For the last five years I have been doing historical research, centering on Hungary during World War II and into the 1950’s, for some novels I’ve been writing. One of my novels is set in Budapest in 1944-45 at the terrible culmination of the war there. The other takes place in 1951, at the height of Stalinist oppression in Hungary. My research has been a long study in conflict and suffering–painful but fascinating reading, and at times inspiring as well. I have read some poignant memoirs and novels in the course of this research that I would never have known about otherwise, and they have deeply affected my understanding of European hardship and strength. I’ve decided to devote some blog space to these books because they are worth not only reading but pondering. I’m not going to deal with the governmental questions they raise: that kind of commentary belongs to people far more politically knowledgeable than I am. But I want to look at what these books say about the human heart. (And that subject I have learned something about . . .)
Here is a quick list of some absorbing books I came across in my research. These are all set in 20th– century Hungary in the years of war and communism, but you don’t have to be Hungarian to appreciate these stories. They are thought-provoking in their own right and often touching.
Nine Suitcases by Bela Zsolt. A powerful Holocaust memoir, different in focus than most Holocaust stories more well known in America.
Swimming Across by Andrew Grove. Memoir of growing up in Budapest during the years of World War II and through the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Written by the founder of Intel.
Castles Burning by Magda Denes. Memoir of a Jewish childhood in war-torn Hungary. (This is the only one of these books that I didn’t “like,” but it’s still worth reading.)
Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer. A satirical but ultimately sad novel of Hungary from 1944 to 1956.
Embers by Sandor Marai. Beautifully written novel of betrayal, taking place between the wars.
Memoir of Hungary by Sandor Marai. The author’s recollections of Hungary and his commentary on what went wrong, politically and culturally. Interesting and in places angry and morose, it’s by no means light reading. (My husband read the book, too. He could never remember the name Marai, so when he referred to the author he called him “the depressed guy” or—facetiously—“Mr. Party Animal.”)
The Siege of Budapest by Krisztian Ungvary. This is a history book detailing the World War II siege on Budapest in the winter of 1944-45. Some portions will seem dry unless you like meter-by-meter blattle descriptions, but the book also contains many poignant eye-witness accounts and stories from survivers.
Enemies of the People by Kati Marton. A Budapest-born American journalist tells the story of her Hungarian journalist parents and their imprisonment by the communist government.
The Bridge at Andau by James Michener. Written from interviews with escapees after the 1956 revolution. Michener’s strident anti-communist rhetoric makes the book sound dated, but this is still an interesting and eye-opening book.
With the next post I’ll jump into some thoughts on Bela Zsolt’s Nine Suitcases. That is, unless my daughter-in-law gives birth before then, in which case you know the subject of my next post. (Sorry, Bela.)