real life

Angela knew her dad was a monster. She didn't know he was behind thousands of deaths.

Angela Hamilton’s earliest memory of her father, Pal Rozsy, is of flying fists. She can see him, bent over in a doorway of their home, beating their mother. She and her sister, aged around seven and eight, pummel his broad, powerful back in their attempt to save her.

Many of Angela’s childhood memories are like this, steeped in the trauma of his abuse.

“He’d have no problem caning us or hitting us or kicking us in the backside,” Angela told Mamamia‘s No Filter podcast. “And punishing us in a form of power, where you’d kneel in the corner for two hours and then write 500 lines, like ‘I must remember to open the gate.'”

They weren’t the only target of Pal’s fury.

Listen to the incredible story of how Angela learned the truth about her father. (Post continues below.)

“You couldn’t turn a page in a newspaper or walk past a Jewish person in the street without my father cursing,” Angela said. “If we were watching TV and a Jewish person came on the screen, he would catapult out of his chair and shake his fist in violent anger.”

Pal’s antisemitism was deep, “rabid”. But Angela and her siblings dared not ask where it came from. She knew that her father lived in Europe during WWII, was imprisoned at some point, and had then travelled to Australia as a Hungarian refugee. Beyond that, very little was clear about his past.

There were odd clues. In their home, a framed black-and-white photograph showed him standing in front of Messerschmitt fighter plane, the kind used by the Nazi Luftwaffe. On the back, it was dated 1941 – the year Hungary became an ally of Nazi Germany. The picture was displayed openly, almost defiantly.

“That was, in a way, a metaphor for [his attitude of] ‘I can do and say and what I want to. But don’t you ask me questions,'” Angela said.

It’s only now, after Pal’s death at age 89, that she’s been able to do just that via the SBS documentary program, Every Family Has a Secret. And the answers revealed him to be more monstrous than she ever knew.

Angela's father, Pal Rozsy. Image: SBS.

Armed with the discovery of her father's wartime I.D. documents, Angela went to Romania to enlist the help of experts in Jewish history to unravel his story. There, she learned that Pal was a Hungarian nationalist, and that he was imprisoned and tortured for treason by the Romanians in 1939. His release a year later came amidst Hungary's reclamation of former territory from Romania, which it won with Germany's help.

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This is what Pal and his fellow nationalist had been fighting for, and he returned from prison a hero and a martyr. He was rewarded with a high-ranking position as a magistrate in the Romanian town of Borșa.

It was while serving in this role that he became a war criminal.

Antisemitism had swelled in Hungary, and Jews were being rounded up and killed in their thousands. Borșa wasn't near a railway line, so instead of being transported to concentration camps, the region's Jewish men, women and children were marched in groups of 30-40 into the mountains and left to perish in deep snow. Most starved to death, some were attacked by wild animals.

Pal was involved in overseeing that process, which he did for three years.

"Originally in Borșa, there were 2000 Jewish people," Angela said. "By the time he left, his work had been done in 1944, there were no Jews left."

Video via SBS

This made another revelation about Pal all the more bizarre. Prior to the horrors he supervised in Borșa, he was married to a Jewish woman named Rozsi. She died in 1943. Her cause of death is listed as "a weak heart", but Angela suspects it was likely more sinister, perhaps "engineered" so her father could hold his position.

After the war ended, Pal was convicted, in absentia, of a war crime and was hunted by Hungarian and Romanian authorities. He fled as far as possible. A made-up backstory and false declaration on a refugee application saw him granted safe-haven in Australia.

For Angela, learning this story, the truth of the despot who terrorised her childhood, brought a complicated tangle of emotions. Liberation, knowing a monster's secret hadn't died with him. Sadness for her mother, her siblings and herself. Even sadness for her own children, who felt the frailties and insecurities her father had left her with.

But there was something more unexpected, harder to shake.

"Maybe in my deepest innermost self, I sought to find something that related to the man I knew he was," Angela said.

"But in fact, to learn it in the circumstances that I learned, it was crushing and I felt overcome with shame, which I so defiantly wanted to kick back and kick away. I really felt it, and I had to - and did - work on rationalising that this was not my shame, it was part of his shame.

"If I can convert that shame to tribute and honouring Jews and honouring Rozsi, who would be long-forgotten, that's what I'll do with it. They're not forgotten. All those Jews who perished in that cruellest and awful ways, they're not forgotten."

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