The Girl They Left Behind, by Roxanne Veletzos****

TheGirlTheyLeftBehindI was ready for something that was a little different, and then an online friend recommended this historical fiction for review. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC. It’s for sale today.

The story stems from the Bucharest Pogrom of 1941, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. And to show you how much I knew about this particular event before I read this book—my ignorance was so painful—I called to my spouse and said, “Honey?  Isn’t Bucharest in Hungary?”

The world-traveled, multilingual expatriate responded, “That’s Budapest. Bucharest is in Romania.”

Ahem. So this corner of my historical education was severely in need of help, and this was a good start for me.  If I were to rate this story solely on its merit as a novel,  I’d call it 3.5 because of some unevenness in the quality of writing, but the educational aspect of it is undeniable, and it makes a big difference.

The story centers on Natalia, a child that is abandoned during the pogrom when her parents flee from what they believe may be their death; they expect to be caught and killed. She is much loved, but her father persuades her mother that the only way the girl will make it out alive is if they leave her in the lobby of their apartment building with a note. She is adopted by a very wealthy couple that lavishes her with every possible comfort, until the regime falls and Romania comes inside of the Soviet orbit. After the coup, the conspicuously wealthy become government targets, and their assets—down to literally the clothes on their backs in some cases—are nationalized. Over the course of time, Natalia learns of her adoption and the parents to whom she was born.

The story uses the author’s family history as a framework, and notes at the end explain what aspects are autobiographical in nature, and which have been altered for the sake of the story.  There are family photos at the back of the book.

The voice is distinctly Eastern European, and that works in the author’s favor because it transports the reader to this time and place all the more effectively than a purely American-sounding voice would do. However, there are occasional lapses where clichés drop in, and it spoils the magic for awhile. The worst, perhaps, is “The walls have ears.”

The first forty percent of the novel is the most engaging, and I love the development of parents Despina and Anton, and little Natalia. The last half of the novel, however, is too busy and at times seems overwrought.

And then we are back to what I said at the outset: there is so much to learn here.  Historical detail is inextricably woven into the story, and our attachment to the characters, particularly at the start, makes the facts themselves more memorable. So when it comes down to it, I do recommend this book to you. If you can find a better work of historical fiction featuring the Bucharest Pogrom, then I may change my mind, but right now I would say Veletzos has cornered that market for those of us that read in the English language.

This book is one of a kind. Don’t miss it.

Dragon’s Teeth, by Upton Sinclair*****

dragonsteethDragon’s Teeth is the third in the Pulitzer-winning Lanny Budd series. Set in 1942—the present, at the time it was written—it provides the reader with a fascinating, well-informed, hyper-literate view of Europe during the years before and during Hitler’s ascent to power. While it requires a fair amount of prior knowledge in order for the reader to keep up with the story, history lovers, political philosophers, and especially those fascinated by the period in question will find it riveting. Thank you Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for allowing me a DRC. This title is available for purchase digitally now.

Sinclair, himself a socialist of the Utopian variety, shows us the ideas of the “reds and pinks” that were plentiful and active—yet in the end, not active enough to prevent a Fascist takeover—during this period. Budd is the heir to a munitions-maker’s fortune, and so his is the life of the idle rich. He amuses himself by hosting salons, popular at the time, which were group discussions regarding alternative political ideas. His wife Irma is heir to an even greater fortune, and is uncomfortable hosting these odd people that speak of redistributing wealth, but in time she relaxes, understanding that this is just one of Lanny’s hobbies and is unlikely to ever affect her personal comfort level. And indeed, Lanny is never going to sully his hands by taking to the streets with working class militants; in fact, apart from buying and reselling artwork, he’s never going to even hold down a job, reasoning that it would be wrong of him to take a job he does not need when someone else really does need it. He is amused and comfortable in his role as armchair socialist and angel financier to a leftwing newspaper. Yet the idea of actually taking power…hmmm.

“It seemed to have begun with the Russian Revolution, which had been such an impolite affair.”

Nobody writes setting like Sinclair. The story begins in Italy following the First World War; Mussolini has risen to power, and we can almost hear the hard heels striking the cobblestones. Budd is somewhat concerned for Hansi, his brother-in-law who is Jewish, but he also believes that money talks, and any unpleasantness can probably be squared away with a donation here and a greased palm there. As long as the seas are safe, the family considers simply waiting out all the unpleasantness on the family yacht, hoping that things will be settled down by the time they want to dock somewhere.

Hitler is out and agitating, but no one really thinks he will take over the world; if he were going to do that, he surely wouldn’t stand in the streets and scream about it, now would he? And we feel, through Lanny and his family, the stark startled horror when his power increases and his Storm Troopers become an official government organization rather than simply a pack of street thugs. At the same time, we also experience his and others’ perplexity at the name chosen by the NSDAP, because it invokes the name of Socialism for a system that is actually far-flung from it, and it calls out to the working class even as it pounds their unions to dust and sends their leaders to concentration camps.

While the working class of Europe starves or stands on line at a soup kitchen, the Budd family has the traditional six meals daily; when they are not at home, they do the charitable thing, and instruct the servants to find some “worthy poor” to consume the unused meals. Well…not in the house, of course. Somewhere else.

At times, the tone is satirical, and in a few places made me laugh out loud, mostly in the beginning. Later the tone changes and is sharper, angrier. I found it deeply satisfying.

Particularly fascinating is the statement that “He who could get and hold the radio became God.” In one form or another, this has been true since the radio was introduced into first-world homes nearly 100 years ago. Major media sources had the monopoly on information, apart from the printed press. The radio, then television…only recently have ordinary people had the means to record and disseminate information on the phone they carry with them everywhere. And it’s interesting to see the changes that result.

Perhaps your thoughts will travel in different directions than mine did in reading this interesting nugget, but it is bound to make you think. If you are looking for some escapist material to take to the beach or curl up with by the fire, this isn’t it. This is fuel for the brain, fierce material that came from a time when all of Europe had to decide which side they were on.

For those that love history, literary fiction, or political science—or all three—highly recommended!

I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak *****

IkissyourhandsPoignant and painful; beautiful and wrenching…Szegedy-Maszak takes us through a time and place in a way nobody else could. If you are a serious historian, please consider this a must-read.

When I applied to receive this story as a Goodreads giveaway, I did so as an historian, conscious of a blind spot in my own education. I knew too little of Hungary and its past, apart from that it had become a part of the Soviet block at some point, and then became independent once more. I wanted to learn more about the country’s political and economic history, and if I had to read a love story to do that, then I would.

When the book arrived, I gasped as I pulled it from its envelope. Beautifully bound in hardcover with folio-cut pages and a pearlescent cover featuring the family about which she writes, I held it in my hands, showed it to my family, and then swore my head would not be turned by the beauty on the cover, and the painstakingly aesthetic manner in which the interior is designed. The family tree at the start of the book actually turns out to be essential, because many people are mentioned many times here, and to keep them straight, I would have to keep flipping back. But I didn’t know that yet. I saw the literary (and as it turns out, highly appropriate) quotes that adorn each chapter’s beginning, along with images from the past, snapshots of what is no more.

So…incredibly good taste, and no expense has been spared. But can she write? Oh yes! And by the time I was done, I had no fewer than fifty sticky-noted pages, and worse, every single one of them marks a passage that seems really important. Now I must pick and choose, which is a dreadful predicament.

Be aware that this is a hyper-literate read, not necessarily accessible to every reader. And to get to the good part, you’ll have to do a lot of work at first, plodding through the dull stuff at the start and trying to remember who everyone is.

Though it tells a good deal of what took place behind the scenes before, during, and after the second world war in Hungary (albeit from the very conservative perspective of considerable material interest and self-involvement), it is also a deeply personal story, told well by an already accomplished writer with a literary pedigree a mile long and granite solid. This is her first book, but Szegedy-Maszak is already a respected writer and journalist. Her love of family and the details that governed their lives in Hungary, Europe, and the USA are what makes this memoir compelling. For many, this will be a more palatable way to learn history as well.

Because of the role of extended family, which is inextricably intertwined with that of her parents, the reader must wade through lengthy genealogy in the beginning. I have read other reviews saying that the reviewer gave up on the book because of the initial level of detail, and indeed, at first it is tempting to wonder why anyone who is not related to the author would have an interest. Though the author has doubtless already hacked away at the introductory chapters and removed portions that it hurt her heart to pull and cut, a little more pruning at the start would make this book more readable. It’s a 4.5 on my very picky scale anyway, though, because what comes after its somewhat tedious beginning is remarkable and well told. It is a very scholarly yet heart-felt telling of how world events have impacted her family, and vice versa, and it is when she describes poignant experiences in a painterly, often painful way that her family’s story becomes most absorbing.

The writer grows up in a multigenerational household in which children are almost irrelevant, seated below the salt at the long formal dinner table. Everything the elders value and discuss has come and gone. Her mother descends from the Weiss and Kornfeld (later to become “de Kornfeld”) families, and her mother’s grandfather was once the most wealthy industrial and agricultural baron in all of Hungary. Now most of the empire is gone, and the family sighs wistfully and speaks about the past, when they were someone, when a mere phone call or visit from Weiss or Kornfeld could cause a policy change, or change someone’s life.

*consider everything after this to be a spoiler alert*

Her parents had been very different people. Her mother had grown up in a vacuum of sorts created by immense wealth and privilege. Even as the Nazis stormed across Europe, Hungary was, by the author’s telling, insulated for a long time, unlike their unlucky neighbors, the Poles. Hungary wanted the land that had been lost to Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of Trianon following the First World War, an immense piece of real estate inhabited primarily by Hungarians, and which had been taken from them. When Nazi tanks rolled into Austria and boundaries were redrawn, the Hungarians held their breath. They understood that with the USSR fighting as an Allied nation, they would see no restitution of land from the Allies. Thus, they became an Axis power, at first tentatively, with the hope that if enough munitions were produced by the Manfred Weiss Works, makers of tanks, munitions, and later in the war, airplanes, the Germans would see no need to invade and supervise Hungary. And this was the Hungarian argument against occupation: we can do so much for you independently, oh Germany. Don’t trouble yourselves coming here. It’s all good.

In the midst of all this, Hanna Kornfeld, the writer’s mother, meets a brooding intellectual and politician, Aladar Szegedy-Maszak. When he signs his letters to her—first formal, then impassioned, but with the restraint decorum required—he concludes with “I kiss your hand”, which is merely the equivalent of the Western “yours truly” (when we aren’t) or “sincerely” (even less so). It was a format, until it was more.

He is an intellectual, a scholar, and a very busy man. He is anti-fascist, and trying to somehow involve the Allied forces, so that Hungary can make its separate peace with Britain and the US, but Britain holds off, regarding Hungary as not of primary importance strategically (and in fact, they are surrounded by fascists, so it would be a stretch by the time Hungary makes its entreaty), and also, Hungary is regarded as opportunist.

Here the author bristles, and I think she doth protest too much.

My sense is that the time to contact the Allies was when Hitler invaded Poland. One doesn’t offer Hitler endless munitions, and then complain to the Allies when he sends his troops in to do exactly what they’ve done everywhere else in Europe.

Aladar, however, is not offering endless munitions; he is trying to persuade anyone who will listen to him that the fascists must be resisted at all costs. He is arrested for his anti-fascist activities and sent to Dachau. He survives , partly because he is treated as a political prisoner, which for some reason is considered a relatively (RELATIVELY!) privileged category, and also because the fascists don’t cast their eye toward Hungary until near the end of the war.

And when they come, they do it in the way only fascists can. The Danube runs red with blood. This is not allegory, but a literal reference. Despite every record that was burned, every photograph that was destroyed, there is still plenty of documentation, and the author provides it all, the child of the scholar become scholar herself. The bibliography at the book’s end, along with the notes for each chapter, is impressive.

Once Aladar is free, his experience leaves him brooding, nearly broken, and overcome with survivor’s guilt. It is with trepidation, then, that he contacts Hanna once more when the war has ended, because as he tells her, he is not the same man he was before the war; he has no money and no job; yet the one thing he knows is that he loves her and wants to marry her if she is still interested. He kisses her hands many, many times.

Interestingly, Hanna is fine. Her family has swung a deal. They will sign over all of the factories, the real estate, in fact the large majority of the family fortune, in exchange for their lives somewhere outside the Nazi realm. Let us go to a neutral country, and you can have it all.

The fascists want to hold a few of the family back as hostages. It is here that the writer’s aunt blanches and almost does not sign. Yet the family understands that there is really nothing to keep the Nazis from taking everything and having every last one of them killed. With the coolness that generally characterizes the ruling class, the family cuts its losses and runs. Who can blame them? Others would surely have done the same, given the chance. They go to Portugal initially; later some will try to rebuild a life in Budapest, others in Switzerland.

But it is Aladar whose political practices and courage open the door to the United States. It is remembered after the war that he has pleaded all along, from the very beginning, for Hungary to become a part of the Allied umbrella. He had met Hitler, and he had heard him speak. He knew the guy wasn’t someone you wanted to rule your people. He did everything he could to take Hungary into Allied hands, but it didn’t happen. He nearly died in the undertaking, and now, the US gazes at him with a bit more focus. He is a friendly face in war-torn Europe, and might make an excellent liaison with the new Hungarian government

When the war is over, is appointed minister to Hungary for the USA. With a moue of distaste at the notion of leaving Europe, and understandable grief at leaving her family at such a wrenching time, Hanna agrees to marry Alastar and move to the USA. Numerous family members will later follow.

But small countries all lose when enormously powerful countries sit down, victorious, to divide the post-war map, as if it were a smallish birthday cake where everyone at the table ought to get a little piece. Hungarians will not determine the fate of Hungarians. The USSR has paid dearly in human flesh and material loss, and now it will build itself a buffer zone to protect its turf against future incursion.

The Allied nations understand the nature of Stalinism (and this is my own historical interpretation; the writer embraces the Cold War era view of “totalitarianism” with regard to the now-moribund USSR). It is ultimately conservative; the USSR was not interested in expanding across the globe, only in holding onto its own power base. Just as France gained back land it had lost, and just as the US experienced unprecedented power and influence over the globe, so would Mother Russia see to it that her own needs were met. Hungary was diced up even finer, since a fair amount of anti-Stalinist sentiment prevailed there. When they were finished, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and other satellite states stood like sentries on the Soviet perimeter.

As for the heroic Aladar, he refuses to recognize the new Hungarian government. He welcomes the wife of the deposed head of state, one who was friendly toward a capitalist system. The Smallholder Party that Aladar favored has gone down, but he is not out of the fight yet. Soon, the newspapers in the Stalinist orbit will display a photograph of the Hungarian minister kissing the hand of this woman as she leaves the US, and he is branded a traitor.

His courage gets him nothing in the US except the opportunity to remain with his family as a US citizen (small potatoes for the writer’s family, yet something that is held dearly and hard to get these days!)
I was chagrined to see that he went to work for the right-wing (my characterization, not the author’s) Radio Free Europe. He had the integrity to resign when he learned this enterprise was CIA-run, but the Voice of America cannot be regarded by a Marxist (of the non-Stalinist variety) such as myself.

The writer is at her strongest when she injects the deeply personal moments into her narrative: a family member explains to her that when she views the photographs of bodies piled high at the death camps, she searches the faces of the corpses to “see if one knows anyone.” Suddenly the Holocaust becomes up close and personal in a way only trumped by Schindler’s List and Night. Family members have died there; this was not as clean an exit for her family as it is made out to be in the press.

Though despondent over the loss of his country’s autonomy; his own survivor’s guilt, including his inability to save the members of his family in Hungary who were killed or hurt by the Stalinists in retaliation against his activities abroad; and finally, the death of his and Hanna’s first-born and namesake, Alastar still travels to Hungary with the writer, his daughter, in the late 70’s, and he is still sharp enough mentally to shush her when she naively inquires about the number of police all over the airport. Marianne Szegedy-Maszak points out that he must have been clinically depressed, but not enough medical advances had been made for him to have anything to help him beyond Valium, a drug that’s great for anxiety, but doesn’t really do much for depression.

Though the writer seems perhaps most deeply attached to the female members of her family, I find myself more taken with her father, who despite his political leanings that are almost opposite to my own, was clearly a man of principle and integrity, and who knew how to roll up his sleeves and do what needed doing. In retirement, he finds that he needs to see things grow; he loses himself in the family garden, and visitors mistake him for the gardener.

There is so much more to see here, and this is clearly a work wrought from love of family and origin rather than something done primarily for fiscal gain. For those interested in the Holocaust; Hungarian history; or for women like Szegedy-Maszak (and me) who find that we understand our mothers so much better only after they grow old and die, this book should not be missed. The first few chapters are slow, but forge on, and you will be rewarded.