“Your father was a war criminal. He murdered innocent people.”
It is a truth so dark and so vast that it belongs to fiction. But for Angela Hamilton, it is a reality she must come to terms with as her family history is, for the first time, laid bare in SBS’ new documentary series, Every Family has a Secret.
“They were shocking words. He was a war criminal. And my heart cried,” the Perth grandmother tells the camera after being delivered the bombshell revelation by renowned Nazi hunter, Dr Efraim Zuroff. “I thought that there was nothing that could hurt me. But it has and it did.”
The three-part series premiers on 25 June and follows a handful of Australians as they dive into the mysteries of their own pasts alongside presenter Noni Hazlehurst.
One woman journeys to Taiwan to search for her name and age, while a Sydney businessman uncovers the kidnapping, ammunition running and FBI files of his father. Journalist Michelle White finally unlocks the crime behind her mother’s time in prison in Fremantle and actor David Field learns the identity of his biological father, whom he knew as a child.
For Angela, a document found in her father’s study after he died leads to the mountains of Romania, where she learns the shattering truth behind her father’s unpredictable, violent and anti-Semitic nature.
As she tours Transylvania, experts reveal that her father, Pal Rozsy, was a Hungarian nationalist and was subjected to torture - including being pulled on a rack and having his bones crushed - while in prison in 1939. His release coincided with the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary during the Second World War and, as a lawyer and magistrate of Borsa, he went on to illegally sanction the abandonment of 34 Jews in the freezing, snow-covered mountains of northern Romania. Just three survived the mass murder. It is a sickening twist to learn that Pal Rozsy’s first wife was a Jew whose death in 1943 remains a mystery.
On the run from a Romanian extradition order, Angela’s father became one of 170,000 displaced persons accepted into Australia between 1947 and 1953. He had lied to gain the protection of a land as far from his criminal past as possible.
“He thought he’d got away with it and he didn’t ... I feel triumphant,” Angela tells Noni Hazlehurst. “This man has gone to his grave and we know the truth.”
The program is a life-changing turn in a journey that, for Angela, began many years ago.
“It’s such a vile story, every revelation shocked me and hurt me and made me feel shame and I hated carrying his shame. But I wasn’t surprised by his capacity to do it,” Angela tells SBS Life.
Angela and her two siblings grew up with a father she describes as evil, brutal and cavalier. Pal Rozsy physically abused her mother and was feared by Angela, who “survived” his temper by staying quiet and avoiding attracting attention. To this day, Angela describes herself as socially reclusive - a trait that is perhaps at odds with the overtly public revelation of the horrors her father believed he had successfully hidden.
“I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was on camera and being filmed. It was so confronting and so powerful that the camera was just incidental,” she says. “I don’t mind that it’s public because I didn’t know the truth and it has become an opportunity to pay tribute to the Jews who died at my father’s hands.”
For some in the series, discovering their true histories led to reconciliation, for others, catharsis. Some feared what they might find more than they needed to. Angela found both great humility and pain in the process.
“I’m the daughter of a war criminal, I’m the flesh and blood of this man. It’s repugnant and vile to me,” she says. “But [uncovering the secret] does deliver justice and it does deliver truth and ultimately peace. It had to be as harrowing and as ugly as it was because that was the truth of it.”
Every Family Has A Secret premieres at SBS on Tuesday, 25 June at 7:30pm. The three-part series continues on Tuesday nights. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.