Dr. Peter Varadi

We recently received a sticker in the mail with something we purchased from a travel vlogging couple and the sticker said,

“Remember why you started.”

Which is funny, because that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. And the fact that it feels a little funny continuing when the reason you started is gone.

My grandfather, Dr. Peter Varadi, recently passed away. He and my grandmother, who passed away in 2018, are the reason I started blogging. As they got on in years, it became increasingly difficult for them to hear and understand me over the phone. So I thought blogging would be the perfect way to tell them the stories of my travels that they wanted to hear, and as a bonus I could put photos right along with the text! Although I did not anticipate the troubles they would have “getting the emails out of the computer”, overall, once they figured out how to print out the blog posts so they could read them on paper, my grandparents thought my blog was “just marvelous!”

My grandfather, who I called “Nagypapa,” grandfather in Hungarian, was my biggest fan. Each time he received a new blog post he would call me to congratulate me on writing another one. This time when I push publish, there will be no call.

My grandparents and I
My grandparents, Nagypapa and Nagyi at my college graduation.

He was big on calling. When I left for college, he was adamant I needed a cell phone, so he bought me my first cell phone and proceeded to pay for my cell plan for several years, with the stipulation that I had to call him- often. Which I did, though not as often as he would have liked, nor as often as I should have. My grandfather was happy when I did, and he never wanted to talk long. Just long enough to check in. He always asked, “What’s new?” and I would usually tell him there was nothing newsworthy to report. He never offered details about himself, and I never asked for any.

That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything from him. At this point in my life, what I’d learned from my grandfather is- when looking for a parking space one must always “create” one, or in other words, you must imagine a parking space close to the entrance of the business you’re approaching, and about half the time you might actually find a space in the desired location. While Nagypapa imparted valuable life skills such as this, he never shared information about his history.

Around age ten, I received a family tree created by my grandfather which traced his lineage back to my fourth-great-grandparents. It was then, as I pointed to names on the tree and began asking questions, I was given to understand the impact WWII had had on my family. It was the reason my relatives numbered so few, and the reason my grandparents never spoke of their past. And thus, the reason why I was so shocked when my grandfather suddenly told me that he was going to write his memoir!

My grandfather always had to have a project to keep him occupied. For a while it was playing extras in Hungarian Opera House productions. He would show up, get a costume, and do nothing more than walk on and off the stage in the background of a production. After each show he would scan the playbill into his computer, photoshop his name at the very top of the cast list, and place a copy of the edited playbill in an album opposite a photo of him in costume for that production. He loved showing off his latest album additions to us each time we visited. He found the whole thing hysterical.

Anyway, when he finally got too old to keep flying back and forth to Hungary, he needed a new project. I was in the car with him one day with a two hour drive ahead of us when he suddenly said he was going to write a memoir of his life during WWII. Then with little prompting, he proceeded to divulge the history I’d always refrained from asking about. At the start of the war he was a young, Jewish man living in Hungary and reported for “work camp” upon receiving a letter commanding him to do so. For the next two hours he regaled me with a stunning tale of a daring escape from a concentration camp, being recaptured, escaping from yet another camp, being sent to jail and miraculously being set free again. By the end of the ride, I not only could not believe the luck the man beside me had had in his life (and the luck that I had that he was sitting here beside me!), but I couldn’t wait to read the book!

He wrote it in Hungarian, translated it into the same broken English in which he spoke, and finally had English speaking family members help him edit. When it was finished he decided to self publish through Amazon, but also took me to his favorite Washington D.C. bookstore that had a book printing machine where he had a copy printed on the spot for me, which he of course autographed, before handing it to me literally hot off the presses.

author and publisher
My grandfather holding a copy of his first book, still hot off the Opus press.

And he didn’t stop there! After the first book, he went on to write a second, about his life in Hungary under the Communist Regime and his escape to America. This book too is full of daring escapes and lucky breaks! After the war, he returned to Hungary where he became a scientist. But with Communism, it became harder and harder to be a Jew and be in a scientific field. So once again, despite restraints on families leaving the country all together, my grandfather found a way to escape. A process which involved a forged passport and removing the backseat of a car to replace it with suitcases covered by a blanket to look like a back seat, complete with my mother, an infant at the time, seated on top. Then a drive to Germany and a slow process of sneaking belongings between east and west Germany before finally ditching the car altogether.

My mother and the Tatra 57A
My mother in front of the getaway car, 1956

And as if this all wasn’t amazing enough so far, my grandfather eventually was able to secure a visa to move to the USA where he later co-founded the first terrestrial-use solar panel factory, Solarex. Simply put, he and his friend Joe Lindmeyer are the reason you can use solar panels today! He documents this chapter of his life in his third memoir. And it wasn’t until his writing of this book that I finally understood that this funny, slightly eccentric man with a thick Hungarian accent, who to me was simply Nagypapa, to the rest of the world was a pioneer of the photovoltaic industry! This story too came out during a car ride in Washington D.C. during which he proposed we take a detour so he could show me the site of his first factory.

Former Solarex building
The photo I took that day of the detour. This building, now owned by bp solar was once the Solarex factory.

While I was of public school age, my family would spend summers in the Washington D.C. area where my grandparents lived and Nagypapa would take me on ice cream and toy store dates. When I got older, these outings became annual trips to Nordstrom. He would find a chair and wait while I picked out one new school outfit for the next year. Looking back now, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that a man who flew all over the world to give lectures about photovoltaics, just patiently waited for me to finish shopping!

*Disclosure: These are affiliate links, meaning if you purchase a book through these links, I’ll make a few cents at no extra cost to you.

Peter Varadi books
Nagypapa’s Memoirs in Hungarian and English

While my grandfather was very humble about his history and professional accomplishments, he was not above wanting to be recognized. At least as a regular at certain restaurants. He loved taking us to restaurants where they knew him, where the managers would come out and shake his hand and welcome Dr. Varadi and his family to dinner. He would make us feel important as his guests at these restaurants where he would ask for his regular table.

There was one exception to this restaurant ritual, for me. Each year for my birthday he would take my family, at my request, to Benihana for dinner. After dinner we would return to his apartment for cake and he would threaten to “do the egg trick”, a trick he saw the chefs do at Benihana. He said he could throw the egg up and have it crack in two over the sideways spatula- no problem. One year he even got out an egg and, despite protestations from his long-time girlfriend who did not want to be cleaning the egg off the carpet when this went horribly wrong, he tossed the egg in the air. We all gasped- before the egg came crashing down… he’d hard boiled it beforehand! Well played sir.

Benihana photos
Just a couple of the photos from annual Benihana birthday dinners with Nagypapa

I am very proud to be the granddaughter of this brilliant man, Dr. Peter Varadi, but to me he was and always will be just Nagypapa. And I am going to miss him very, very much.

Although there will be no call after publishing this, I know he wouldn’t want me to stop writing on his account, so I’ll muddle on, taking inspiration from a man who taught me it’s never too late to keep writing new chapters of your own story.

Nagypapa at Disney
My favorite photo of my grandfather. He took me to Disney World for my 8th birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Vera’s tales of finding the crack in history and the Iron Curtin that lead them — Peter and your mom — to America will always be with me. Starting in Stanford, CT, they discovered a world so different than the one left behind. American appliances, fashions, a VW bug, travel, cultural adventures in New York City and a parking ticket sent by the state security forces reminding them of an unpaid parking ticket of the car they left behind on the night their American adventure started. They had old friends and new friends in their adopted home. Vera was always quick to show off Peter’s books and accomplishments. And equally proud of her editing contributions. I’m happy she shared Peter and her’s adventures.

  2. I enjoy your blogs with beautiful photos, history and travel hints. Congratulations on your upcoming wedding. May your day be wonderful and memorable, filled with all that brings you happiness.

  3. I like to think about the person you are because of your Grandfather. From what you wrote, I see that he was a very thoughtful man.

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