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Book Review: The Book of Fathers

Review By: 
Bonny V. Fetterman
The Book of Fathers

For twelve generations in the Csillig family, the firstborn son would record his memories in a journal called “the book of fathers” and pass it down to his own son—beginning with Kornél Csillig, who started the journal to record his life’s events from the time he returned to Hungary from Germany with his grandfather in 1706. Another gift passed down to each firstborn son was the ability to “see” the life of the prior writer, and sometimes the writer that would follow. Award-winning Hungarian writer Milós Vámos uses the theme of clairvoyance to narrate a 300-year history of fathers and sons.

A Jewish thread enters the story from the time a Csillig son, István Sternovszky, marries Éva Stern in 1759 and joins her father in the family wine business. From that point on, members of the family are sometimes Jewish and sometimes not, but at the onset of World War II they are Jewish enough to be targeted by the Nazis. The eldest son, Balázs Csillig, is taken to the Russian front in a Hungarian slave labor brigade and returns to find he is the lone survivor of his family. Bitterly, he renounces his Jewish identity, insisting that his name be removed from the register of the Jewish community. With the suppression of memory, clairvoyance disappears from subsequent generations.

This last episode parallels the experience of the author, who grew up with a reticent father and had no idea that he was Jewish until family research led him to a Jewish cemetery in the south of Hungary. “I don’t know the customs, the rules, the prayers,” he writes in an Author’s Note. “Nevertheless, whenever I hear of anti-Semitism, I know I am a Jew.” A mesmerizing storyteller, Vámos uncovers a Jewish story embedded in the history of the Hungarian nation.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.