Woman
Artist and author Marika Somogyi.

East Bay artist celebrates her ‘Charmed Life’

Don’t call her a survivor. She doesn’t like the term. Yet it certainly applies. Many times over.

She says instead that she was “lucky.” That she’s lived “a charmed life.” 

Meet 87-year-old Marika Somogyi, who lived through both the Holocaust and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Happy survivor of marriage (70 years and counting) and motherhood (two children, three grandchildren) and a busy career as a sculptor. Now we can add surviving a global pandemic and California’s wildfires.

But about that word “survivor.”

“It’s somehow degrading to people who didn’t survive,” Marika explains. “In my mind, survivor is the one who has to get all the glory that managed to survive [the Holocaust] versus those who didn’t survive.

“I felt, always, that it separated me from the people who were unlucky, and I was terribly, terribly lucky. And I resented it that those people were put in the position where they were less appreciated, when it should be just the opposite.”

Born in Budapest, Marika lived a charmed and charming childhood, complete with a nanny and maid and attendance at a private school. She awoke each morning to the kisses and adorning words of her father, “My sweet life, my treasure, my little rosebud, my sunlight.” 

But that privileged life ended at age 8. It was the time of the Holocaust. Jews across Europe, including Hungary, were being exterminated. 

But thanks to efforts of an order of Catholic nuns, who gave her a new identity, Marika survived. She lived with a succession of families, often in remote areas of Hungary, often in dire circumstances, not knowing if her parents were alive. Once, thanks to her German language skills, she even served as a translator for the Nazi overlords in the home where she was living. 

When the war ended, her family was reunited. But life was not the same. Communism had come to Hungary. After a time, her father was imprisoned. 

Meanwhile, Marika, who had found love, married at age 17. She studied and became an artist. 

Then revolution arrived. The hope of freedom blossomed briefly, but just as quickly was crushed. Marika and her husband, Laszlo, had to flee, across the minefields of the Hungarian-Austrian border, first settling in Austria, before eventually arriving in the United States in 1957. 

“When I came to this country, the minute I put my foot on the soil, a welcome letter was waiting for me signed from President Eisenhower,” Marika recalls with a smile. 

Stability at last. She raised her sons. Her art career blossomed. 

Her artistic achievements include creating what she terms “funky jewelry” — pins that Robin Williams wore on his suspenders in the TV show “Mork and Mindy,” and of more enduring note, memorial medals to commemorate Raoul Wallenberg saving of thousands of Hungarian Jews, to honor Benny Goodman at the Magnes museum in Berkeley, and two silver dollars for the U.S. Mint. 

Engraved medal
A piece by Marika Somogyi commemorates Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. It depicts the safe houses he created for hundreds of Jews in Budapest during WWII.(Photo/Courtesy M. Somogyi)

She also has written the story of her life. It took her 10 years to do it, but as she notes in her 2019 book, “A Charmed Life”, she honored the call in Deuteronomy 4:9 to “Take heed, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as young as you live. And teach these things to your children and your children’s children.”

Recently, Marika was scheduled to travel to Japan for the dedication of a bronze, which addresses the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and it titled “Mother, Where Are You?” “It is a testimony for those children who aren’t let into the United States of America, separated from their parents, and put into cages,” Marika says. 

Though the dedication is on hold, the optimistic octogenarian sculptor is hopeful the event will be rescheduled in 2021.

Yet even with her sights still clearly set on the future, Marika admits the past is always with her.

“I never sit on a chair comfortably,” she says. “I’m just on the very edge of it. Always ready to jump.”  

That sense of danger lurking was brought home recently when Marika’s Kensington neighborhood, just north of Berkeley, received a possible “evacuation alert” because of lightning, high winds and wildfires

Her first thought: “Here we go again.”

“I had to leave my home when I was 10 years old. Everything I had, all my toys and all my clothing and everything,” she explains. “Then, when I escaped from Hungary in 1956, I had to leave everything again. I had the little bag on my shoulder, not even a backpack, just a little leather bag. So, when I was packing now again in 2020, I thought, ‘Do I have to leave my home again?’”

Happily, the evacuation order did not materialize. Marika’s neighborhood was spared the destruction that spread throughout much of California and the West.

“I really thank God, she says. “I’m a very happy person. I have fulfillment and happiness, my grandchildren, a house, my work.”

And what is she most proud of? Marika raised her two sons to be strong and unafraid of strangers.

The ghosts and fears of her past are not part of their present. And that, Marika says, is the greatest gift of her charmed life.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She lives in Berkeley and can be reached at [email protected].