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In Holocaust Novel, She Heard Echoes of Her Own Family

Image by Courtesy of Lauren Wein

One morning last spring, a colleague of mine told me about a Hungarian novel she’d been sent to consider for publication. She loved what she had read, but wondered if it would be better suited for me. At its most satisfying, our work as book editors introduces us to stories that deepen our experience of the world and clarify our place in it. My colleague knew my family had a Holocaust history, and she suspected this post-war love story might resonate.

The novel, “Fever at Dawn,” is inspired by the true story of author Peter Gardos’s parents. It opens with a 25 year old Hungarian man named Miklos on a boat pulling into a Swedish harbor; he is missing his front teeth, his glasses are broken, and he is coughing up bloody foam. A Swedish doctor examines him upon arrival, and tells Miklos he has tuberculosis. His prognosis is clear, cruel. “You have six months to live.”

But Miklos firmly rejects this. He didn’t survive the war and the camps only to drown from within. He secures the names of 117 Hungarian women convalescing in Red Cross facilities throughout Sweden, and writes letters to each of them. One of them will become his wife, and this, he is certain, will save him.

Lili Reich, an 18 year old survivor originally from Budapest and recovering at a rehabilitation hospital in another part of the country, writes back. “Your friendly letter was so comforting that I would be happy for you to write again.”

So begins their hopeful, somewhat brazen epistolary courtship — they recommend books to one another, he tries to convert her to socialism, she chastises him for his off-color jokes. Driven by the desire to meet Lili, Miklos wills himself well, ultimately convincing his doctors that he is strong enough to travel. Who has time for dark memories and faulty lungs when there is someone out there who sees him, who understands where he comes from, where he hopes to go?

When much of your workday is spent discussing books, you learn a lot about the internal mappings of the people around you, so my colleague knew that I’d lived much of my life in the long shadow cast by the camps — reflexively plotting escape routes, studying people’s characters (who would hide us? who would give us away?), serving as the resident weather-vane, sensitive to the subtlest shifts in power.

But she had no idea that like Miklos and Lili, my grandmother and her sister were Hungarian Jews who had survived the camps; that TB had very nearly finished the work the Nazis had begun; that they had spent the post-war years at a convalescent facility in Sweden.

The similarities were uncanny. Even so, as is so often the case, what made the story resonate so powerfully was something far less tangible.

My grandmother Shary and her sister Klari were the funniest, sharpest, most effervescent people I’ve known. Every milestone called for a celebration, every celebration called for a feast, every feast called for spontaneous eruptions of song. My grandmother was prone to marathon sneeze attacks; after the fifth or sixth, she would shout to herself, “Would you shuddup already!”

I’d known other survivors who were bitter, depressed, suicidal. And who could blame them after the torments they’d endured, the losses they’d suffered. I have long puzzled and marveled over how Shary and Klari managed to avoid that shadow and live in a world suffused with light. Today we might attribute their relentless humor, joy, and determination to a catchall term like grit or resilience, but I think that’s only part of the story.

At 19 and 16, Shary and Klari were the youngest children from a large family, the only ones still living at home with their mother. When Hungary fell to the Germans in 1944, they were rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. They were quickly separated from their mother, whom they would not see again. When their heads were shaved, they looked at each other and had to suppress their laughter. In the absence of mirrors, neither knew how absurd they looked until they saw the other.

In the camp, my aunt soon contracted tuberculosis, and my grandmother did everything she could to conceal her sister’s weakened state. The sick and infirm had no place in the munitions factory to which the sisters were conscripted. Shary physically propped her sister up during roll call, split her own rations with her to keep up her strength, and did twice as much work so there would be no deficit in their output.

When they were liberated after nearly a year, Klari was gravely ill, and learned she was being sent to a facility in Sweden to convalesce. Unwilling to separate, Shary secured a place for herself there too, working as a nurse.

Almost no photos of their lives before the war remained, and so visually speaking, Sweden is where the story of our family begins. The broad, lacquered photo album that lived in my grandmother’s closet when I was growing up, is filled with images of open, airy rooms, tall windows, sunshine, greenery. Shary and Klari, wearing white, or sometimes polka-dots, are always touching, smiling. You can tell my aunt is not well, but there is a thrill, a pleasure, an antic engagement to the narrative that emerges in these pages. These were the two women I grew up knowing—with their laughing blue eyes, their quick wit, their hurricane-force sneeze attacks.

Some years before my grandmother died, I recorded her and her sister on tape telling their stories from childhood through the war and beyond. Klari concluded with an admonition: “Take care of your brothers and sisters. In the end they’re all you have. I never would have made it out of that hell alive if not for your grandmother.”

And then, my grandmother’s response — a shrug, and her characteristic mild smile. “We saved each other.”

In Italian, “to survive” is sopravivere — literally, “to live above.” This makes survival sound like a victory, a point of pride, and in many ways it is. But as any survivor knows, “to live above” — beyond one’s known world and one’s tribe — can be a brutal sentence.

What Klari and my grandmother suggested decades ago, and what “Fever at Dawn” confirmed, is that survival is not merely a matter of outlasting tragedy. It is to live beyond the death of your own story and arrive somewhere new with not only your body, but your life force intact.

Perhaps then the key is to take a thread, however frayed, from the fabric of your past, bring it forward, and somehow embroider it into the unrecognizable world to which you’ve been delivered. A sort of transitional object of the soul.

There is a cult of self-reliance in this country, a narrative of bootstrap-lifting, of every man for himself. But it’s other people who help us locate the light in ourselves and draw it forth, animate it, give it velocity, a destination. As Shary and Klari knew, and Miklos and Lili too, we survive alone, but we live for each other.

Lauren Wein is an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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