BY: MICHAEL GUTHRIE
Witness. It’s a deceptively simple word; completely humble and unassuming, it doesn’t feel as though it accurately conveys the sheer importance that the witness constitutes. Appropriately enough, I found that these qualities were perfectly reflected in Father Maurus Nemereth. Father Maurus had always been something of a pleasant mystery to me; I first met him nearly five years ago when I attended a Priory open house. During one of the science lectures I, somewhat hesitantly, answered a question correctly and induced a particularly memorable response from the Father. Clapping my shoulder he said, “You must come to the Priory.” His warm smile is what I remember most vividly from that day. When I was given the chance to interview him as a refugee, I eagerly accepted, and one beautiful Wednesday afternoon I found myself trekking to the very top of campus to the monastery, one of the few places I had not yet explored at the Priory.
I have never been particularly religious. Faith has never been something that comes easily to me, and for this reason I have always harbored some trepidations regarding the monastic community at Priory. Not wanting to offend or embarrass, I was more than a little anxious as I knocked on the Father’s office door. I needn’t have worried. Father Maurus welcomed me in, shaking my hand and drawing me into his simple, cozy office. The entire room felt homely, worn out but well loved as benefits an old monastery. He asked me to sit down, and I found myself sitting next to a well-tended fish tank, a colorful underwater menagerie whose inhabitants darted around coral and vegetation.
“I understand you wanted to ask me some questions.” His voice shocked me into action.
“Right, yes, sorry,” I stammered, fumbling with my tape recorder. “So how old were you when you were forced to leave Hungary?”
Father Maurus leaned back in his chair and looked at me, a slightly bemused expression on his face. “Michael, how old are you?”
“Seventeen,” I replied.
“I was eighteen, one year older than you are when I left.”
I felt the breath leave my lungs as I tried to grasp what he just said. He was my age, and he had to leave behind everything he had ever known.
In 1945, following the liberation of Hungary from Nazi Germany by the Red Army, Soviet military occupation ensued, as Father Maurus vividly recalled. “Hungary never wanted to be part of the war. We were forced into it; we never wanted to be part of it. I remember when the Russian army came to my village; one of the soldiers came to our bunker and swung his rifle over my soldier and said something like, ‘Oh, I have a son like you’ in Russian.”
Unfortunately Hungary, along with a majority of Eastern Europe, was awarded to the Soviet Union and, through coercion, force, and manipulation, Russia established a puppet government that, in 1947, began to severely oppress the Hungarian people. This brutal crackdown on personal liberties was complemented with complete denouncement of religious institutions, something Father Maurus himself protested.
“You are a teenager; you know that you like to do things that you aren’t supposed to do. When I was your age, the thing to do was to go to church.”
“Yes, myself and several of my classmates agreed to go to a different church every Sunday to protest the oppression.”
I was stunned. Religion has forever in my mind always been associated with the traditional establishment. I had always considered it synonymous with obedience and maintaining the status quo. And yet, when Father Maurus was my age, his protest, his act of rebellion was to attend church.
“So was your reason to leave Hungary specifically religious persecution?” I inquired.
“No” he responded, “I had to make a choice. I was 18, I had just graduated from high school in 1956 June, and the revolution broke out that same year, October 23, and I was part of it like hundreds of thousands of other young Hungarian students. But by the end of November, I had to make a choice. I was part of the revolution, I was part of the demonstration, I was part of the scene, but certainly not in any kind of a position where I would have considered myself a threat.”
The revolution Father Maurus referred to began as a peaceful demonstration of students in Budapest, but the unnecessary force utilized by the Hungarian secret police provoked widespread riots throughout the capital.
“My former Mathematics teacher,” Father Maurus continued, “who was also a good friend of mine, actually sought me out and told me that he had heard from reliable sources that the government was after us, a group of friends, and he recommended that we try to escape to Austria if we could. We knew that after the revolution, a large number of people were taken to the gulags in Siberia and executed. About 1200 young people were executed as a result of these mock trials.”
He paused suddenly, and I tried vainly to study his face. The usual cheerfulness I was accustomed to was no longer there, I but I was unable to tell if it was anger he was displaying … or remorse. There was an almost palpable dread that had corrupted the atmosphere of the room. I couldn’t imagine my fellow classmates, let alone my close friends, being unjustly imprisoned and executed. Just as upsetting was Father Maurus’s account of saying farewell to his family. Understandably, his parents were devastated and even his sister, only eight years old at the time, could understand that something was terribly wrong. It would be fifteen years before he saw them again. Father Maurus suddenly appeared tired; he furrowed his brow as he recounted the tearful goodbyes. I did not feel that it was proper to push Father Maurus into revealing more.
“So you mentioned Austria….”
“Yes, on November 28, 1956, we escaped, all of us, and we registered with the Red Cross. I ended up in a refugee camp not far from the Hungarian border, and we made our choices as to where we wanted to go. My first choice was the United States, but because we escaped from Hungary so late in the year, the United States’ quota was full. But there was a chance to go to Canada.”
Father Maurus went on to tell me that he and some 260 other Hungarian refugees were invited by the Queen of Holland to be her guests during the transition period and, on May 27, 1956, Father Maurus and his fellow refugees began a six-and-a-half day journey across the Atlantic before finally arriving in Quebec. Opting to travel to Vancouver, Father Maurus began his official Canadian life. Becoming a Canadian citizen after six years of living in the Yukon Territory, as a lumberjack no less, in 1963, Father Maurus eventually moved back to the cities and became involved in the burgeoning Hungarian Catholic community. As he recalled, “We put some money together and bought a church. Now we had a church, but we needed a priest. By that time I knew about the existence of the Benedictines. I was the president of the Holy Lamp Society, and I contacted Father Egon Javor and asked if he could spare any monks for Christmas. And he did.”
“And that was your first connection with the Priory?” I asked.
After that, Father Maurus became friendly with the monastic community at Priory and eventually travelled to California to discuss becoming a monk. Arriving on August 10th, Father Maurus informed Father Egon Javor that while he was eager to become a monk, he wasn’t entirely certain of what exactly that entailed.
“Father Egon asked me if I would be opposed to continuing my education; mind you, I hadn’t been in school for seven years. When I said yes, he came back the next day with a plane ticket to Minnesota. I didn’t even know where Minnesota was!”
I laughed for the first time during the interview at that; it seemed that Father Maurus’s story was finally taking a turn for the better. Father Maurus had been enrolled in St. John’s Abbey and University, where Father Maurus arrived on August 27th, a mere seventeen days after first coming to America. Earning degrees in Philosophy and Biology, Father Maurus returned to the Priory where, in addition to teaching full-time, organizing the school treasury, and running one of the dormitories, Father Maurus also began additional religious studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park.
Father Maurus first returned to Hungary in 1969, fifteen years after he had escaped. Immediately after arriving, he was interrogated by government officials and was questioned about the religious community at the Priory, although he refused to answer any inquiries about the nature of the Priory. After this harrowing experience, he was told that he could not leave his home village without express government permission.
When a lull finally appeared in the conversation, I somewhat self-consciously glanced at my watch. I had been speaking with Father Maurus for over an hour. I looked up quickly when Father Maurus began speaking again.
“So Michael, don’t become a refugee,” he grinned, “and don’t leave your family too soon.”
“Thank you for letting me interview you. That’s an amazing story,” I responded.
“It was nothing. It was just a simple life story.”
Those words shocked me. This was a man who remembered the resolution of WWII, who had actively protested Communist oppression, and who had been forced to leave his home when he was only a year older than I. If anything, this was the most incredible story I had ever heard. As I left Father Maurus’s office, I deliberately took a roundabout path back to my car. The nervousness I had experienced when I first entered the monastery had been replaced with a kind of serene tranquility now that the experience was over. Certainly Father Maurus was no longer simply the kind old monk who had convinced me to come to the Woodside Priory all those years ago. If anything, his “simple” life story made him the most interesting person I had ever had the pleasure of speaking with. For all his modesty, Father Maurus’s status as a refugee, as a witness, made his experiences all the more important. They serve as a living connection to the past, reminding us of the tragedies and hardships that came before us, and effectively guarding the future from these terrible mistakes.