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Julie Orringer’s first novel, “The Invisible Bridge,” is a story of hardship, endurance, death and survival in 1930s-40s Hungary.
Three Jewish brothers, Andras, Tibor and the Matya Levi, enjoyed a happy childhood in their small town of Konya, despite anti-Semitic feelings in Budapest. In the 1930s the three brothers won scholarships to study outside Hungary: Andras to Paris to study architecture, Tibor to Modena to study medicine and Matya to study theater.
Paris was an architect’s dream. Andras arrived there eager to study at the new Ecole Spéciale where he became fast friends with three other Jewish students. In small ways their first year was the story of any student’s first year of university. But these young men were Jews on a continent that was giving way to Hitler: Appeasements, fears and political alliances formed the backdrop to their everyday life. This was Paris, though, and as students they could live for a while with the illusion of freedom, even knowing the Jews in Germany were being oppressed.
Andras’s new life took him even as far as falling in love with and marrying Klara, a woman living in exile under a pseudonym.
At the end of the first year, Andras’s student visa was declared void and his scholarship revoked when the anti-Jewish laws went into effect. The Hungarian consulate could not help him. He and Klara returned to Budapest, where every day brought new issues and new decisions to be made.
Hungary was becoming a reluctant ally of Germany. As long as it remained separate and independent, Jews could own homes and work.
But many Jewish men were conscripted. They were not allowed to carry guns, since that would be too dangerous. Instead, they were assigned to Munkaszolgalat, a state labor service, in which they felled trees, laid roads and cleaned mines from the army’s route. Little food or clothing and no medical attention was offered to these men. If there was a bright spot for Hungarian Jews, albeit in retrospect only, it was that they were not yet being sent to detention camps. When the Germans invaded in 1944, occupied Hungary became another place altogether.
This inspiring story of hardship, endurance, death and survival is based on the experiences of the author’s maternal grandfather, who, as a young man, received a scholarship to study architecture in Paris but lost it because he was Jewish.
Ms. Orringer has carefully researched the historical tensions in Hungary during World War II. The descriptions of the daily lives of Europeans as the storm of war comes closer are excellent. This novel is haunting at times, with characters about whose fate the reader comes to care deeply.