GRATITUDE (Book Review)
As WWII draws to a brutal end, Hitler’s storm cloud of tyranny descends upon Hungary’s Jews. A sad yet soaring tale of a Hungarian Jewish family caught up in the cruel chaos, Joseph Kertes’ third novel, GRATITUDE, is a sweeping literary achievement that serves as a powerful humbling force – taking the reader through the dark night of the soul and into the spangled light.
Sixteen-year-old Lili Bandel emerges from her small Jewish village of Tolgy as the sole survivor in a place turned into a desolate ghost town – evacuated by German soldiers. She evades capture – her blue eyes and blond halo shielding her – managing the long trek to Budapest alone, where the well-to-do Becks take her in as their own.
Like many Hungarian Jewish families deriving false hope of immunity from Hungary’s alliance with Germany, the Becks, too, lived in their own form of denial and delusion, failing to see the proverbial ‘writing on the wall’ in time and heeding warnings from friends and relatives to get out of the country, until too late.
Painfully, tragically, with great skill, humility and respect, author Kertes leads us through the harrowing journey of the Becks to the gates of Hades as they struggle to hold on to their dignity and humanity in the tightening death-grip of Hitler’s hate machine led by Adolph Eichmann.
In the dark soil of despair and deprivation, new roots of hope and heroism spring forth as one of the family members, Paul Beck, a lawyer disbarred from practice because of his Jewish faith, teams up with the noble Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, risking their lives to save thousands of Jews by forging Swedish passports.
Some make it, some are not so fortunate – losing their lives to the randomness of war, the privations of gruelling labour camps or the gas chambers of Auschwitz, or succumbing to deep psychic wounds post-war.
What sets this book apart from other Holocaust books is that the heroes and villains are flawed human beings. One side isn’t always right while the other side always wrong. Compassion and cruelty often co-exist – revealing themselves in the unlikeliest of people and places.
While the country is left in ruins – pillaged by Germans and Russians – true restoration begins, restoration of buildings and temples and souls. Restoration of dignity and hope.
The story is a clarion call to us all to be alert and aware of the holocausts occurring all around us – and to act with courage and compassion. It is also a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the ability to prevail in times of darkness, as the author himself has prevailed over the dark psychology of his own demons, with a spirit of gratitude.
Reviewed by Sharif Khan.