband had died during the Holocaust but she survived by hiding somewhere. And she had a house. My father and I rented a room there. About a year later, my father told me that life was rather lonely for him and he supposed that I would understand he was going to marry this lady, which he did.”
That was all he said. He never mentioned her by name. The absence of any further reference to the marriage rang loud in my ears.
György, with his historian’s grasp of small-town life, had a slightly different take. “I’m 100% sure that the relationship between Olga and Pali did not just start out of the blue after the war,” he told me. “They were both survivors from the same town. Gyöngyös was a small town with a small Jewish community. Her husband was a wine merchant; your grandfather ran a delicatessen. They would have been bound to have met or know of each other.” In other words, their marriage was most likely a pragmatic decision by two people eager to rebuild their lives. Ivan, consumed by his own sadness, could not comprehend the commonsense logic of their decision. Both Pali and Olga were grieving their lost spouses. Pali wanted to recreate a family unit for his young son and Olga did not want to be alone.
György had one more surprise in store. After a few months of silence, he messaged me, this time with a request of his own. Through his research into Kertesz and Brassai, he was put in touch with a Hungarian woman who had a second cousin living in Sydney, and as a favor for the help she had given him in his research, wondered if I might find him.
As it happened, the man lived quite close to me and was easy to track down. I explained György’s request, he confirmed that he was indeed related to the woman and undertook to send a reply, and then told me he knew my father from the old days. “We came out on the same ship together, from Genoa,” he said gently.
I could not believe it. After all these years, a living connection to Ivan’s youth. He could hear the excitement in my voice as we arranged to meet at his house. Although by now in his mid-80s, he still exuded a warm urbanity. I felt instantly comfortable with him, perhaps because he reminded me of so many family friends from my childhood.
I had brought my father’s photo album of his journey from Genoa, hoping he could shed light on some of the other passengers. As he leafed through the album, his face suddenly lit up. “That’s me, and my father,” he beamed, pointing to a couple of photos showing him as a teen with his father, together with Pali and Ivan. What about Olga? I asked.
Yes, he remembered Pali had a wife; his brow furrowed as he squinted to point her out in another photo on the page. “Olga was small, not beautiful or friendly; and it was very clear by Ivan’s behavior that Olga was not his mother,” he began. “Your father and grandfather seemed like a team and she seemed apart. She did not have what I would call a strong personality. Nor strong opinions. She spoke little, kept her thoughts to herself. I assumed she had no [other] children, which would explain her withdrawn personality.”
Clearly, Olga was never the life of the party. Still, after her death, Pali missed female companionship. Six months later, Roszi walked into the delicatessen, having been told of a possible connection to the Hungarian man who ran it. Roszi told the man behind the counter she had heard the owner was one of seven Weiszmann brothers born into a prominent merchant family who lived near her hometown in Hungary. Pali confirmed he was one of the brothers, and shared the tragic news that most of his siblings had perished in the camps.
Here I quote from her memoir:
“And Pali? What became of Pali?”
“Why, I am Pali,” he replied.
Roszi’s face brightened. “Good God! What a change there has been in the handsome young man I used to know.”
“Who are you to say this? You’re no beauty yourself!”
“Maybe you don’t remember me, but I still remember the agile, handsome 20-year-old boy who I knew well a long, long time ago when I was a young girl.”
Pali suddenly hit his head with his hand. “Oh! I don’t remember you at all but I do remember your daring bathing costume!”
From this inauspicious beginning, a romance was reborn. During their courtship, as Roszi learned more about Pali’s life, she realized that for nearly two years they had been living on the same apartment block in the beachside suburb of Bondi—in those days a mecca for Eastern European refugees—without ever meeting each other. The landlord had told Roszi about the other Hungarian tenant but because Pali had changed his name from Weiszmann to Visontay (after the war many Hungarian Jews changed their Jewish-sounding surnames to Hungarian ones), she thought it was just some other Hungarian Jewish immigrant—not her Pali.
Within a year of Olga’s death, Roszi became Pali’s third wife. Where Olga was quiet and withdrawn, Roszi was willful and headstrong. The example that sticks in my mind occurred many years later, when my brother had his bar mitzvah, a joyous occasion reflected in the photos taken at the reception. My parents proudly passed them on to Pali and Roszi to inspect and choose duplicates. When the photos came back, Roszi had cut herself out of every shot she appeared in because she didn’t like the way she looked, then stuck them back together with sticky tape. My mother was beside herself.
Roszi didn’t bat an eyelid. She ended up conceding that Pali was right about her looks, if not her personality. She also delivered an unwitting symmetry to his three wives: The first was ripped out of the family, the second was willed out, and the third literally tried to cut herself out but failed.
The erasure of Olga’s life, and my retrieval of it, raises, for me, one final question: Why did I feel compelled to go on such a quest? Why turn a historical family footnote into a front-page story? While my mother was still alive, I had access to my father’s life and memory through her. I could have asked her about Olga or any subject whenever I wanted. With her death two years ago, my father’s life, which lived on through her, was finally out of reach. I started mourning the loss of him all over again. Seeing that court order in the shoebox was an invitation to somehow bring him to life again, to immerse myself in his story and revisit that period when I was a young boy, surrounded by grandparents and the echo of war-torn Europe.
As I waded through the past, Olga moved out of the shadows and became a real person, one who dealt with personal loss—the agent of her own life who helped my father and grandfather rebuild theirs. I got to know her a little and our family history is richer for it. My father would have winced and squirmed at what I have written. It’s the conversation we never had. The loss will always be mine.
Michael Visontay, a journalist and author who lives in Sydney, is editor of Plus61JMedia.