In "I Kiss Your Hands Many Times," Marianne Szegedy-Maszak offers a new perspective into the Hungarian experience during World War II. Aladar Szegedy-Maszak, a middle-class Catholic who worked for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, fell in love with Hanna Kornfeld, a wealthy Hungarian Jew of the Manfred Weiss family.
But in a courtship that began in the early days of World War II, their relationship had to withstand the harshest moments that the war brought to Hungary. When the Nazis invaded, Hanna and many of her family members were forced into hiding, if they didn't have the chance to flee the country.
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Meanwhile, as a member of the Hungarian government, Aladar was imprisoned at Dachau, opened in 1933 as the Nazis' first concentration camp. Under these circumstances, Aladar and Hanna's relationship was held together by a series of letters exchanged between 1940 and 1943, at which point, Aladar stopped writing to Hanna, fearing that it would place her in greater danger. The classic Hungarian expression, "Kezet Csokolom" or "I kiss your hands many times," was his signature on these letters.
After the devastating war, the two eventually married and immigrated to the United States. They raised a family at their house on Patterson Street in Washington, D.C., where their daughter, Marianne, grew up learning about the family's extensive history. Only Aladar's letters survived the voyage, and in gazing back upon her parents' courtship, Marianne suggests he "probably burned" Hanna's responses "along with many of his incriminating papers on March 19, 1944," the day the Nazis invaded Hungary.
Thirty years later, Aladar would again write about that day. "I am writing the same on the thirty-third anniversary of March 19, the humiliating and shameful memory of the great collapse, of disintegration, of national impotence and decomposition, the gaping precipice. The devastating and frightening way it happened. We counted on possibilities, which is why we wanted to resist. But no other preparations were made, not even in symbolic form."
Buried inside this rich family history is a new perspective into the experiences of Hungarians during World War II. Author and daughter, Marianne Szegedy-Maszak teases apart the formative years of her parents' relationship. She crafts a historical narrative from her father's letters and other family memorabilia.
We learn about Germany's influence on Hungarian politics and life through the perspective of Hanna's family and Aladar's professional life. We learn how the war not only destroyed the extensive social, political and cultural fabric of Hungary, but also how it stole the courtship and romance that conceivably Hanna and Aladar could have developed in better times.
As Ms. Szegedy-Maszak writes, "What mattered was what preceded us. The life before the war. Yes, even life during the war. The daily grind in America paled in comparison to the eradicated Hungarian world; the past trumped the present."
For those looking to learn about the experience of Hungarian refugees, "I Kiss Your Hands Many Times" opens our eyes to the vastly different, but equally turbulent experiences of Hanna and Aladar. And Ms. Szegedy-Maszak delves into their lives without being overly sentimental. She also gives us the crucial, historical details in which to frame the story of her parents' relationship.
Yet, we are immersed within this history from the perspective of someone inside of it. With so many relatives and friends introduced, Hanna and Aladar's relationship becomes lost. Overwhelmed by the introduction of names, we end up with a family tree that is sometimes too complicated to keep track of.
In the end, the weight of war forever changed Hanna and Aladar. Yet, Marianne takes comfort in how their love has been preserved by the memories of friends and family, and particularly, in Aladar's letters to Hanna. Like the memories of war that never left them, Aladar's letters have preserved the passion for life that he and Hanna once had.
Evi Heilbrunn is the associate editor of Health Care Analysis at U.S. News & World Report. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet her @eviheilbrunn.