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“Gratitude,” by Hungarian-born award-winning author Joseph Kertes, is a powerful novel set in Hungary during the final years of World War II. On his website, Mr. Kertes says, “This story has haunted me my whole life, and I am writing a novel inspired by a family anecdote.” (www.josephkerts.com) The novel follows a Hungarian Jewish family and friends through the last nine months of WWII.
Earlier, Hungary had formed an alliance with Nazi Germany, thus letting its people escape most of the
horrors of the war. But by 1944 Germany was asserting its power and rounding up Hungarian Jews. The Nazis started in the countryside, where whole villages were emptied overnight.
Lili is 16 when the troops arrive. Her mother tells her to hide behind the wardrobe and not come out – no matter what. After three days she emerges to find out what has happened. She finds the whole village emptied and eventually makes her way to Budapest, where she meets up with another Jewish family. Though nothing has really happened in the city yet, everyone is nervous. Germany is losing the war, and it is difficult for anyone to visualize the horrors ahead.
However, 36-year-old Swede Raoul Wallenberg, Secretary of the Swedish legation in Budapest, realizes what is coming. With authorization from the Swedish government, Mr. Wallenberg, because of his diplomatic status, gets his embassy to falsify thousands of Swedish passports, turning endangered Hungarian Jews into Swedes. Sweden is neutral, and Germany has to respect its sovereignty. Many young Jewish men helped in the network. The novel gives a defining glimpse of the individual courage, humanity and decisiveness of this heroic man.
Throughout the story art, music and literature give foundation to the Jewish community. They consider themselves Hungarians first, Jews second. Hungary is their country and their culture, and they have always been proud to be Hungarian. Though many of their fellow citizens come to their aid, some are too scared. Even after the war some Hungarian Jews were too frightened of the Russians to help Mr. Wallenberg, who had saved their lives.
“Gratitude” is a poignant story about average people who live in fear. The author uses their fear to explore the complexities of the human psyche. The characters are not heroes; they hide; they try not to think; they survive. This novel will make the reader think and remember. Many of the characters in this novel see life as beautiful and not to be taken for granted. Listen to and enjoy every bird, symphony and poem, they caution. When, toward the end of the novel, the character Martha marries, she puts two dates of birth on her marriage license: the day she was born and the day she escaped.
Joseph Kertes recently won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction.