When in Montreal in June, I stopped in a bookstore and purchased a copy of “Journey to Vaja”, written by a Canadian journalist and historian about her family’s Jewish history in Hungary. It was a nice copy, signed by the author, and I thought a good souvenir of the trip (and a way give the store some business). I didn’t know if I would ever read the book.
But I did, and it was a treat. Elaine Naves was born in Hungary and as a young girl moved to Canada with her father and step-mother, both Holocaust survivors. The majority of her father’s family (including his first wife and six year old daughter) had been killed during the war, and she knew only a few of what had once been a very large, extended family. Her father was from the northeast of Hungary (although she had been born in and always lived in Budapest) which she believed, from the tales her father told, to have been, in his mind, a sort of Eden. Her father was a story teller, she said, and clearly the story telling gene was passed down to her.
For a long time, she had little interest in her father’s former life, but as he got older, she became more intrigued by the stories and they made a good number of tapes, on which he related tales of the past. Again, after a period of time, and after her father, then in his mid-80s, died, she revisited the tapes, looked a package of letters and other documents that her father had kept in his possession but never really discussed with her, asked those family members who were still around, and recalled visits she had made to Hungarian family no longer alive, and began to do extensive research.
She was able to pull together a surprising amount of detail, and weave it together to tell the story of what I have to believe was a rather unique family.
This is a story of rural Hungary, and of Jews who were agriculturalists, and orthodox, and definitely Hungarian (not just “living in exile”), and on good terms, and surprisingly equal terms, with their Jewish neighbors, and successful in their work (not just on the estates of the nobility but as their own bosses, on their own, or long term leased, land), and mixing with other Jewish families in the area, and attending school, and being part of the Hungarian military, of surviving the destruction of World War I, and marrying and raising children, and coping with waves of increasing and decreasing governmental anti-Semitism, which for a long time did not seem to really affect their day to day lives, and then facing the ultimate reality of German invasion of Hungary in 1944, the loss of their property and eventual assignment to work camps or death camps.
It is a book worth reading on many levels. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, I am unsure as to how much it has circulated in the U.S.