I Kiss Your Hands Many Times is a powerful narrative about World War II from the perspective of a Hungarian couple, and their extended families on both sides, as Hungary dealt with the choice between Soviet Russia and Germany. This book manages to be both an autobiography and a biography at the same time, a voyage of discovery as Marianne Szegedy-Maszak uncovers who her parents were before they became the low-key, unemotional man and woman she grew up with. Through documents discovered after her parents died, and research into Hungarian history, the author pieces together an amazing narrative of two people in love when her mother’s Jewish heritage made Hanna subject to all the horrors of German and Hungarian hate while her father’s political activism left him to rot in a German concentration camp until the Americans broke through.
This is not a pretty story, nor is it a romance in the traditional sense, but it’s an important tale. I learned more than I could have imagined about World War II, about the difficulties Hungary faced, and got a better insight into how the world could have stood by as the Germans practiced mass murder against genetic Jews (as opposed to religion being the marker), political enemies, and anyone they decided didn’t fit the model of their new world. I Kiss Your Hands Many Times does not stand back and gloss over the horror Marianne’s family and friends faced during this time. She doesn’t shy away from the impact World War II had on the survivors, a powerful force that changed the very nature of both her parents. Through their eyes, you see the world torn apart, the efforts to hold together what pieces were available, and the way the West and Hungary chose to see decisions made under duress so as to punish victims of the war even more.
The members of this story were in a unique position with regards to Hungary and the war. Hanna’s family was part of the wealthy upper class in Hungary thanks to the hard work of earlier generations who recognized opportunity and built an economic empire before World War I and until it all came crashing down in World War II, in large part because they were of Jewish bloodlines. Marianne’s great grandfather Manfred Weiss was instrumental in helping Hungary recover from the horrors of World War I, and the industry he’d brought into being in the nineteenth century was in the true spirit of capitalism where wealth was the byproduct of what he wanted to do, and a good bit of that wealth was shared with all workers who made his factories run, giving them not just an income but housing and other privileges, such as an on-site doctor. Rather than the conflict between employers and employs in modern capitalism, Weiss and his family were heroes who had revitalized Hungary not once but several times. This wealth insulated them from the worst of the anti-Semitism for a long while, making it hard to imagine just how bad things were for Jews in Germany. The Weiss, Kornfeld, and Chorin families dealt with the new laws in Hungary (attempts to comply with German demands without being inhumane) by rearranging ownership on paper and emphasizing their Christianity, their grandfather having converted as many Jews did in Hungarian society.
But none of that helped them once the German pressure on the Hungarian government grew. No amount of wealth, no amount of good will among the Hungarians or active participation in Christian church, made any difference. They had to go into hiding among friends and non-Jewish family, but not all were successful. Hanna’s family suffered whether in hiding or taken to concentration camps, some tortured, others tricked, and ultimately, faced with an offer that would give everything to a single German in return for all but five family members escaping Nazi-controlled Europe, Ferenc Chorin, brother-in-law to Hanna’s father, made the only choice he could, a choice that post-war Hungary and the Allies held against him and his family, naming them German collaborators.
The author’s father, Aladar, meanwhile, was a Christian in faith and bloodline so spared the dangers of anti-Semitic laws, but he saw the truth about the Nazis early in his career as a member of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. His efforts both to keep Hungary free of German control and to get help from the Allies as things grew worse made him into an enemy of Germany while the West, in part because of the actions of some of his contacts, ignored or dismissed his claims. His experience as a political prisoner is no less fraught with danger than that of Hanna’s Jewish family. He survived the concentration camp in which he was held with the assistance of both staff and prisoners who were impressed by him. A fascinating person with strong beliefs that boiled down into supporting his fellows and attempting to make the world a better place for all of them, he accomplished amazing things. And yet he failed at others, because no matter how persuasive, the political and social climate was set against him from the start.
I don’t normally offer so much detail, wanting you to discover it on your own, but I’ve only brushed the surface of the social, political, and personal battles described in this book. This is not a fictionalized account. None of what appears in the book is fiction. It is fact: complicated, unsettling, and important. These facts help me to understand why some of what happened was allowed to happen, and serve as a warning of how easy it is to dismiss the reality because we don’t want to face it as a possibility.
I can’t say this was an enjoyable book, though it had some good moments for sure, because it’s too pointed and raw for “enjoyable.” I can say I think reading this account offers important insights into that time in our world’s history, and makes it personal in a way that is critical if we’re going to learn from the past and not dismiss it, especially with the difficulties on the international scene right now.
P.S. I received this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review, selecting it because of a sense of curiosity about the time period. I got much more than I’d bargained for, and I think you’ll find answers to questions you might not even have asked yet if you follow Marianne on her journey through her family’s history.