Veronica Foldes Frame. New York: Riverview Publishing, 1993. XII + 270 pages. $22.00 cloth or $13.00 paper.
This novel is the author’s semi-autobiographical account of a young Jewish Christian woman’s passage through life against the background of Hungary during World War II.
The first six chapters are a slow-moving but detailed introduction to Katalin Fogaras—Kata—around whom the events of the story unfold. The first third of the novel leads us through her growing relationship with Istvan and their subsequent marriage. We share their joy in having a son and then their sorrow as circumstances dictate that he be sent away to safety amidst a climate of growing Nazism in Europe.
The family’s experiences are colored by Kata and Istvan’s own problems of faith and religious identity. For Kata is a Jewish Christian, while Istvan is a Jew sympathetic toward his wife’s faith but unable to share it. On their first meeting, he asks Kata if she is a gentile. No,” she replies, “but I am Christian.”
Istvan, we learn, has no real concept of God beyond that of a “Higher Intelligence.” Though he loves Kata, he finds her faith and her background hard to reconcile. Because of the political situation, Istvan eventually joins the Church despite his unbelief, so his son can be registered as a “Christian.”
The events of wartime force the question of identity into even sharper relief. It is no academic matter to be a Jewish Christian! Kata is aware that her status is being defined for her. Her identity no longer rests on an inner acknowledgment and outer expression of her heritage and faith. Rather, those who are neither Jewish nor Christian define it for their own ends.
Throughout, we share Kata’s dilemmas of family and faith: her father’s longing for her to marry a Christian; her disturbed reaction to a church service that forces her, in a moment she tries to rationalize away, to face the fact that Istvan is not a believer; her response to the sufferings of her people, which she can’t quite share. In a joyful climax toward the end of the book, we also witness her realization of what it means to be Jewish and a believer in the Messiah.
Besides Kata herself, we encounter a variety of other characters. The middle portion of the story, detailing Kata’s time in hiding, is a study of the individuals she meets. This appears to be a device used to describe “types” of people whom the author met at the time, and their different reactions to the situation in which they found themselves. We meet Mrs. Gondos, “a simple woman believing in right and wrong,” and the naive young church secretary, who do not really understand the gravity of the situation. We are shown the faith and courage of gentile Christians like Dr. Garay and Pastor Baumgarten, who hide Kata and other Jews, aware of both their responsibility and the danger they put themselves in, but choosing what they see as the right course of action to save lives. There is also Zoltan, struggling with his youth and the issue of death; the soldiers caught in a system they are unable to change; and Kata’s parents, confused, badly treated and yet survivors.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the survival motif recurs throughout the book. The constant awareness of the need to find food and the basics of life becomes all-important; the need for a place to hide overrides all other needs; and in a world where the past order of life has been wiped away, Kata’s young son becomes the symbol of hope for the future.
Throughout the book, the scenes are very personal, very domestic: we see the real effect of the times in the detailed life of one small family. Yet the drama in this period of history and in the events described is somewhat lost in the rather emotionless and matter-of-fact presentation. For a mother first to send away her son, then to lose her husband to a concentration camp, and finally to be forced into hiding herself are painful and moving events, whose full impact remains hidden in this novel. I was left wanting to know more of Kata’s faith and her feelings, of her identification as a Jew, and of her reactions to the circumstances around her. Maybe, in such a situation, people do not allow themselves to feel; maybe, in such terrible times, description of the facts is difficult enough.
The novel stands in a growing tradition of fictional works based on personal memories of World War II. Such books are necessary, for the experiences and memories of those events will die with those who lived through them unless they are passed on and kept alive in written form. Novels such as On Whom I Have Mercy are a new literary tradition, growing out of dark times to shed light on the future. They are an essential part of the breaking of the peculiar silence that has been kept by so many of those who were there.
Caroline Hewitt is a Jewish believer from London who served on staff with Jews for Jesus there.
Editor’s Note: To obtain this book, write to Riverview Publishing, P.O. Box 750308, Forest Hills, NY 11375. Prices include shipping and handling.