George Szego

Title: Two Prayers to one God
Author: George Szego
Publisher: Hardi Grant Books
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 2001
Location of Book: Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus
Cities/town/camps: Hungary: Mezobereny, Budapest, Gyula, Esztergom, BekescsabaPoland: AuschwitzGermany: Muhldorf-Mettenheim
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

George Szego’s 358 page autobiography tells the story of his life, from his childhood in a small town in Hungary, until his later years in Australia. Originally written in Hungarian, Szego translated his own book into English. It was edited by his daughter, Julie Szego, and published professionally in 2001. The book is divided into three parts. Part One (pages 1-74) describes Szego’s childhood in Mezobereny, Hungary, until the beginning of the German occupation in March 1944. Part Two (pages 75-200) tells of the quick deterioration of Szego’s life that followed occupation: the ghetto, deportation to Auschwitz, and then life in Muhldorf-Mettenheim concentration camp until liberation in May 1945. Finally, Part Three (pages 201-358) tells of Szego’s life after the war, in Hungary, Israel, and then Australia. The book contains a collection of photos on its middle pages.

George Szego was born in 1928, in the small Hungarian town of Mezobereny. His family was highly assimilated – as well as having changed their name from Spitzer to the more Hungarian-sounding Szego, George’s parents both also converted to Catholicism, and were married in a church. Though he was brought up Catholic, Szego’s childhood did include some Jewish rituals such as attending synagogue on the high holydays and his mother lighting candles on Friday nights. In 1938, Szego commenced study at a Catholic high school in Budapest. There he encountered anti-Semitism for the first time, from teachers as well as some students. In Autumn 1942, during a bombing raid on Budapest, Szego’s parents took him out of school to the safety of his hometown. The principal did not permit him to return to school. He should consider himself lucky, said the principal, that despite his ‘racial origins’ he had been permitted to study at the school as long as he had. Szego continued his studies at other Catholic schools in Gyula and then Esztergom.

In March 1944, the German occupation of Hungary began. Szego, still at school in Esztergom, was given papers by one of his teachers, Father Pelbart, ‘certifying’ that he was not Jewish, after rejecting an offer by the same teacher to hide in the school. At that stage, the young Szego did not yet realise the implications of the German occupation for Jews. In April, new restrictions were introduced for Jews in Mezobereny, and in May, they were forced into the newly established ‘ghetto’ – a textile factory and a brick factory, into which 153 Jews were moved. Szego and others were on friendly terms with the ghetto’s guards, who were mostly local people whom they had previously known. In June, the ghetto was evacuated and its inhabitants were taken on cattle trains to Bekescsaba, a local concentration camp, and then on to Auschwitz.

Upon arrival at Auscwitz, Szego was ‘selected’ for labour. Avoiding the gas chambers, it took him some time to realise what actually was going on around him. From Auschwitz, Szego was taken to Muhldorf-Mettenheim, a concentration camp in Germany. There, he and a group of inmates were left in a barracks for an extended period of time. People were dying all around, and every day bodies would be removed in wheelbarrows. Szego describes Christmas Eve in the camp: lying in bed, starving and surrounded by death, he prayed softly, as he heard the orthodox Jewish boy next to him doing the same; it is from that incident that the book takes its name – Two Prayers to One God. Whilst his condition worsened, Szego one day noticed a doctor on duty who had been friends with his father. Recognising him immediately, Szego introduced himself and ‘Uncle Des’ then began to bring him food regularly, thus saving his life. On May 2, 1945, Szego was liberated by American soldiers. He soon returned to Hungary, where he was reunited with his father, the only other surviving member of his immediate family. After studying medicine and spending time in the police force as a doctor, Szego moved to Israel with his wife Eva and young daughter Klara in 1957, where he specialised in psychiatry. They subsequently relocated to Australia in 1958.

“No-one really survived the Holocaust,” states Szego; “The dead ones gaze at nothing in disbelief, as do those who retain their physiological functions.” George Szego’s memoir combines details of the events of his life – tragic and happy alike – with a unique kind of reflection that stems from his background in psychiatry. Along the way, Szego analyses his own anxieties and relationships, as well as attempting to work out both what led him to certain conditions and what effect various events had on him later in life. Two Prayers to One God is eloquently written; analytical reflections and flashbacks are skilfully intertwined into the main narrative. Sophisticated and sobering, Szego’s memoir provides valuable insight into the life of a young Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust.