Jewish Journal


April 28, 2005

Local Writers Recall Times of Tyranny



In a tale rooted in personal experience, Dr. John Menkes explores the themes of loss and recovery in his novel “After the Tempest” (Daniel & Daniel, 2003). A Holocaust survivor, Menkes returned to his hometown of Vienna after the war and found that not only was his family and his home gone, but his very identity had been irrevocably lost.

Now an internationally recognized pediatric neurologist based in Los Angeles — as well as a published author and playwright — Menkes alternates between past and present to tell the story of childhood best friends in pre-war Vienna: Judith Berger, a Jew, and Anton Kermauner, a non-Jew. As the forces of Nazism take hold, the pair are separated. Judith’s parents send her to Ireland, while they stay behind and eventually perish. Anton joins the Hitler Youth. But neither Judith, who ends up in the United States, nor Anton, who is eventually stationed at Auschwitz, forget one another.

After the war, Judith returns to Vienna hoping to resume her life and find Anton. Her experience unfolds in an emotionally charged narrative that explores how its characters deal with memory, blame, guilt and forgiveness.

While these next two tales of peril, escape, capture and ultimate redemption might sound like the stuff of fiction, two Los Angeles women have written about experiences that were altogether real: life under national socialism and communism.

In “I Held the Sun in My Hands” (Authorhouse, 2004), Erika Jacoby recounts her odyssey from idyllic childhood in Hungary to the horrors of Auschwitz to the circuitous path that brought her to Los Angeles. Jacoby, who lost her grandparents and many other relatives in Auschwitz, managed to remain with her mother and aunt first in Auschwitz and then in numerous slave labor camps.

Jacoby’s straightforward narrative is a quick and compelling read. A clinical social worker, she examines her experience through a professional lens, realizing that she gained purpose from acting as her mother’s protector.

“I knew in the camps that I would not give up and become a Musulman, one who lost all will to live, because I had to stay alive for my mother.... I couldn’t let her lose another child,” she writes.

Jacoby devotes about half the book to what happened after liberation — first scrounging for food and eluding menacing Soviet soldiers; then returning to her native Hungary where she joined a Zionist youth organization and met her husband, Emil. She lived in the United States as a fugitive and then under threat of deportation before finally gaining legal citizenship.

In 1953, Jacoby and her husband moved to California, where Emil spent the next 23 years as Hebrew school principal at what is now Adat Ari El. (He later became director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, and continues to work there as a consultant.) Erika became a social worker, bringing compassion and understanding to others who had experienced similar horrors.

Born just six days before Hitler invaded Hungary, Susanne Reyto was too young to recall the Nazi era. Yet she, too, has stories of imprisonment, separation of families and life under a ruthless regime: communism.

“Most people believe suffering in Europe ended [after World War II],” she writes. “However, it is the farthest thing from reality.”

Reyto, a Beverly Hills resident, retired travel agent and member of the governing cabinet of Hadassah Southern California, penned her memoir after being invited to speak to her grandson’s eighth-grade class about this time in history. Interweaving her childhood memories with the recollections of her mother, Reyto’s “Pursuit of Freedom: A True Story of the Enduring Power of Hope and Dreams” (Jet Publishing, 2004) chronicles the family’s arduous journey from communist Hungary to freedom in America.

The book recounts her parents’ experience during the Holocaust, and how their happiness after Hungary’s liberation soon turned to dread as they witnessed the rise of state-controlled domination. In December 1949, her family attempted to flee the country, but were caught and imprisoned. Five-year-old Susanne was separated from her parents for months. The family’s assets were seized and, as known “troublemakers,” they were among the first families to be deported from Budapest and sent to a communist internment camp.

Reyto’s story is laced with gratitude — for the kindness of friends and strangers who helped her family along its journey, and for the freedoms she found in the United States. At the same time, she asserts that we must be ever vigilant against future threats to liberty.

“In this time of terrorism and religious tyranny,” she says, “it is our obligation to learn from the past to better prepare ourselves for the future.”


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