Griesz’s debut memoir offers the story of how she and her mother survived the Holocaust and Communist rule in Hungary.
In the 1930s, young mother Magda largely spent her life shopping, visiting friends and commanding her German nanny to parade around Magda’s young daughter Kati for guests. When World War II began, 8-year-old Kati (this memoir’s author) became aware that she was Jewish. Kati enjoyed religion class, particularly her gentle rabbi teacher, but Magda was less steadfast in her faith. After divorcing Kati’s father, Magda obtained a nose job; Magda’s father Ignatius approved, saying that it would make her “less Jewish” in appearance. Magda later married a quiet, distant man, and as the war worsened, she shielded her daughter from world events. The family converted to Lutheranism despite Kati’s objections. Later, Magda pulled strings to send Kati to a Calvinist boarding school, as a growing number of laws targeted Hungary’s Jewish population. Kati’s exile proved short-lived; the school decided that it could not guarantee her safety among her anti-Semitic, openly hostile peers. In later years, Kati traveled to Switzerland and Australia as Magda and her husband remained behind the Iron Curtain. Griesz tells the story mainly using Kati’s first-person point of view but occasionally switches to Magda’s viewpoint. Griesz’s writing style has an appealing frankness throughout, and matter-of-fact details—such as the way Magda and Kati obtained the required yellow stars to wear on their coats—make it easy for readers to empathize with Kati’s and Magda’s everyday lives. However, the dialogue seems a bit unnatural and stilted at times, primarily when it’s used merely to relay plot exposition or background information. The book’s first half is the most compelling, as it contains personal stories interspersed with short historical and political background. The second half feels somewhat overlong, as it covers the women’s post-Hungary personal lives over a period of about 40 years. That said, the second section does reinforce the theme that it’s possible to survive extreme hardships and also reinvent oneself again and again.
A solid, decades-spanning memoir about a Hungarian family.