Love among the Ashes

The granddaughter of survivors authors a Holocaust novel that is also an elegant love story. A stunning book that it is comparable to the greatest works of literature.

Aushwitz 521 (photo credit: Frank D. Smith)
Aushwitz 521
(photo credit: Frank D. Smith)
A THIRTY-SOMETHING Brooklyn Jewish woman has written a brave and beautiful book about the Holocaust comparable, without exaggeration, to the greatest novels of all literature. Readers must read it, teachers must teach it, and those among us who have survived the horror that it describes must be grateful to its author for making our experience comprehensible for the 21st century.
Julie Orringer is herself the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and the author of the prizewinning short-story collection “How To Breathe Underwater,” nine flawless, poignant and delicate short stories about the confusions of youth.
Now, in her debut full-length novel “The Invisible Bridge,” she has created an elegant, tender love story set against the menacing gathering and eventual explosion of a storm of methodically organized insane violence never before experienced by humanity. Language lacks the means to convey adequately through rational description the magnitude of the deed, the sadistic delight of its perpetrators and the numb helplessness of the majority of their totally unprepared victims. Orringer succeeds by approaching the global tragedy through the specific concerns, passions and loyalties of individuals modeled on her own, Hungarianborn grandfather and his family as they confront the savagery engulfing Europe.
Her book is a gracefully handled, unsentimental and profoundly moving epic story of a pair of lovers caught up in the sea change of history. It is an extraordinary achievement reminiscent of Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” She says “it was a tale that demanded telling.”
It begins with the adventures of three talented, poor Jewish brothers from rural Hungary, catapulted into the wider world because they are refused higher education at home. András travels to Paris in 1937 without any knowledge of French, enrolls at the École Spéciale d’Architecture on a scholarship and falls in love with Klára, a more mature ballet teacher and choreographer, another Jewish-Hungarian.
The two become totally absorbed in each other almost oblivious to the increasingly sordid and violent anti-Semitic incidents proliferating around them. At the start of World War II, they are compelled to return home. András, together with his brothers Tibor and Mátyás, must eventually serve in various slave-labor battalions.
Even amidst the sensual feast of the love affair in the first half of the book, the reader is allowed no rest from the relentlessly approaching sound of marching jackboots audible in the background.
Here, some factual background is in order.
András and his brothers, like so many of their real-life counterparts, had to leave home to pursue their studies because of Hungary‘s numerus clausus legislation of 1920 severely restricting the access of Jews to the universities.
This was Europe’s first anti-Semitic law after World War I, even though the word ‘Jew’ did not actually occur in its text. This was followed by the openly anti-Semitic so-called First Jewish Law of 1938, introduced by János Makkai, a virulently racist Hungarian parliamentary deputy who also happened to be a failed novelist, providing for the exclusion of Jews from positions of influence in the mass communication media.
These and subsequent measures pushed through in the prevailing anti-Semitic climate elevated common racial prejudice into a fundamental policy of state, and helped pave the way to Auschwitz. They prepared for the annihilation of Jews by removing their human rights and forcing them into the margins of communal existence.
ORRINGER’S NOVEL IS A BIG book about grand passions unleashed at a turning point of history. The author handles the challenge with poise sustained by her joy of storytelling and a keen ear for the rhythm of speech, backed by formidable research.
The rapid pace of the novel leaves her time for loving descriptions of the buildings, flavors and smells of mid-century Paris and Budapest, the excitement of editorial offices and theatrical performances, the complex worlds of markets and café houses. The novel takes us to Nice where the author notes – and she is right! – that the crickets along the French Mediterranean coastline sing a different tune from those of landlocked Hungary. The exuberant sharing, daft sexual possessiveness and sheer exhaustion of the lovers in each other’s arms remind me of being 20.
The second half of the book is about love and loyalty in a hideous upside-down world of hatred, cruelty and greed. Hungary was the only power in the war to deploy on the battlefield tens of thousands of its own citizens – Jewish men – as slave laborers, many of whom perished from exhaustion, disease and the murderous whim of their own commanders.
It invented what was jovially described at the time as the “Minesweeper Model 1942.”
This involved the dispatch of the slaves – regular members of the Royal Hungarian Army detached in special Jewish work units, held by long leashes attached to their necks – to minefields.
The terrified men were then forced at gunpoint to clear the path of the fighting units marching behind them by triggering any lurking anti-personnel devices.
And the Jewish slaves also occasionally found themselves in the thick of the fighting.
This happened repeatedly when laborers sent to the battlefield to collect the wounded picked up the weapons abandoned by the fleeing Hungarians and turned them against the advancing Russians for fear of being captured by them. The murder of more than half a million Jewish-Hungarian civilians at Auschwitz was perpetrated later during the most destructive phase of the Holocaust in 1944 when the defeat of the Third Reich and its allies was already obvious.
But tenderness triumphs in the novel – for the survivors – even amidst the denunciations, manhunts, fear and corruption. This is how Orringer describes Klára in the bath as seen by András on a rare leave home from the Eastern Front: “Her pregnant body was a miraculous thing to him. A pink bloom had come out from beneath the surface of her pale skin, and her hair seemed thicker and more lustrous. He washed it himself and pulled it forward to drape over her breasts. Her areolae had grown larger and darker, and a faint tawny line had emerged between her navel and her pubic triangle, transected by a silver scar of her earlier pregnancy. Her bones no longer showed so starkly beneath the skin.
Most notably, a complicated inward look had appeared in her eyes – such a deep commingling of sadness and expectancy that it was almost a relief when she closed them...”
Survivors of Orringer’s family, like the protagonists of this book, emigrated to the United States after the war. In common with many other Holocaust survivors, they maintained complete silence about their experiences, until questioned by the author when she came of age.
The novel took seven years to research and write, a loving monument to honor their memory.
Judge from this passage how well she succeeded.
“For months after András came home, they went to the synagogue at Bethlen Gábor tér every day. Hungarian Jews were being exhumed from graves all over Austria and Germany, Ukraine and Yugoslavia and, whenever it was possible, identified by their papers or their dog tags. There were thousands of them. Every day, on the wall outside the building, endless lists of names. Abraham. Almasy.
Arany... Zeller. Zindler. Zucker. An alphabet of loss, a catalogue of grief. Almost every time they went, they witnessed someone learning that a person they loved had died. Sometimes the news would be received in silence, the only evidence a whitening of the skin around the mouth, or a tremor in the hand that clutched a hat. Other times there would be screams, protests, weeping. They looked day after day, every day, for so long that they almost forgot what they were looking for; after a while it seemed they were just looking, trying to memorize a new Kaddish composed entirely of names.”
Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and awardwinning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His last major work was ‘Christmas in Auschwitz: Holocaust poetry translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei.’