Through my career and hundreds of interviews, I've rarely become friends with a source. But that rare occurence transpired with one of the faculty members I interviewed for this story: Gabor Vermes, a history professor at Rutgers–Newark.
Gabor had been hidden as an 11-year-old by a Lutheran pastor in the hills of Budapest during WW II. In 1959, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, he and a friend traveled to the border and escaped through the woods to Austria. Eventually, his journey would take him to Manhattan; Texas; the Bayou; Palo Alto, California; and then permanently, back to Manhattan. His story is part of Remember Us: The Hungarian Hidden Children, a new documentary that was screened at The Anne Frank House in lower Manhattan and won a regional Emmy Award.
I always teased Gabor that Hollywood would buy his dramatic story for a couple of million bucks, and that I expected 20 percent. Following the Rutgers Magazine profile, I pitched his profile to Stanford Magazine, where Gabor had earned his master's and doctoral degrees. The idea was to focus on how his past informed his teaching, and that brought me into Manhattan for a second interview at his 14th Street apartment. There, I met his wife, Ann Fagan, a Naperville, Illinois native and also a historian who had once taught at Barnard.
Shortly after the Stanford story published, Gabor was named Professor of the Year at Rutgers–Newark and he invited me and my wife, Sheryl, to the awards banquet. Sheryl was instantly drawn to Gabor and Anne’s warmth and good humor and invited them to a Passover seder in our home. That was the beginning.
What a fasninating match they were. Gabor's stately and serene European presence were in direct contrast to Anne's outspoken and boisterous midwestern nature. Worldly, wise and generous, we were so often mesmerized by their tales and reminiscences. Ann had a handful of nicknames for her husband, but our favorite was “The Big Enchilada.”
Gabor faced declining health in his later years with courage and resolve, and his spirit lives on through the many lives he touched through his teaching and good deed doing. All these years later he and Ann are two of the most supportive, special people we've met, and I ironically have the Holocaust to thank for it.