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Book Review: Gratitude: A Novel

Review By: 
Bonny V. Fetterman
Gratitude: A Novel

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction, this novel reflects the situation of Hungarian Jews, the last Jewish community in Europe left standing in 1944, through the stories of a single family. The members of the Beck family—wealthy, cultured Hungarian Jews—are completely unprepared for how their lives are about to change with the German invasion of Hungary on March 19, 1944. Within days of the invasion, Heinrich Beck, the Jewish mayor of Szeged, is hanged in the town square; his son, Istvan, a dentist, is hidden by his assistant, Marta, in the cellar of her home; and his older son, Paul, a young lawyer in Budapest, finds out he was disbarred in the middle of prosecuting a case.

Unable to reach their father and brother in Szeged, Paul and his sister Rozsi draw closer to their Uncle Robert and Aunt Klari in Budapest. While Robert is convinced they are powerless to resist the Nazis, his nephew Paul is determined to act. Paul begins to work closely with Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish envoy, to save as many Hungarian Jews as possible by issuing them forged documents of Swedish citizenship. In a daring maneuver, Paul rescues his Budapest relatives, placing them in one of the Swedish embassy’s safe houses.

Joseph Kertes, who immigrated to Canada with his parents after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, writes that he based this novel on real-life characters and family stories. Through memorable characters, he explores a range of human reactions to extreme circumstances, including surprising acts of courage as well as acts of betrayal and tragic mistakes.

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