Gratitude By Joseph Kertes
The Second World War continues to haunt the imagination of contemporary writers. There are still stories that need to be told, often the stories of parents and grandparents. The events of that war, and the years immediately following the war still influence today's political situation, especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. There is not one of us unaffected by the experiences of our own parents and grandparents during the years of World War II, especially so for the descendants of the survivors – of those killed in action and those who were murdered in concentration camps.
Joseph Kertes, in his first novel, Gratitude, tells the story of the Jewish residents of Budapest over a period of two years – from the spring of 1944 to the spring of 1946.
Hungary came into the war late – until the spring of 1944 the country was relatively unaffected by the war in Europe. The Jews lived as they had for many years; doctors and lawyers still practiced, business owners were still able to own and operate their companies. I sometimes find it difficult to understand how rich upper class society was at that time, in culture and in personal wealth. The affluent residents of Budapest were sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They lived a good life. This all changed in the spring of 1944 – especially for the Jews – as it already had across the rest of Europe.
In this novel the story centres on the Beck family – theirs being the experience of the Hungarian Jews. We begin with Lili, a teenager, who survives the massacre of her family and most of the other families in her village. Lili's inability to comprehend what has happened to her family is one of the most poignant parts of the novel.
It is incomprehensible to think that the residents of an entire community would be slaughtered simply because they are Jews. Lili cannot understand where everyone has gone – who could? Lili, in shock and desperate, makes her way to Budapest and is taken in by the Beck family.
The Becks are an affluent family of doctors, dentists and lawyers. As the Nazis take control of the country, these people find they are no longer able to practice their professions and they slowly begin to realize that their lives are in danger, as the liquidation of the Hungarian Jews begins.
Dr. Paul Beck becomes involved with assisting Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who made it his obsession to save as many of the Jews as he could by issuing them Swedish passports and protecting them in the Swedish embassy in Budapest. There are other characters in the novel who do all they can to help their Jewish friends and neighbours as the Nazi laws become more and more repressive and the transport of Jews out of the city to the death camps begin.
Usually, as I read a novel I prepare for a review by making notes. I couldn't put this book down long enough to do so. It is absolutely riveting – you are desperate to know what will happen to these very real characters.
It is also a very vivid portrait of Budapest; a fascinating city only recently becoming a tourist destination again. The city, until recently, has changed little since the time of the Second World War. Because the Nazi's did not bomb the city, the buildings still stand, with more damage done by conflicts later than during WWII.
The Gellhert Hotel is still a destination - albeit somewhat worn, with its view over the river and the city. The Dohany Street synagogue, the most modern and largest of the more than a dozen synagogues in Budapest prior to the Second World War, is still as it was. It is an exquisite building. In the garden where nearly 70,000 Jews were contained, deprived of their property and rights, before being shipped to Auschwitz, where there is now a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg and the Budapest Jews. When I was visiting there last year we met a family who were descendants of a man saved by Wallenberg. This novel is fiction, but the history is all too real.
Joseph Kertes studied English at York University and the University of Toronto, where he was encouraged in his writing by Irving Layton and Marshall McLuhan. Mr. Kertes founded Humber College's distinguished creative writing and comedy programs. He is currently Humber's Dean of Creative and Performing Arts and is a recipient of numerous awards for teaching and innovation.
Joseph Kertes was born in Hungary, but escaped with his family to Canada after the revolution of 1956.
He writes, “This story has haunted me my whole life and I am writing a novel inspired by a family anecdote. The events in my story occurred before my time. But I have tried to create a novel around these people, turned them into characters and given them lives. What the story says to me—and what I hope sets it apart from others on the subject—is that all of us, victims, perpetrators, Christians, Jews, saints and criminals alike, are capable of making mistakes with tragic consequences".
We have the privilege, on Tuesday, May 13, of hearing Joseph Kertes read from and talk about this novel at the Charles W. Stockey Centre.