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Journey to Vaja: Reconstructing the World of a Hungarian-Jewish Family

by Elaine Kalman Naves

Anyone who has listened to a parent spin family yarns knows that such stories are concoctions of myth and fact. But the books that emerge from these tales – Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Denise Chong’s The Concubine’s Children or Michael Ignatieff’s The Russian Album – tend to favour one mode or the other.

Journey to Vaja fits the pattern: chronicling four generations of her father’s Hungarian-Jewish family, Montreal literary journalist Elaine Kalman Naves learned many of the romantic stories of Vaja, the village in Hungary where her ancestors lived, at her father Gusti’s knee. As an adult, she approaches her subject as a historian, but, as she admits, a historian with often conflicted emotions that militate against objectivity. Although Kalman Naves was born after the war, many of her relatives perished in the Holocaust, including her father’s first wife and their young daughter, a half-sister the author knows only from surviving scraps of the girl’s correspondence.

The story she relates begins in a less troubled epoch – late 19th-century rural Hungary, when her great-grandparents established themselves as tenant farmers on the estate of a Hungarian aristocrat. She nicely depicts the odd existence of a class of Jews who, while still observant, adopted the horsey affectations of the landed gentry.

In telling the story, Kalman Naves demonstrates how naturally this branch of European Jewry attained financial, professional, and social success. While the great-grandparents’ generation retained the traditionalism of Galacian Jewish life, Gusti’s parents and his uncles and aunts regarded themselves Hungarians of the Israelite faith. In the first two decades of this century, their lives unfolded with promise: there were businesses to run, families to raise, and marriages to arrange. The most disturbing problems tended to focus on land or business disputes between various branches of the family.

But her father’s generation bore the brunt of the backlash against Jewish emancipation, a reaction that began in 1919, then ebbed in the mid-1920s, only to reappear in its Nazified form by the early 1930s. The last third of the book focuses on the virulence of this anti-semitism. In contrast to the contented lives of their ancestors, Gusti’s generation struggled to maintain an earlier normalcy which, during the war, proved ephemeral. In the end, much of his family travelled in a box car to the concentration camps, where they, along with hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews, perished in 1944.

Journey to Vaja is a meticulous account of this terrible transition, and the author has succeeded in plotting the trajectory of these lives without succumbing to sentimentality. Kalman Naves, however, may have gone too far in her role as historian, at the expense of the mythic dimension. There are parts of the text that feel overstuffed with detail, even though the author is frustratingly hesitant when she addresses her own relationship to these stories, and with the father who introduced her to those tales, many years before they ever settled between the covers of a book.