What do we know about the Holocaust experience? The question is constantly before me. It is one of those momentary “It could have been me” thoughts and it is a painful one. In Julie Orringer’s novel, The Invisible Bridge, I began once again to grasp its horror and enormity and tragedy.
The novel is largely set in Hungary although it begins with a few years of education and romance in Paris. Andras, a young Hungarian Jew, is forbidden to enter architecture school but is able to obtain a permit to study in France. His brother, Tibor, similarly obtains a permit to study medicine in Italy. Andras is the center of the tale; he falls madly in love with Klara, an older woman, also a Hungarian Jew who fled Hungary to avoid prosecution for killing a man in self-defense.
As the Nazis take control of much of Europe and the war approaches, both Andras and Tibor are forced to return to Budapest where they are conscripted into the state labor service (Munkaszolgalat) that by 1938 consisted solely of Jewish Hungarians. They labored under horrific conditions in support of the Hungarian Army during bitterly cold winters, with little to eat, little to keep warm, constantly beaten and threatened as one by one the weaker men die or are shot.
No sooner are they released than they are called back once again to another Munkaszolgalat under even harsher conditions. Released to their homes, taken away, released, taken away—countless times, too many times. I thought a little editorial pruning might have been a good idea.
Little is known about the plight of the Hungarian Jews or the forced labor camps during World War II, as they have received less notice than the Nazi death camps. The Invisible Bridge made me realize that in Hungary death in these camps was usually prolonged by starvation, illness, and painful injuries. It is known that Hungarian Jews avoided deportation until 1944 when more than half the Hungarian-Jewish population was transported to death camps elsewhere.
“One and a half million Jewish men and women and children: How was anyone to understand a number like that?”
As I read more and more of this novel, I became greatly interested in its origins. We get a hint of that in the last chapter, The Epilogue, where Orringer gives us a short fictional account and in Szymborska’s poem, Any Case, that concludes her novel. We learn more directly from Orringer that the idea for The Invisible Bridge came in a surprising revelation from her grandfather as they were discussing a trip she was going to take to Paris.
Her grandfather mentioned that he had lived in Paris when he was a young man, that he had a scholarship to study architecture and, as a Hungarian Jew, had lost his student visa when he was conscripted into a forced labor company and had to return to Hungary. “I knew he had been in labor camps during the war, but I knew nothing about what had happened to him there or how he’d managed to survive.” And then she started to ask him questions whereupon an incredible, heartbreaking series of stories emerged that gave her the foundation for her novel.
I was also overwhelmed by the amount of research Orringer undertook in writing this novel. In a detailed Acknowledgement section she describes the support of the US Holocaust Museum, a Holocaust museum in Paris and two in Budapest, numerous newspaper archives, and guidance from many individuals about architectural and geographical questions, matters of translation and details of twentieth century politics and history.
The list of these acknowledgements and sources of support is a very long, densely packed one. The novel did not simply spring forth from the accounts of her grandfather upon which she built her fictional narrative. A reader often fails to appreciate the amount of research that is required to craft a work of literature like this.
The Invisible Bridge ends with a brief, rather subdued sense of hope when those who survived come together in this country. And yet as Orringer writes, “…one of the central truths of his [Andras] life: that in any moment of happiness there was a reminder of bitterness or tragedy.” And later, “…no period of mourning would ever be long enough.”