Why Dr. de Somogyi Took the Stairs

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Heroes come in strange forms and unexpected places. It was 1960. I was in a graduate course in Islamic history, law, and theology at Brandeis University. Our primary text was in Arabic, the diary of a Muslim doctor in Damascus in the eleventh century. My Arabic was less than adequate, so every class was traumatic. What began as a nightmare, though, ended as a priceless memory. It was not the course. It was the professor.

He was Semitics librarian at Harvard, a refugee from Hungary who had studied organ building under Albert Schweitzer, and an Islamic scholar of distinction. I was his chauffeur to and from the train station. I do not remember much about the Muslim doctor. I will never forget Joseph de Somogyi.

Joseph de Somogyi was a devout Lutheran as well as a scholar. When nazism began to permeate life in Hungary, he laid his open Hebrew Bible on his university desk. Other professors would ask: “Joseph, is that not Jewish?” “Yes,” he would reply. “It is the most Jewish of all things Jewish!” They would challenge his temerity and urge him to be more careful. His response: “I am a Christian. Aren’t you?”

One evening a policeman appeared at his door. He informed Joseph that he would return later with two Gestapo agents. His advice: “I would appreciate it if you would disappear.”

For some time Joseph lived in hiding with peasants in rural Hungary. His life work lay buried in scholarly manuscripts in an orchard in anticipation of a day when his country would again be free. Nazism passed, and he returned to his university post.

Then the Soviet Union moved against Hungary. One hundred twenty-seven women and children sought safety in the basement of Joseph’s villa on the Danube. The target of the Soviet bombers was a munitions factory ...

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