Dangerous Crossing, by Rachel Rhys***

dangerouscrossingDangerous Crossing is an historical mystery set at the outset of World War II. I was invited to review it by Atria Books and Net Galley; it was published earlier this month, and you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Lily Shepherd, a young woman in need of a fresh start. Her family’s scant resources are tapped in order to send her via cruise ship to Australia, where she is to enter domestic service. On board she meets Max and Eliza Campbell, wealthy, obnoxious, and carrying some skeletons of their own. We have Maria, a Jewish refugee, along with George, a Nazi sympathizer.  Helena and Edward are adult siblings, and there’s romantic tension crackling between Lily and Edward. Along the way are exotic ports of call such as Cairo, Egypt and Ceylon; these are places Lily would never have hoped to see under ordinary circumstances, but fate surprises her.

Rhys does a fine job of managing historical details, and in particular the social stratifications that existed in British society during this time period and the limitations they imposed.  The ending has more than one interesting twist. On the down side, I find the figurative language to be stale at times and the relationships overwrought in places. I felt that the story could do with some tightening up. However, fans of a traditional mystery will find this is a fine mystery to curl up with on a chilly winter night. The varying perspectives of the cruise’s passengers dovetail in many ways with those we see today, and many will notice an eerie familiarity in these characters from an earlier time.

Recommended to those that enjoy cozy mysteries and traditional historical mysteries.

Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz, by Isabella Leitner****

fragmentsofisabellaIsabella Leitner was a Holocaust survivor, and she scribed her memoir using brief entries similar to a diary in format. The length is just 120 pages, about the size of a novella. I was asked to read and review this memoir free of charge before it was released digitally. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the invitation. This title was just released, so it is available now for purchase.

I confess I struggle with Holocaust memoirs these days. Part of me has decided not to read any more of them. I am out of the classroom, so my ability to educate young people of today about the horrors of the past is nearly at a standstill, apart from the knowledge I pass on to my grandchildren. Reading another Holocaust memoir isn’t going to make the ending any better; it’s always going to be horrifying, and heaven help me if I should become so accustomed to reading about the Holocaust that it doesn’t affect me that way anymore.

So though I swear off Holocaust memoirs from time to time (and am doing so right now, again), when a particular memoir is offered, frequently there is some aspect of this one that sets it apart from the crowd, and so it is with Isabella’s memories. Not many survivors managed to get out with family members at their side; Isabella and her sisters were unusually clever and imaginative in finding ways to survive. This along with the invitation induced me to roll up my sleeves and revisit this calamitous part of history once more.

When the notorious Mengele motioned with his deadly white glove to send Isabella and one of her sisters to the extermination side, they found a way to creep back around and intermingle with the side selected to be kept alive as workers. At one point they escaped and found an outstanding hiding place…but before they were identified as missing, the Germans began cooking potatoes, a luxury Isabella and her sisters could not resist, and they slunk out of their haystack and into the food line. There are a number of these instances, and I found the short chapters merciful, because I could only read this in small bits and pieces.

Most powerful of all, as far as I am concerned, is the clear, unmistakable truth that Germans knew, absolutely had to know, exactly what was going on around them. As their own lives improved materially, they chose to look the other way as skeletal work crews of Jewish and other prisoners were marched directly down the main streets of towns and villages on a daily basis:

“Germany was one giant concentration camp, with Jews marching the length and breadth of the country, but these refined, sensitive Germans never saw us. Find me a German who ever saw me. Find me one who ever harmed us.”

The memoir is of necessity harsh in its remembrance. The teaser for this story bills it as having been written for young adults, but the background material required to understand some of what is said requires a good deal of pre-teaching.  In other words, if a teacher or home-school supervisor has run out of social studies time and is looking for a shortcut to make up for teaching about the Holocaust, this isn’t it. Frankly, this reviewer and teacher wonders how a full unit regarding the Holocaust could be lower on the chain of important social studies curriculum than anything else, apart from possibly the Bill of Rights (for US students). But if one is determined to substitute one memoir for a longer unit that gives more information, use Elie Wiesel’s Night, which stands on its own.

Finally, any teacher or prospective reader needs to consider exactly how searing this material is, and all the more so to the young mind; to Jewish readers; to anyone with triggers.

I should also mention that a bisexual guard at Auschwitz, a woman that was interested sexually in one of the prisoners, is referred to as “aberrant”, not for being a guard at such a place, but for her sexual orientation.

Do I recommend this memoir to you? Those that are studying the Holocaust should read it; the fact that it’s written by a survivor makes it a primary document. But those that are looking for an engaging, enjoyable slice of history should look elsewhere. There are no light moments, no surprisingly kindly individuals that go out of their way to help. It’s a cold, hard story, and the only joy is provided up front when we learn that she gets out alive and not alone, as so many Holocaust survivors found themselves.

It’s a hard, hard lesson, but given that revisionists are diligently trying to deny that the Holocaust actually occurred, attempting to rake over the evidence as if it were not nearly as serious as we may believe, it also has a great deal of value.

Because Isabella was there.

The Kaminsky Cure, by Christopher New***

thekaminskycureThe Kaminsky Cure is a satire of Nazi Germany previously published and now offered anew in digital format. Thanks go to Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review, and for the DRC, which I received free of charge. This title is available to purchase now.

Who would have thought it possible to satirize such a terrible time and have it come out in anything other than terrible taste? But New carries it off, using a pre-school aged child in a mixed family—with one Jewish parent and one Anglo parent—as his narrator. Several times the precocious tot points out aspects of his own narrative that are actually impossible, as for example when the child tells us exactly what is contained in something written and then blandly points out that he cannot read yet. It just makes it funnier.

The appealing thing about this novel is that it brings up the reality which should be obvious to any thinking person that has paid any attention to this particular time and place: most Germans as well as Austrians were entirely in favor of Hitler’s takeover, and although there were Jewish families, many of them in fact, that wanted out of Nazi-occupied Europe as quickly as they could go, there were others that had never embraced their culture and had converted to Christianity in some cases generations earlier; and such is the case with our protagonist’s family, which wants only to pass itself off as Aryan so that it can join in the party. Young Martin, the protagonist’s older brother, longs to become a member of the fearsome SS, Hitler’s storm-troopers. Ah, the uniforms! The ferocity! The authority!

Our toddler-narrator, meanwhile, observes his own family with platonic remove, contemplating which members have violated one edict or another and should therefore be turned in to the authorities. After all, that’s one of the things he has learned in school. Children are the future, and it’s up to them to weed out those older folk that fail to comply with important social changes.

It’s what Hitler would want him to do.

There’s one twist and then another, but overall I found that the story’s momentum lost steam as it progressed, because there was really just one joke here, and it could only be played so many ways before it became repetitious. Nevertheless, it’s wholly original, and when faced with an event as horrific as the Holocaust, one either has to laugh or cry.

And amazingly, New has created a way to help us laugh, at least for a little while.

The Nazi Hunters, by Andrew Nagorski*****

thenazihuntersI had promised myself not to read any more Holocaust memoirs. What is to be gained? But when I saw this title available as a review copy on Net Galley, I thought that there is actually something to cheer the spirit in recounting how some of these monsters were tracked down and brought to justice. To date this is the most comprehensive telling of that achievement that I have read. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and also to Net Galley for the DRC. This book is available for purchase May 17.

Were it not for the efforts of Jewish survivors and the state of Israel, very few of the top-ranking Nazi officers would ever have gone to trial. Following World War II, Allied forces divided small, relatively helpless nations of Europe like a pack of robbers piecing out the spoils after a bank job. Once that was done, there was little energy or funding put into hunting down Nazis. To be sure, there was no logistical way to try and punish everyone in Germany or its neighboring states that had belonged to the Nazi party or its offshoots. There were millions. Some of them joined because it was easier to join than to not join; some did it for job security; and a surprising number did it because they loved Hitler and the Third Reich. No matter how terribly they have behaved, you can’t jail millions of people that did the wrong thing, even when their participation and complicity have resulted in the deaths of innocent millions. And so an agreement was reached that just the top guys would be hunted down and tried in an international court.

By the time the war ended, however, the USA had begun the Cold War with Russia and its satellite states, incorporated at the time as the USSR. Congress was much more interested in funding ways to combat Stalin’s version of Communism than it was in locating war criminals. And this is where Israel became such an important player.

There are passages within this meaty tome that necessarily detail the kinds of horrors visited by one or another Nazi officer in order to illustrate the level of evil the individual in question represented. It is not good bedtime material. But there is far more of the courage, cleverness, and above all teamwork involved in finding these people, documenting their crimes, and bringing them to justice, and that’s what I wanted to see.

Philosophical questions that were examined when I was a kid in school are raised once more. At what point can a person no longer defend himself by saying he was just following orders? At what point does trying to follow the law of the land—even Fascist law—no longer let a person off the hook? Many of those that stood trial were people that had initiated one or another terrible innovation in the torture or murder of other human beings. Others went to trial for their monstrous brutality. Concentration camp survivors bore witness against them. I loved reading about those that had been stripped of everything, horribly tortured and humiliated right down to the nubs of their souls in a position of some power against their oppressors. It felt right.

Addressed here also is the tremendously controversial kidnapping of the butcher Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann lived in a Latin American nation that did not extradite war criminals; Israeli forces ferreted him out, forced him onto an airplane and took him to stand trial in Israel. Those that objected to this illegal behavior ultimately had little recourse. I felt like it was one of those times when a rule is rightfully broken. (See Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, also reviewed on this blog.)

For researchers and students of history, as well as those with a strong interest in this area, this book is highly recommended.

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!

Wayfaring Stranger: A Novel, by James Lee Burke *****

wayfaringstrangerThis reviewer has long been in awe of James Lee Burke’s poetic lyricism and his ability to weave together complex story elements so that they segue together at the novel’s end in a miraculous yet entirely credible manner. At times the author hints at magical realism, but the buck always ends right on solid ground. I wouldn’t care to see it any other way.

This is his most recent release, but I didn’t receive an ARC for this; I got it for Christmas. It was perched at the top of my wish list, and rightly so. Take Burke’s capacity to spin great fiction—here it is a blend of historical and detective fiction—and add to it his absolute disillusionment with American capitalism, in particular with regard to oil companies, and with the cops who favor the elite and shaft the poor, and he’s talking my kind of talk.

The cherry on the sundae? This man is old enough to be your grandfather, most likely, yet he has labeled this book Weldon Holland #1. That’s right, it’s the beginning of a new series.

I love it.

Our story commences in the dust bowl, in the midst of a worldwide depression. Two badass youngsters named Bonnie and Clyde have shot up the South. Burke sends them across the Holland family property at the outset, but they disappear and the story continues. I was momentarily confused, because I had heard that this novel was about Bonnie and Clyde. Now that I’ve read it I can tell you honestly that it isn’t, but it is.

Weldon Holland grows up and fights during World War II; he rescues a starving woman from the rubble of a concentration camp, and he falls in love with her. They are married, and when he comes home, he brings her with him. It is a miracle that he makes it back alive, given the incompetent leadership of his platoon. And yet, that same arrogant, self-absorbed son of a bitch that nearly got him killed ends up funding the pipeline that Weldon and his war buddy and business partner, Hershel start up. Sometimes life bites you in the ass and comes back for seconds, and this is one such instance.

“When you live in a democracy, there are certain things you believe will never happen to you. Then a day comes when the blindfold is removed and you discover the harsh nature of life at the bottom of the food chain.”

Time and again, those with wealth and power find ways to insult and ignore people in whose footprints they are not fit to walk. When they do things that are morally wrong, they become inaccessible rather than own up to their misdeeds. When they absolutely must discuss these things, they take the passive voice. It’s the same one mass killers use to address their victims’ families in a court of law after their lawyer tells them that an apology may make a difference in their sentencing. They never say they did things; things happened.

And Bonnie and Clyde? What of those two angry young people that the sheriff never intended to even try to arrest rather than kill? How do they fit into this more contemporary tale?

I think the answer is that they become a metaphor of sorts; it’s entirely possible that their foolishness was just their way of “getting even for the rest of us.”

When I write reviews, I generally do so quickly and easily. It’s not usually a hard thing to do. Yet in this case, I’ve stewed about this book for three days since I finished reading it, and I am still not satisfied that I have done it justice.

I guess that’s the thing about magically realistic literature; it has to be read to be understood.

You just have to read it. Pay for the book. Pay for it in hard cover. You won’t be sorry.

Ice Brothers, by Sloan Wilson ***-****

icebrothersSloan Wilson was a veteran of the second world war, and he served in the Greenland Patrol. Here he uses his knowledge of the place to create an entirely unique setting. In fact, Greenland itself is very nearly a character in Ice Brothers. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media for the ARC.

At the start, I was torn. Although I enjoy both historical fiction and military history a great deal, I deliberately avoid World War II stories that take place in the Pacific theater. My reason is that I don’t like to see Japanese people referred to with racist slurs, even though I know that at the time it was commonplace among many Caucasian members of Allied nations. The”J” word is every bit as offensive to me as the “N” word is. I understand that there was a time when Euro-Americans freely bandied both terms about. However, most editors have the sense to remove it and substitute a less heinous term these days, unless the use of the term serves an important purpose in the story. (For example, check the use of anti-Semitic language by the villainous skipper, Lowery, against whom we develop the bright and personal Nathan Green, who hears his name misused one time too many and vows to change it back to “Greenburg” once he is back in the US.)

So I wanted to read this book, about which little description was available, for two reasons: one was the setting, which will serve as the hook for a lot of readers. What did I know about Greenland? I didn’t even know it was Danish territory! A trip down my upstairs hallway to the large world map hanging on the wall there confirmed the story’s assertion: sure enough, right there underneath the word “Greenland”, writ large albeit in parenthesis, it says “Denmark”. How typically North American of me to have assumed it was Canadian! I surely needed to learn more, and good historical fiction is the most enjoyable way to learn many things.

The second reason for my interest was that it was described as a story in which the protagonist hunts for a Nazi ship. GOOD. So, Japan is unlikely to surface, and I can comfortably read without the story exploding in my face.

So when I hit the “J” word, which was not at all important to the story, but thrown in perhaps as set dressing or to set the tone of the story, I was shocked. The further extraneous reference by a character in the story who asserted that “…those little yellow bastards can’t fight” made it worse. (Of course, there was no reference to the internment of Americans of Japanese descent; extraneous material here is limited to that which is ugly and prejudicial.) I told myself I would take a break and read it a little bit later.

Every time I remembered my obligation to Open Road and Net Galley, I picked up my e-reader, but I had other galleys and other obligations, and each time I thought I would give Sloan’s work another try, I found myself reading a different ARC instead. This persisted for over a month; I can usually finish and review a book faster than that, unless asked to hold my review for publication.

Finally, I had to make a choice. I went back and reread the introduction. I steeled myself and forged onward. It’s a good thing that the plot, setting, and character development were so well done, because that word was used about ten times, and it never contributed a single thing to the story itself.

All right; let’s look at the story, then.

I know very little about watercraft, and was delighted with the accessible, instructive manner Sloan used to clarify the various types of ships and boats and the nautical terms that are most commonly used. I was also surprised and bemused by the stratification of resources apportioned to the Coast Guard as opposed to the Navy, with the Coast Guard serving as the poor cousin that receives whatever the Navy doesn’t need. The ingenious ways in which our fictional Coast Guard officers and crew work around the lack of resources, often not at all legally, must have had at least some basis in fact. I found it really interesting, and it drew me closer to the story as I sympathized with the men on the trawler (The Arluk).

Sloan’s approachable way of describing Greenland’s weather and geography were also really useful.

Greenland is a dangerous place to sail. Today it is different than it was during that time period. I did a web crawl and was horrified to see how much of it has melted now. Back then, at least, it was possible for a sturdy ship to weave its way into a fjord (which is like a peninsula made of water that pokes into the ice mountains), and then have everything freeze, and the ice might crush the ship and its crew against the mountains. The ever-present tension of a possible encounter with Nazis created a sense of suspense that made the book hard to put down after a certain point was reached, even with the racist terminology, which continued to grate and became worse when Paul and Nathan discussed the loyalties of the “Eskies” or “Eskimos” with the Danish inhabitants. The Inuit people were treated as cartoon characters, and the static, repeated description of their faces as round and copper-colored and their mentality as “child-like” made me wonder where this capable writer’s otherwise outstanding skill with varied language had gone. Yet the story still tugged at my interest, and so I made a note in my e-reader and forged on.

Another facet of the story that kept me reading late into the night was the ambiguity of the Danish residents of Greenland, and in particular, the character of Brit. Were these folks really held by force by the Nazis that we could not even see, or were they complicit? Whose side were they on? Would Brit betray Paul to them? When he acceded to her request to see the ship, and she curiously nosed into every odd corner, asking technical questions about the engine and radar, I wanted to pick her up bodily and toss her off the ship!

Sloan was a strong writer for a very different time. His work could still be really compelling, but I doubt I am the only reader who will take exception to the racial slurs that do nothing to drive the plot or develop the characters. I hope either his heirs or his editors will go in and update this work. It can only improve the story to do so.

Recommended, with the qualifications mentioned.

Alex’s Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance, by Martin Goldsmith *****

alexs wakeHolocaust memoirs take on added urgency right now, between the revisionists who want to rewrite history and claim that the entire thing was either a hoax or dreadful exaggeration, and the fact that the eye witnesses and survivors are nearly all dead now. Martin Goldsmith retraces the journey, both academically and where possible, literally, to the places his Uncle Helmut and grandfather Alex were taken. It’s quite a story, and would be a fun read if it were not so horribly, terribly true. As it stands, Goldsmith’s narrative pulls his readers in one slim finger at a time, until we are held firmly to the text and must remain until it’s done.

The narrative starts out introspective and almost dreamlike. If I were not reading this free courtesy of Net Galley in exchange for my review, I think I might have set it aside about twenty percent of the way in and not returned, thinking to myself that of course, I know the Holocaust was real, but do I want to read about it again? It’s not an enjoyable topic, and what good can it do to revisit it? Furthermore, I started to believe that this particular narrative was not so different from other heartbreaking stories, and might be more of interest to the writer and his surviving kin than to strangers like me.

I am glad I kept reading, because just past this point is where we quit the runway and the story takes wing. The writer starts with the visits, first to the Holocaust museum, and then to Europe. He is greeted warmly in his family’s former homeland, and he makes speeches and accepts certificates and expresses appreciation to the family who now occupies what was once the family manse for their clumsy token gesture. The current owners clearly understand that circumstances have skewed things badly, and they want to make it up in some impossible way. They were wondering what he would think of a nice plaque on the building’s exterior noting its place in history and recognizing his family.

He understands these folks aren’t the ones who stole from him. He says and does the right things, but the edge is unmistakably there, as part of him longs to say that if they really want to make things right, to give him back his family’s home. Like many who lost wealth and/or family in the Holocaust, he waxes nostalgic, looking with poignancy at the beautiful place that should rightfully be his.

Here I squirm a bit. I don’t read rich people’s stories for a reason. I don’t believe anybody is entitled to vast wealth. It’s why the only memoirs I avoid are those of the ruling rich.

But another more important principle trumps my usual one: nobody, nobody, nobody should be disenfranchised of even a penny on account of their ethnicity or race. If anyone at all in Germany gets to have a big fancy house, then Goldsmith’s family should. His resentment is righteous; he has the moral high ground here. I think back to an old bumper sticker I once saw, courtesy of the American Indian Movement during the 1960’s that read, “AMERICA: love it or give it back.” And thus is the untenable yet irreparable theft of the Holocaust’s descendents. We can’t fix it, so here’s your framed letter, your trophy, your plaque, your award. His ambivalence runs deep and is clear and harsh. It should be.

From there, Goldsmith’s family saga telescopes out in a way that is so deft, I don’t even catch the transitions. This is rare. I spent years of my life teaching teenagers how to make transitions in their writing, and usually when it is well done in professional writing, I sit back and admire it, like the French paintings he describes. I love to watch good transitions happen, but the very best are noteworthy in that I am so deeply into the text that they float by unseen. It’s almost magical. And so, as the family’s tale is told, we see the larger picture of France and French fascism.

Many of us today want to believe that all of France and much of Germany was simply too afraid of the fascists to resist, but Goldsmith unflinchingly grabs us by the hair, makes us look. There are cheering throngs that are thrilled when the fascists take power. They aren’t trembling; they are overjoyed. This is how fascism works, in demonizing a sector of the population, others believe themselves lifted up.

In the end, I was glad to have joined Goldsmith on his journey. For anyone with a serious interest in World War II; the Holocaust; the face and effect of fascism; or contemporary European history, this gem is not to be missed.

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.