An utterly charming novel based on a true story of the courtship of the authors parents, young Hungarian survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, post World War Two.
Shortly after his father Miklós’s death, Péter Gárdos’s mother handed him a bundle of letters, written in the months after the Holocaust. He read them immediately, every one of them, stunned to discover the romantic story behind his parents meeting, a period they had never talked about or shared and one that might have been lost forever, had his mother not decided to share them.
The novel takes place during the six months that Miklós and Lili were letter correspondents, Miklós who’d survived the camps was diagnosed with incurable TB and told he had only six months to live. He and others were in recovery in Sweden, where they would stay until the had the strength and health to return to whatever remnants of their lives awaited them in Hungary.
Declaring war on death, he wrote 117 letters to young Hungarian women convalescing in other hospitals in Sweden, where many of the Hungarian survivors were being taken care of after the horrors of their wartime experience.
Lili Reich was one of the 117 women who received a letter. She was an eighteen-year-old patient at the Smålandsstenar rehabilitation hospital. It was early September. She opened the envelope and scanned its contents. The young man from distant Lärbro did have lovely handwriting. But he must have mixed her up with someone else. She promptly forgot about the whole thing.
He settled on Lili as “the one”, though she was less certain that she was what he was looking for, but agreed to write to him. Over the next six months they get to know each other through their correspondence and develop a tentative affection for each other.
Gárdos has written a heart-warming, unsentimental account of their relationship and of the characters that surrounded the two young people during this time, their compatriots, the doctors and nurses and the Rabbi who received letters from a concerned friend of Lili, intent on stopping the liaison and her intention to convert to Catholicism.
It has both touching and tragic moments as all these young people wait for news of their families and loved ones, moments the author resists exploiting which could have made this a much more emotionally charged novel and will no doubt make it a heart-rending film, rather he focuses as much on the lighter, more positive moments, the desire to overcome the death sentence, to survive and the importance that the promise of love and the support and solidarity of others contributes to it.
Here is a clip of that author talking about that moment of being given the letters and what it meant for him to read them.
Note: This book was and ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.