Dr. Julius

Michelle Mazel’s historical novel takes us across Europe in the tumultuous era of wars that twice tear the continent apart.

'Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil' by Michelle Mazel (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil' by Michelle Mazel
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Michelle Mazel’s latest novel could be described as a historical romance, except that romance – or true love – is exactly what is missing in the life of the eponymous hero, Julius Matthias. The story takes us from life in a small Transylvanian town at the start of the 20th century and across European capitals and cities at a time of uneasy quiet and of war. The lives of the Jews, whether rich or poor, are never really lived in peace, we discover.
The young Julius Matthias grows up in the small town of Nagyvarad with a pious but poor father and an aunt who is unorthodox in both senses of the word. He has one dream and he makes what he considers to be a pact with the devil in order to achieve it. He marries an older, widowed heiress – one of three Magdas who had studied piano together along with Julius’s beautiful sister, Anna.Magda the Great, as she is known, is neither pleasant nor physically pleasing but her pharmacist father promises to fund young Julius’s medical studies if he commits to staying with his wife for life.
Just how hard this bargain will be is not at first clear to either Julius or the readers. Suffice to say that another of the trio of Magdas also has a central role in the novel. Yet Julius’s joy in fatherhood is as great as his misery in a loveless marriage in a provincial backwater with pretenses.
The well-crafted story has multiple characters of different ages, but it is through Julius’s eyes that we witness history in its raw making, as the town switches from being under Hungarian control as part of the decaying Austro-Hungarian empire, to belonging to the Kingdom of Romania. Its name changes from Nagyvarad to Oradea and its language becomes Romanian, before it switches back to being part of Hungary, just as that country makes a truly satanic pact with the Nazis.
As Mazel writes, “Today Romania has won the battle and is at peace with Hungary. The River Cris still runs turbulently toward the Danube, but Oradea, deprived of its strategic value, is a somnolent provincial town where few are willing to talk about the day their city lost part of its soul.”
The novel offers us a look at the lives of the wealthy, the aristocracy, the poor residents and the farming peasants. We also follow the troubled relations between local Jews and the Hungarian and Romanian churches.  Wherever there are Jews, antisemitism can be found, sometimes concealed and at other times brutally in the open. The doctor is particularly disturbed at how much violence is carried out not by the uneducated mob but by students, who should represent a better future. Nonetheless, we are shown also the few friendly Christians, particularly Julius’s almost-cousin, a farmer called Sandor, who also comes across with depth and perception.
The work of the doctor is at times depicted graphically but not voyeuristically. The terrible effects of the First World War and pogroms are shown with sympathy, with the compassion and commonsense we come to expect from the young doctor whose life we are following.
Whether it is the passages set in Vienna, Budapest, Paris or Geneva, or Julius’s hometown whose name changes depending on which foreign power controls it, in many ways, the themes of Jewish identity and assimilation, antisemitism and social divisions are poignantly relevant to readers in today’s uneasy world.  At first remaining in the town in part to stay with his aging and ailing father and aunt, later Julius watches his sister’s family and prescient friends leave for America, Switzerland or Mandate Palestine. He pleads with his wife to escape with him to safety and agonizes about whether he can break his pact to save his life – and start a new life elsewhere with someone else.
There is much social commentary within the story, which was clearly well researched by Mazel, whose love of life, history and languages shines through. French-born, Mazel,  a graduate of the Law School and Institute for Political Science of Paris, was a Fullbright scholar to the United States. She is married to veteran diplomat Zvi Mazel, whose career as an Israeli ambassador took the couple to Egypt and Romania among other places. Both Mazels are frequent contributors to The Jerusalem Post.
“Julius Matthias, a Pact with the Devil,” is Michelle Mazel’s third novel and has been described, without exaggeration, as “a sweeping saga of love and tragedy in Transylvania through two world wars.” Translated and published in Romanian, it was awarded the Scrisul Romanesc Prize.
There are several twists in the plot, plausibly portrayed, which keep the readers’ attention to the end. The writing is warm and rich in detail. When I finished the book, in the early hours of a Jerusalem morning, I felt a little bereft. I would miss the character of Dr. Julius who had kept me company for several nights and seemed to be almost family.