I started reading Julius Matthias: Hope Reborn with the feeling of catching up with an old friend. The eponymous hero is Dr. Julius, and I’d last seen him (at least in my mind) when the tragedy of the Second World War and the Holocaust is tearing Europe and his life apart.
A man in his 50s – always carrying his medical bag – the multilingual Jewish doctor was last reported presenting his passport to an indifferent guard at the Italian-Swiss border having barely escaped with his life at the end of Michelle Mazel’s Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil.
I reviewed that novel in these pages in January 2019, summing up with the words: “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.”
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one, Mazel says: “The fact is that I never intended to write a sequel to the first book. But then so many people wanted to know ‘what happened next’ that I started wondering too! So I made myself a road map, which I discarded along the way because my characters would not let me do with them what I wanted. So there is a host of newcomers alongside some of the people you met in A Pact with the Devil and I had fun retracing life in newly liberated Paris. Still, there are some very serious undertones as befits the times.”
It is clear from Mazel’s writing that she likes her protagonist and cares what happens to him. Mazel wisely avoids the “new readers begin here” trap. The plot of A Pact with the Devil is interwoven in the story throughout the sequel.
Although Hope Reborn could stand in its own right, it is nonetheless best read after A Pact with the Devil, when we were first introduced to Julius in a small Transylvanian town at the start of the 20th century. He marries a bad-tempered, older, widow – one of three Magdas who had studied piano together with his beautiful sister, Anna – because her pharmacist father promises to fund Julius’s medical studies if he commits to staying with his wife for life. Julius keeps his side of the bargain, even though at the end of the first novel he only narrowly avoids Nazi deportation.
Hope Reborn starts in September 1944, the world as he knew it no longer exists, and he has no place to call home. Having sent his children to Paris to study before the war, the dedicated father sets out to find them or at least discover their fates. The novel describes in a convincing way the difference between the lives he first encounters in the wealthy banking circles of Switzerland, and in the parts of Europe where the war drags on. Even newly liberated areas are not entirely safe.
As the widowed Julius is setting out for France from the comfort of Switzerland, he is persuaded at the last minute to take a mysterious traveling companion with him. The young lady, Lily, becomes a central figure in his new life.
A former kibbutznik, Lily is an Egyptian-born Jew, and although the storyline doesn’t take us there, we learn about the Egyptian Jewish community through Lily’s reminiscences and thinking. I couldn’t help but empathize with her as she tries to imagine living in a cold, gray country instead of under the warmth of the Mediterranean skies in the Land of Israel.
As in the first book, Hope Reborn also deals with the painful dilemmas of Jewish identity, antisemitism, assimilation and social divisions. The characters include financiers; a childless, elderly, Hungarian-Jewish couple in Paris; black marketeers; Polish-Russian forgers; Resistance members; and farmers living in rural France.
The author of several books, Mazel skillfully weaves all the characters together with empathy and enough twists in the plot to keep the reader interested and concerned.
French-born and a graduate of the Law School and Institute for Political Science of Paris, Mazel was a Fulbright 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. Mazel has a keen eye for the human condition, and has obviously absorbed her surroundings wherever she found herself.
Julius Matthias Hope Reborn offers reading pleasure, social commentary and a form of closure for those of us who wanted to know about the next chapter in the life of the Jewish doctor and his family who lived in such tumultuous times.■
Julius Matthias: Hope Reborn
Michelle MazelNew Meridian, 2021$20, 348 pages