Wednesday, January 16, 2008

John Schmutzer, Man of Mystery


As I mentioned yesterday, I never knew my Grandfather. There's little I know about him, but I don't think I'd know more if I had ever met him. He was born in the late 1880's, in Hungary, to a Jewish mother and an agnostic father. His birth name was Edward Löbenhöfer. There's some Austrian heritage there, but the origins are unknown.

As a young man, Grandpa Schmutzer was a communist - essentially, a Bolshevik. He was trying to get communism into Hungary at a time when no one else wanted it. He was high enough in rank, and evidently enough of a threat, that a price was put out on his head. So, he fled Hungary, leaving behind a wife and 4 year old son (my Uncle Rudi). The story goes that he stole his new identity from a dead German soldier. The only vague proof of that is a military ring, which is in my possession, that shows a crest and the dates of the first world war. Eventually, he made his way across the water to the US.

Not long after he left Hungary, his wife died of consumption. The care of my Uncle Rudi was left to Rudi's maternal grandparents. Rudi never saw his father again. Grandpa married my Grandmother sometime in the late 1920's. He married her because he needed a servant - it was not a marriage born of love.

I don't know what my Grandpa was like before he fled Hungary. I don't know if he was a nicer man, if he enjoyed his life, if he was loving and caring. I know, from all accounts, that he was not so after he immigrated. He never once told my Grandma that he loved her, never showed her signs of affection, never gave her a gift for any reason or occasion. He provided for her, and that was it. The same held true for his daughters, my Mom and my Aunt Irene. Mom has mentioned that Grandpa was cold and impersonal, and his view of children was that they were to do their school work, do their chores, and not be heard from. Girls were to learn to be housewives - while education was valued, higher education was seen as frivolous.

In the Schmutzer household, only Hungarian was allowed to be spoken. My mother started school knowing barely any English at all. US products and food were scoffed at, and the only meals allowed were Hungarian ones. My Mom used to sneak over to her best friend's house to have hotdogs.

Grandpa was an avid opera fan, and every Saturday everything else in the world stopped for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast. It's where my Mom got her love of opera, which has been passed down to me. It baffles me that such a cold man could have such deep love for something so beautiful and complicated. But, the things I know I inherited from him are the love of opera, the ability to keep a secret, and the ability to coolly stare down an opponent when I'm up against a wall.

According to stories my Dad told, Grandpa was a highly intelligent man and a very skilled tool and dye worker. However, he wouldn't share any intelligence. If he fixed something and Dad asked him how, Grandpa would brush the questions aside without answering.

Grandpa, from what I've heard from everyone who knew him, was highly paranoid. Until his dying day, he was certain someone would find him and kill him - in his later years, he went so far as to spray chairs with disinfectant before sitting down because he was sure that germs would take him out. Some of the paranoia may have been warranted, but I believe much of it came from hardening of the arteries and a general psychosis that he may have had all his adult life.

He refused to take medication for his arterial sclerosis, certain that the doctors knew nothing and were likely trying to poison him. He dropped dead from a heart attack at a bus stop. Because he never carried any identifying papers on him, he was taken to a county morgue. It wasn't until he failed to show up for dinner that my family began to panic. My Uncle Paul (Irene's husband) finally traced him to the morgue.

That's as much of the story as I know. My Mother finally met her half-brother, Rudi, when she and I went to Hungary together in 1972. As we were going through customs, the agent asked why we were visiting Hungary. My Mom explained, in halting Hungarian, that she was there to meet her brother for the first time. The customs agent grinned, slammed the suitcase shut, and said, "By all means then, GO!" It was a beautiful reunion. I wish I'd known enough Hungarian while Rudi was alive to be able to ask him about his Father.

Every now and then, someone will ask, "If you could meet one person, alive or dead, who would it be?" My Grandpa. There are questions I have, that he might not answer. But, I'd just like to know. I'd like to look into eyes that hold part of my history.

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