Tag Archives: hungary

People of the Book: Interview with Julie Orringer

By Symi Rom-Rymer

Sitting on a faux cowhide bench with rock music blaring at full volume in a small coffee shop in one of Brooklyn’s hipper neighborhoods, it would be hard to feel further away from the turbulence and romanticism of 1930s Paris.  But I was swept back to that era as I spoke with Julie Orringer, whose debut epic novel—The Invisible Bridge, among the New York Times’ 100 best books of 2010—I wrote about in a recent post.   Inspired by her grandparents’ experiences before and during the Holocaust, Invisible Bridge follows the fate of Andras Lévi, a young Jewish Hungarian architectural student on the cusp of a new life in interwar Paris.  Refreshingly, unlike many Holocaust novel protagonists, Lévi is not from the East European shtetl.  He is urban, ambitious and, like many of his peers, seeking a better life for himself in Western Europe.  Yet, just as he is establishing that life, he is forced to return to Hungary and becomes quickly subsumed by the onslaught of the Second World War.  Though her tale is ultimately tragic, Orringer populates her story with such vivid personalities and so evocatively recreates the atmosphere of interwar and wartime Paris and Budapest that it’s difficult to put the book down for long.  I know. I tried.

In between researching her next book and playing with her new baby,  Julie Orringer took time to talk with me about her inspiration for the book, her research process and how people never ask her about humor during the Holocaust.

Why did you choose the Holocaust as the subject of your first novel? What drew me to the story was hearing about my grandfather’s experiences when he was younger.  Despite the fact that I grew up in a Hungarian family, I just didn’t know much about what had happened to Hungarian Jews during the war.  Like a lot of families with Holocaust survivors, those years just weren’t discussed in my family.  My grandparents certainly alluded to them and I heard bits and pieces about their survival, but I didn’t really have a sense of the whole picture because my grandparents didn’t talk about it.  Once I started asking them questions about what had happened, they really wanted to tell their story.  They wanted the novel to be written.  But initially, I didn’t think I was going to write a book about the Holocaust.  I wanted to write about a young man who moved to Paris who tries to study architecture and loses his scholarship, which is what happened to my grandfather.  I thought his life was so fascinating and wanted to learn everything I could about how he got by and what he studied and how he managed to live. That was the initial impetus for the book.  Of course I knew that there was the weight of history behind the beginnings of that story.  Because I’m a fiction writer, once I started telling that story, the experiences of my characters became different from those of my grandfather.  That was when I really had to start thinking about how the war was going to affect my characters and change the course of their lives.

What do you think fiction can tell us about the Holocaust that non-fiction can’t? I would like to answer the question without the qualifier of ‘Holocaust.’ The reason I chose to write the book as a novel rather than as a book about my grandfather’s experience, is that fiction has the ability more than any other art form to really place the reader inside the character’s experience.  E.M. Forster writes beautifully about this in his book, Aspects of the Novel in which he writes that fiction is unique among other forms in its ability to inhabit the human psyche and do to so from within, instead of in a more distant way.  I wanted to suggest something of what it would be like to be a young man, building a life at that time, falling in love, studying architecture, making close friendships, and then to have all that fall apart when historical circumstances got in the way.  It would certainly be possible to do something similar in non-fiction, but when we read a piece of historical non-fiction, there’s a sense of foreknowledge of what comes later.  In this case, even though the reader knows what comes later, the character doesn’t know and he’s able to inhabit a more innocent space then I would have been able to communicate otherwise. Continue reading

Jewish Ghosts of Budapest

By Merav Levkowitz

On the last evening of 2010, a Friday, about 35-40 (mostly) young adults, gathered in a non-descript apartment in the center of Budapest’s—actually on the Pest side of the Danube river—Jewish quarter. This is Budapest’s branch of Moishe House, an organization that maintains 33 houses around the world in which young Jews can gather for Shabbat, holidays, and activities. I spent the last Shabbat of the year at Budapest’s Moishe House, which had become my brother’s Jewish community during his semester abroad.

Hungary’s Jewish community has a unique, but tumultuous history. Jews have resided in the Austro-Hungarian empire and in Buda, Obuda, and Pest—the three towns that came together as Hungary’s capital, Budapest, in 1873—since medieval times. As in other European countries, Jews in the region experienced waves of safety and success interspersed with those of discrimination and expulsion. Following the Ottoman conquest of Buda, Jews were dispersed throughout central Hungary and the Balkans, where they lived in relative calm until the Habsburgs, the ruling royal family, imposed new restrictions during their late 17th century reign. In December 1867 Jews were granted full emancipation, and the period that followed was one of prosperity and assimilation of the Jewish community into Hungary. During this time, Hungary’s unique Neolog Jewish movement, which seeks middle-ground religiosity and is most like the American Conservative movement, gained popularity. The movement’s majestic and regal synagogue, the Dohany Street Great Synagogue—the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world—hosted major community events and still serves as the emblem and gatekeeper to the city’s famous Jewish quarter behind it.

Today Hungary is home to an estimated 100,000 Jews, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, and Budapest houses over twenty synagogues and a hip, vibrant Jewish quarter that is familiar to all who live in the city and is actively advertised as a “Must See” in all travel guides. Yet, it also seems hidden and cloaked in mystery. Many of the Jews we met did not even know they were Jewish for most of their lives.

Both World War II and the subsequent communism eroded the Hungarian Jewish community and identity. While the discourse has long held that Hungarian Jews perished at the hands of the occupying Nazi German forces, the relatively new Holocaust Memorial Center in Budapest ascribes distinct responsibility to the Hungarian state, arguing that beginning in 1938 the state undertook a process by which it deprived Jews and Roma, in particular, of their “rights, property, freedom, human dignity, and in the end, their very existence.” Budapest’s Jews were confined to the tragic conditions of the Jewish ghetto until their deportation was carried out. Indeed, the deportation of Hungarian Jews was the fastest and most extensive—437,402 Jews from Hungary deported within 56 days—and one-tenth of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims were Hungarian.

After the Holocaust’s devastation, the subsequent communist regime turned the remaining Hungarian Jews away from the religion. Many Jewish families were active communists, but even those that were not kept Judaism under wraps. One family friend, now in her late 50s, told us that as a child, most of the families she knew, including her own, were atheists. Once she learned, as an adult, that her family was Jewish, she discovered that all her atheist childhood friends were also, in fact, originally Jewish. Another adult friend shared that as a child he had been told that his grandmother lived in England. He was surprised, when she came to visit, that she did not speak any English and was told that she lived in an area of England that was predominantly Hungarian. As an adult, he, too, learned that he was Jewish and that his grandmother had, in fact, been living in Tel Aviv. Hungarian Jews of all ages shared similar stories.
Today, Budapest’s Jews seem caught in a tug-of-war. On one hand, Jewish life and culture seems active, alive, and on the rise, especially among young adults. On the other hand, however, many Hungarians expressed fear about the current government, which has censored the press and includes a faction of members of the nationalist, anti-Semitic, far-right party Jobbik. Many Hungarian Jews I met espoused concern for a future and a desire to make aliyah, especially if the political climate continues as is. Indeed, even as I, a tourist, roamed the colorful and vibrant Jewish neighborhood and visited the impressive—but empty—Holocaust Memorial Center, I could not help but feel that the residual fears of the Holocaust and communism had settled over the city and that the Jewish community was, in fact, one of ghosts.