The Pain of Family Secrets: Ilonka’s Story

by Ilonka Venier Alexander

Forward by Pete Vanlaw

Ilonka Alexander’s story is very special. She recently found me on one of the genealogical groups that ran my post, “The Day I Learned I was a Jew”.  Although not a blogger, her story is unique and had to be told. I also realized that it’s about “the need to belong “; another reason why I wanted to share it with you. Here is Ilonka’s story:

Ilonka Venier Alexander
Ilonka Venier Alexander

Late in 2008 a good friend by the name of Julia, using her skills as an epidemiologist, began to look for information regarding my family history and  then wrote to me.  The email was intriguing yet bewildering.  Attached was a photo of my great grandparents’ grave.   I knew little about them. The grave sites in the photo were in the Kozma Street Cemetery in Budapest which is the largest Jewish cemetery in Hungary and one of the largest in Europe.

Kozma St. Cemetery in Budapest, and the grave site of Ilonka's great grandparents.
Kozma St. Cemetery in Budapest, and the grave site of Ilonka’s great grandparents.

I knew my family was Hungarian, but  I did not know it was Jewish. I was brought up as a Catholic and believed my ancestors were as well.

Dr. Bernard Alexander, Ilonka's great grandfather
Dr. Bernard Alexander, Ilonka’s great grandfather

My email back to her said, “this can’t be.  My grandfather, Dr. Franz Alexander, was Catholic.” I reminded Julia that my grandfather’s semi-autobiographical book, The Western Mind in Transition, never mentioned anything about his father being Jewish.  In fact, he made a reference to celebrating Christmas and Easter.  Julia said, “I think you have to be Jewish to be buried in the Jewish cemetery.”  My mind was whirling.  I was confused.  But, most of all, I was stopped dead in my tracks.

As a mental health professional, and a clinical social worker, I have long known the importance of truth in relationships.  The keeping of secrets always ends in pain and disappointment; there is never a good reason to keep a secret.

Ilonka's grandfather, Dr. Franz Alexander aka Big Papa.
Ilonka’s grandfather, Dr. Franz Alexander aka Big Papa.

My grandfather, my mother’s father, the premier  psychoanalyst of the 20th century, and a pioneer in the field, most certainly knew this too.  How could our family have been Jewish and I never heard of it?  And, why was I raised Catholic, and my mother before me, and so on and so on? But maybe this could help explain why I considered converting to Judaism, and always felt a visceral connection to my Jewish friends and the Holocaust. It was about me but why, I did not know. In my genes?

I remembered then that my grandfather changed my name when I was baptised at six months.  He changed it from Nina Alexandra to Ilonka Frances Alexander: my first name in honor of his older sister who died as a young child, and my middle name for him.   It was as if he claimed me as his own child. For more than 20 years this secret was also kept from me, as well as any information about my father. In 1945 my grandfather attempted to bribe my father to stay away from me with an offer of $50,000. While my father declined the money, he agreed to keep away.  This, too, was kept from me.

I began to think anything was possible, recalling how my mother’s second marriage was to a man who adopted me, while photographs of the wedding were sent world-wide to relatives, all of whom assumed it was her first marriage. It was as if the marriage to my real father had been erased. In so doing, my grandfather erased me, too, from my family and from my history.   I began to feel anger as these new truths were revealed to me. Yes, anything was possible.

The wedding pictures of Ilonka's mother, Sylvia. This was her 2nd husband, but all the relatives thought it was her first.
The wedding pictures of Ilonka’s mother, Sylvia. This was her 2nd husband, but all the relatives thought it was her first.

I began to grapple with the fact I might be Jewish and decided to learn more about my family. I found a cousin in Italy and another one in Cleveland; ladies who I had never heard of before.

My cousin in Cleveland, whose name was Eva, said during our first conversation, “We have been looking for you your whole life. ” It was even more confusing because she knew who I was, but why not vice versa? As I traveled to meet these ladies, I began to put the pieces together. Then I met another cousin in Alaska and her brother in Madison.

During my earlier visit with Eva in Cleveland, she had asked me if I knew I was Jewish. “I said No!”  But as I gradually began to learn of the existence of  even more cousins – from Australia to Austria – I began to think maybe I was not alone, and that I might just be Jewish after all.

I have been searching for a family my entire life, but never really understood why. As a youngster in boarding school, I never went home on weekends. I stayed with school friends instead.  Looking at billboards advertising milk or toothpaste, I wanted to project myself into those happy families. Never feeling good enough, I felt alone, unwanted, and without a direction or a past. I got good grades, always behaved and never got into trouble. But my compliance changed nothing for me. My father had walked away from me to appease my grandfather. And my mother and I were strangers. We did not live together until I was in the 10th grade.

Ilonka's mother, Sylvia.
Ilonka’s mother, Sylvia.

My only family was my influential grandfather, Big Papa, who visited me from time to time with expensive gifts. But the gifts did not help much because I still felt disconnected and adrift.

During a trip to mid-West in 2010, I met with the former director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Dr. David Terman, who revealed to me that everybody in Chicago knew my grandfather was Jewish, but nobody talked about it. He was shocked to hear that just the year before I had  learned of my own Jewish heritage. When I told him, he sat straight up in his chair like a puppet jerked on a string.

If they all knew, why didn’t I?  Why didn’t my mother?  Why was it all kept so tightly under wraps in my family? Finding answers had become an obsession for me. During the same trip, I visited my cousin Eva in Cleveland, and the first thing she said to me was “You are family. I love you.” This brought tears to my eyes then and I’m crying about it now as I’m writing this.

Eva and I hatched a plan to bring our disjointed family together. So, in July 2011, thirty five of my cousins traveled from far and near, to meet in La Jolla, CA, my childhood home.

Ilonka's grandfather stands in front of the home she grew up in in La Jolla, CA.
Ilonka’s grandfather stands in front of the home she grew up in in La Jolla, CA.

Many were meeting for the first time and did not know anyone else, while others knew each other but had not seen one another for 40 yrs, “When did you find out you were Jewish? A question many of us asked each other. Most of us had felt alone and assumed we had no family. The secret kept from me was kept from them too. But that secret was kept from me the longest. Learning of my Jewish connection and the chance to meet previously unknown cousins was a turning point in my life. Ironically, some of my cousins accepted our Jewish heritage, while some did not.

Ilonka's friend, Julia - the person responsible for Ilonka's quest which started with the grave site pictures.
Ilonka’s friend, Julia – the person responsible for Ilonka’s quest which started with the grave site pictures.

Since it was my friend Julia who started this whole process by finding the pictures of my great grandparents’ grave sites, and urged me to begin the research that evolved into this gathering, we  made her an honorary member of our family.

No longer the lost and unwanted child, now I have a family and I have roots with connections to the past. I share physical and personality traits with my cousins. I am high strung and obsessive, like my cousins. I share a love of cooking, like my cousins, and I can be anxious, like my cousins.  How good that sounds, …”like my cousins.” Now I’m included. Now I belong somewhere. I may never find all of the answers, but now the anger and confusion have changed to curiosity and compassion. And an important part of my story is that I am Jewish.

       *                                  *                                  *                                       *

Ilonka is writing a biography about her grandfather, Dr. Franz Alexander, which describes his family, the time in which he grew up and studied, and the decisions and challenges he faced emigrating from Europe to America, including his founding of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.  Its working title is  The Life and Times of Franz Alexander: From Budapest to California. She hopes to have it finished by the end of summer 2014.


14 thoughts on “The Pain of Family Secrets: Ilonka’s Story”

  1. Ilonka’s friend, Julia – she has got to be a “recording angel” – a Recording Angel is, in Judaic, Christian and Islamic angelology, one or more angels assigned by God with the task of recording the events, actions, and/or prayers of each individual human….a wonderfully resolved family story. rich blessings to all who helped this re-union happen….

  2. Ilonka’s research story is fascinating. I’ve heard that your cousins are your first friends. When you don’t have any or they are geographically distant, a sense of belonging is missing. Maybe this is why I cherish my widely-dispersed cousins and friends with whom I have reestablished contact through facebook.

  3. This is marvellous. Ilonka’s search for her roots is the quintessential story that shows the importance of genealogy and an urge in all of us to know “how we connect”, to glimpse something of our family’s past and to help put our lives in a greater context. I am not Jewish, but had a similar revelation with my family’s history. This gave me a huge sense of “belonging” as I explored and continue to explore the history of those who came before.
    I will look forward to reading Ilonks’a work when it is finished!

  4. A truly remarkable lady with an amazing “Life Story” that intrigues me to say the least. I am excited that she has chosen to write the Biography Of Her Grandfather. I can think of no better life accomplishment to add to those she has already achieved.

  5. Very Poignant, the reader has the sense of the ‘heart beating in your throat’ as the story unfolds, dramatic and inspiring! Congratulations on the insights learned in your journey and the search for the sense of family and belonging………..

  6. I so appreciate the positive comments and am happy the story is of interest to some. I appreciate all the help from Peter as well who suggested I had something important to tell.

  7. Although I’m not Jewish, these stories resonate at many levels for me. So human and touching. I also know Ilonka personally and cannot wait for her book to come out.

    • Thanks Sandy. She found me and wanted to talk, since we had similar late life discoveries. When she told me her story, I asked if she’d be willing to share it, which, after a brief hesitation, she did. I have yet another similar story in the pipeline; another person who found me, and has a very dramatic story to tell as well.

  8. I’m finding my Jewish roots in my ancestral search! I’m very excited and happy!

  9. Very touching. It must be a hard life not to know who you are, or where you come from. I can never imagine it. I am happy that Ilonka finally found herself. The family is what grounds us.


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