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Micah Reader in November 2017 by Brenda Levenson
Published in 2016, Susan Faludi’s book about her father is also focused on the history of Hungary and its large pre-WWII Jewish community to which his family belonged. It was acclaimed by most of our readers with few exceptions. All agreed that we learned a lot about a country to which few Jews returned after 1945.
Faludi’s parents divorced when she was 12 years old. We know little about her American mother and her brother younger than she. Having lost contact with her father for the past twenty-five years, Faludi travels from the United States to Hungary to find out more about him. The title of her book can be seen as a metaphor that applies to her father’s occupation as a successful photographer, as well as to Faludi’s attempts to draw him out when his responses to her questions are elusive at best, and succeed at keeping her in the dark about many aspects of his life.
By the time of Faludi’s arrival in Budapest, her father, Istvan, is now a woman obsessed with clothes and now named Stephanie. Graphic descriptions of transgender surgery take up several pages of the book, “too many” thought some of our readers, “fascinating” said others. The complexity of the medical process led our group to comment on the courage as well as the compulsion that must lead people to undergo such a dramatic change, physically and mentally. Faludi’s use of the pronoun “she” when referring to her father was at first disorienting. His decision to become a woman is never clarified. One reader suggested that changing his identity from one gender to another was “an escape” from an unhappy life that included growing up amid great wealth, but as an unloved and ignored child left at the hands of nannies and governesses. Away on one of their many trips abroad, his parents were absent at his bar mitzvah. After the death of her father, Faludi travels to Israel for visits with relatives from whom she learns more than she had from her many conversations with him. As she tries to understand her father better, her search is “both intellectual and emotional,” one reader commented.
Faludi writes that by 1910 Jewish immigration and assimilation created the Golden age of Jewry. The Jewish Emancipation Act of 1867 granted Jews civic and political equality, but the privilege of being called Hungarian came at a price, that of abandoning all evidence of their Jewishness, outside of attending synagogue services, which few of them did. Piano and dance lessons for the girls in the rich Jewish community were essential, as was fencing for the young men, the sport the epitome of Gentile upper crust. The contribution of Jews was considerable. Although only 5% of the population, they were the country’s doctors, engineers, lawyers, artists and writers, notes Faludi. By 1920 anti-Semitism appeared in the form of quotas against Jews in universities. Few Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust, Faludi writes, others fled, among whom the writer Stefan Zweig, scientists Edward Teller, Eugen Wigner and Leo Szilard of the Manhattan project, and Robert Capa, the photographer. The list is long and embraces many fields.
If being considered Hungarian came at a cost to Jews, getting rid of them was a price the country continues to pay. In current times, Hungary has become one of the poorest nations in the European Union and Budapest, once considered a beautiful city, is decaying rapidly.