February 28, 2012
Love beyond others’ reach
“On 13 October 1991 my grandparents killed themselves.” So begins Johanna Adorján’s stunning book, “An Exclusive Love: A Memoir” (W.W. Norton, $14.95; trans. Anthea Bell). It’s a slim volume, appearing even less assuming in its new paperback edition. But it is extraordinary, both for the story it tells and for the quality of its writing.
In a sense, “An Exclusive Love” is a tripartite history. First, it is an effort to reconstruct that day in October 1991—the author was 20 at the time—when Vera and István (Pista) Adorján took their lives in their suburban Copenhagen home.
“I imagine that my grandmother was the first to wake that morning; I imagine her waking up, and her first thought is that this is the last morning she will ever wake up. She will never wake up again, and she will only go to sleep once more. My grandmother sits up quickly, pushes back the covers and puts on the slippers that she leaves neatly beside the bed every evening.”
Close to her grandparents and familiar with their home, Adorján combines her imaginings with what her research uncovers: the time of day her grandparents dropped off their dog with a neighbor, claiming that they would be traveling for a few days; the instructions conveyed in their suicide manual, Derek Humphry’s “Final Exit”; a short to-do list discovered in the house. She can reconstruct, yes, but she cannot quite forgive. Her grandfather, in his early 80s, was terminally ill. But her grandmother was only 71. She was healthy. Was that love between her grandparents truly so exclusive? Was it really so impossible for her grandmother to tolerate the idea of continuing to live, remaining physically present in the lives of her children and grandchildren?
Next, the book provides a Holocaust case history, unspooling the specific story of the Adorjáns. Here, too, the grandparents have left their granddaughter to seek answers they did not provide. “We don’t know much about the time my grandfather spent in the concentration camp,” Adorján writes. “Indeed, we know nothing. He never talked about it, and if you asked him, as every member of the family had about once, he replied, ‘We don’t talk about that.’ If you asked my grandmother she said the same.”
Interviews with her grandparents’ contemporaries help locate those answers. For instance, it’s by speaking with her grandmother’s best friend, Erzsi, that Adorján learns how Vera survived in occupied Budapest: “‘Forged papers,’ [Erzsi] says in an offhand tone. ‘My husband was in the Resistance, we could get hold of any amount of forged papers.’”
In other cases, long-concealed documents materialize:
“Among my grandfather’s papers, which [Adorján’s father] has in a drawer somewhere, he has found a sworn statement certifying that my grandfather went to Mauthausen in the year 1944, but in 1945 was liberated from the camp at Gunskirchen….That surprises us. We had thought he was liberated from Mauthausen. On the internet I find accounts of the ‘death marches’ when prisoners were transferred to Gunskirchen in the last weeks of the war because of overcrowding at Mauthausen. I read how anyone who stopped marching, who collapsed from exhaustion, or simply bent to tie a shoelace was shot on the spot by the SS men. Children, women, men, they drew no distinctions. Those who couldn’t keep up with the pace were shot. Thousands died on these marches. I am shaken when I read these things, of course I am, but also relieved. So it’s true, and I am the granddaughter of this man.”
Adorján’s grandparents’ Holocaust story has a significant postscript, which their granddaughter suggests might be titled “Communism”; it spans the years 1945-1956. “I don’t know much about those years,” Adorján writes. Here, again, her research reveals at least some information, including details on the family’s flight from Hungary on 20 November 1956, and their arrival in Denmark.
Finally, the book grapples with the author’s own sense of Jewishness. This is harder to pin down, but it’s present in her discussion of how her grandparents approached their own and others’ Jewish identities; in her accounts of two trips to Israel; even in a bit about her venture into the very Jewish world of JDate. But identity is always complicated. In Adorján’s case, the complexities include not only her Hungarian ancestry, but also the fact that her mother is a non-Jewish German. Adorján herself was born in Sweden and raised in Germany; she carries a Danish passport and is sufficiently conversant in English to participate in interviews (please see sidebar).
If you’re thinking that this is quite a lot to pack into 192 pages, you are correct. But you will be amazed by how gracefully Adorján tells these stories. “An Exclusive Love” is exceptional in more ways than one. Don’t miss it.
Q&A with Johanna Adorján
Born in Sweden, raised in Germany, and the bearer of a Danish passport, Johanna Adorján speaks, reads and writes English, too. Here are some questions Erika Dreifus posed via email—and the author’s answers.
Erika Dreifus: What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
Johanna Adorján: I found the most difficult part to imagine life in post-war, socialistic Budapest. I read a lot about that period but never really got a feeling for it. Unfortunately I read Kati Marton’s wonderful book about her parents, “Enemies of the People” (2009), only after I finished working on my book. It would have helped me a lot.
ED: You’ve stated elsewhere that in writing this book, you wanted to both understand your grandparents’ actions more clearly and, in a sense, “bring them back to life.” Can you pinpoint a part of the book—or a moment in the research or writing—in which you sensed that you had achieved this most fully?
JA: Whenever I wrote about the last day in their life, I had the feeling of in a way being with my grandparents again. I could hear their voices, could smell their perfumes, their cigarettes, was in their house in Copenhagen again, in this U-shaped bungalow that was full of books and records and things that fascinated me irresistibly as a child, like a skull named “Maria.” This part of my book, their last day, is fiction, of course, as I wasn’t there and have no idea how their final day really was. But it’s based on facts, and I tried to recreate them and the circumstances as truly as possible, and those were my happiest moments in the writing process. It really felt like they were there with me again.
ED: How did your brothers and cousins — your grandparents’ other grandchildren — respond to your book?
JA: They were all very happy to have somebody write down their family history for them, as they can now, if questions arise, lazily point to their bookshelves. Only my cousin from Copenhagen had a complaint: that I didn’t use my grandmother’s original recipe for the Hungarian Baigli cake. He was right. I didn’t. He used to bake the cake together with my grandmother, [but since] he didn’t reply to my particular email asking him for her recipe, I had to do research on the Internet and apparently got it all wrong.
ED: How did you settle on the title “An Exclusive Love”?
JA: I liked the combination of “love” and “exclusive.” I mean it in its original, Latin meaning: their love excluded everybody else, they lived and died just the way they wanted, without much respect to others, without caring too much about what others might think or feel. It was a very exclusive death, as theirs was an exclusive life — and love.
ED: What are you working on now?
JA: I am working on a book of stories. Pure fiction. No family involved!
Erika Dreifus is the author of a short-story collection, “Quiet Americans,” which is inspired largely by the experiences of her paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. She lives in New York City. Web: www.erikadreifus.com