● I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary
By Marianne Szegedy-Maszák
Spiegel & Grau, 370 pages, $27
World War II and the Holocaust extinguished so many millions of lives, so many hopes, that each reclaimed story seems like a precious work of salvage.
In “I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary,” Washington journalist Marianne Szegedy-Maszák painstakingly unearths the saga of her distinguished Hungarian family and its struggle for survival during the war.
At the center of the narrative is the love story of her parents, Hanna and Aladár, who turn out to be nobler, more passionate figures than she had ever imagined. Their personal history unwinds against the backdrop of Hungary’s failed attempts to maintain some semblance of nationhood, and national self-respect, during both the war and its aftermath. In many of these battles, Aladár played a central role, as a career diplomat and eventually as a postwar Hungarian ambassador to the United States.
In this stately, sometimes slow-moving memoir, grand aspirations and tragic denouements co-exist, and triumphs are inevitably tempered by defeat.
The heart of the book, its raison d’être, is a cache of letters from the 1940s, mostly from Aladár to Hanna; her wartime letters to him did not survive. Szegedy-Maszák’s title derives from the formal Hungarian expression Aladár often used to close his letters and attest to his continuing ardor.
Through the letters, her father’s memoir, other documents and extensive interviews with surviving relatives, Szegedy-Maszák re-creates with remarkable intimacy just how her parents (now deceased) fell in love, endured wartime separation and hardships and were finally reunited.
In prewar Hungary, the couple hailed from different but socially intersecting worlds. Aladár Szegedy-Maszák’s family was “Catholic, upper middle class, intellectual Hungarian gentry.” Hanna Kornfeld’s was “Jewish, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, multilingual, and wealthy.”
As the granddaughter of the industrial titan Manfred Weiss, Hanna belonged to one of the country’s richest and most influential clans — Jewish by background, but thoroughly assimilated and often intermarried. In fact, the Kornfelds had converted to Catholicism in the 1920s.