Guest blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn gives us insight into a very worthy woman.
Imagine that you are born in a place that sometimes belongs to one country, Romania, but at other times belongs to another country, Hungary. Imagine that you are born as a secular Hungarian Jew in such a place, and that you live a completely middle class life. You have the gifts and benefits of education, well being, exemplary parents who teach you about the arts and about how to live a generous life oriented to the common good. Imagine further that because of a challenge in public school, you find yourself at a Catholic boarding school, and you are attracted to Jesus Christ.
If this all sounds like a slightly offbeat and made up tale, it is anything but! Such are the circumstances of the early life of Sister Judith Fenyvesi. She was born in Salonta, Romania in 1923, the third child of a pharmacist and a musician, and lived a life that earns her a place in these days of worthy women.
The words “religious freedom” are thrown around with incredible ease these days, but what do these words really mean? How and when is our freedom impeded or curtailed? Are we killed or imprisoned for our religious convictions? How does a long history of a lack of such freedom, make itself manifest in our lives today?
These are things that I thought about as I plowed through the pages of Sister Judith Fenyvesi’s biography, A Journey of Light in the Darkness. While Judith was growing in faith that was oriented towards Christ, the backdrop of history was that Romania and Hungary were in a tug of war for the place where she lived. On top of all of this, there was the growing threat of Nazism, and communism. Life was chaotic, uncertain, and fraught with danger.
Although she had become Catholic and had plans to enter into formation with the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, Judith wanted to become a doctor. Because of her heritage, she was denied entry into medical school. She studied at the School of Social Work instead, which was run by the Sisters of Social Service. It was in this way that her first efforts were directed at the catechesis of adults and children, and also of establishing a children’s home in Cluj, Transylvania. In this work, she apparently had a tremendous influence on the faithful, and on other catechists and teachers. This was all done prior to any profession into the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, although she considered this her community.
In what was to be a defining moment for Judith and for the Sisters of Social Service, Judith still had to wear a yellow star that identified her as a Jew. This was something that would put her in real danger. It was at this time that despite the danger to the sisters, they welcomed her to the novitiate, as if she was a novice. This act of charitable shelter changed the course of many things.
Judith was faced with a stark choice. Enter and possibly be spared the fate of so many Jews, or be safe. This also meant choosing to not join her family, who were back home and being moved into the ghetto, and ultimately deported from their beloved Salonta. Many efforts were made to save the Fenyvesi family, directed by the sisters, but Judith’s mother, sisters and grandmother all died in concentration camps.
Yet, Judith lived, but her challenges were not over. She continued her faith and vocation journey, and also became involved in the Catholic Resistance movement during the communist takeover in Romania. Judith and two other women religious ended up becoming carriers of secret messages between priests and bishops, whose ties to Rome were severed by the communist regime.
In 1951 she was arrested for her activities and held under the harshest conditions for 28 months of interrogation and deprivation. This yielded her an authentic blow to religious and any other kind of freedom – a ten-year sentence as a political prisoner.
In all this time she apparently never turned to hatred, and while she struggled with how cruel humans could be to one another, she persisted. Her faith and commitment to God and to God’s people was profound, and her suffering was not without redemption. That said, her suffering, physical and emotional, was quite intense.
During her imprisonment, her prayerful presence was a consolation to other prisoners. She had befriended two women in prison, who were sisters, not religious but biological, and they were instrumental in a later chapter of Judith’s life. Nonetheless, she did suffer greatly, felt the pain of losing everything.
A release from prison in 1961 offered little in the way of real freedom or consolation. Now Judith found herself with little or no support on the outside, with almost no contact with her congregation. She was truly alone and it was yet another very difficult chapter of life. Approaching 40, she was unsure of where she would go and how she would live.
The years of prison and isolation from her community and the loss of her family, truly created someone who was adrift. The authorities forced her to live in a particular place and it was difficult to find work. Her life as a sister was still not fully realized in any way. As a former political prisoner she was always suspect and under observation. Despite some periodic visits to her community in Cluj, she remained disconnected. Yet her faith persisted, and she was blessed with people who did support her in various ways.
In a strange turn of events, she found herself among a group of Jews who were being released to Austria. The Romanian communist government would be paid for this act, and thus their false humanitarian action came to be! Once in Vienna, she established contact with her community and the tide began to turn for Judith. In an ironic situation, her Jewish roots, which led to her first persecution, also gained her freedom.
In Vienna Judith studied English and prepared for a new life; in 1964 she was able to move to Buffalo, NY to live with the Sisters of Social Service. It is here where her life truly turns, but that is not the story that I am here to tell you today. You can read all about that in her autobiography. (If the Sisters of Social Service sound familiar to you, it is because they have their own worthy story. Sister Simone Campell of Nuns on the Bus fame belongs to this order.)
What strikes me is that in Judith we find a woman, persecuted at many levels – for being a Jew, for being a woman religious, for being a Catholic. And even at her worst, she found the light of Christ to guide her on through many circumstances.
Always relying on God, Judith prevails. As we consider these two weeks of worthy women, Judith holds a place of honor among them. May she rest in the peace of the God that gave her a long and rich life, of many chapters, may her memory forever be a blessing. May she and others inspire us all.
“The song to my God continues to be sung. It is a song of gratitude for the blessings I have received as a member of the Sisters of Social Service.”
Sister Judith Fenyvesi