THE HOLOCAUST NOVEL OF THE CENTURY


The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Knopf, 2010, 602pp., $26.95  ISBN: 978-1-4000-4116-9 (1-4000-4116-3

Viking (Penguin), 2010, 624pp., £14.99 ISBN: 978-0-670-91458-6 

A 30-SOMETHING Brooklyn author 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.

The debut novel issued by a third-generation Holocaust survivor, The Invisible Bridge is 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. Julie Orringer (b. 1973) succeeds by approaching the global tragedy through the specific concerns, passions and loyalties of individuals modelled on her own, Hungarian-born Jewish 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”.

The novel is the result of seven years of research and writing. Orringer’s first book was How to Breath Underwater (Knopf, 2003 and Penguin, 2005), a collection of nine flawless, poignant and delicate short stories about the confusions of youth. It became a New York Times “Notable Book“ and earned a place on several best-of-the-year lists. The author has won The Paris Review Discovery Prize and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Stanford University, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Centre for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

The Invisible Bridge 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, enrols 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 the Second World War, they are compelled to return home. András as well as his brothers Tibor and Mátyás must eventually serve in various slave-labour 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. Like many of their real-life counterparts, András and his brothers had to leave home because of Hungary‘s Numerus Clausus (closed numbers) legislation of 1920 severely restricting the access of Jews to the universities.

This was Europe’s first anti-Semitic law after the First World War, even though the world Jew did not actually occur in its text. Yet it logically led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz by elevating common racial prejudice into a fundamental policy of state. This was followed by the openly anti-Semitic so-called First Jewish Law of 1938, introduced by one János Makkai, a racist Hungarian parliamentary deputy and failed novelist, providing for the exclusion of Jews from positions of influence in the mass communication media. These and subsequent measures prepared for the physical annihilation of Jews by removing their human rights and forcing them into the margins of communal existence.

The legal reforms as well as the consequent exodus of Jewish-Hungarian youth to the best universities and publishing houses of Western Europe and North America were analysed at a recent international conference at the opening of a current historical exhibition here at the Budapest Holocaust Memorial Centre. The young refugees included such Hungarian-born giants as the novelist and journalist Arthur Koestler, the war photographer Robert Capa and the physicist Edward Teller. The lives of some of them are also explored by Kati Márton in The Great Escape: Nine Jews who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (Simon & Schuster, 2006).

Julie 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 story telling 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, flavours 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. 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…”

But tenderness triumphs only for the survivors amidst the denunciations, manhunts, fear and corruption. Long before the invasion of this country by Nazi Germany towards the end of the war, Hungary was the only power to deploy on the battlefield tens of thousands of its own citizens — Jewish men — as slave labourers, many of whom perished from exhaustion, disease and the murderous whim of their own commanders.

Current historical research, of which Orringer is obviously aware, has uncovered a macabre Hungarian invention jovially described at the time as the “Minesweeper Model 1942”. This involved the despatch of the slaves — regular members of the Royal Hungarian Army detached in special Jewish work units — held by long leashes attached to their necks. The terrified men were forced at gunpoint to trek across minefields in order to clear the path of the fighting units marching behind them by activating the lurking anti-personnel devices as they unwittingly trod on them.

And the Jewish slaves also occasionally found themselves in the thick of the fighting. This happened repeatedly when labourers 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.

The survivors among the novel’s main characters emigrate to the United States after the war. Most of them owed their lives to sheer coincidence and the inability of the killers to kill all their intended victims. Since then, the Hungarian Jewish community has recovered some if its pre-war vitality. But it may well go on mourning its Holocaust dead for many generations to come.

Klára and András learn about the fate of his beloved brother Tibor by examining the endless lists of dead displayed and frequently renewed on a synagogue wall. Orringer writes: “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…”

Orringer’s grandparents emigrated to the US after the war. In common with many other Holocaust survivors, they maintained complete silence about their experience — until they were questioned closely by the author when she came of age. The novel began as an endeavour to erect a loving monument to honour her Holocaust dead. And like the novel’s protagonists, the author of Hungary’s infamous First Jewish Law also emigrated to the US where he died beyond remorse in 1994 of Alzheimer’s disease resembling, according to one who nursed him, an Auschwitz skeleton.

Thomas Orszag-Land (b. 1938) a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent covering Eastern Europe and the Middle East for global syndication. His most recent book ‘Christmas in Auschwitz’ translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei (Smokestack, England, 2010). Currently writing an anthology of Holocaust poetry.