Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos (Hungary) tr. Elizabeth Szász

Fever at DawnAn 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.

Miklos GardosGárdos 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.

Highly recommended.

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.

The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris

They were brought to the island as ‘the enemy’ and by the time they left they would have developed relationships and connections that continue to endure today between the inhabitants of the Orkney Islands and Moena, the Italian mountain village where the artist and decorator Domenico Chiocchetti originally came from and where he returned after the war.

the_italian_chapelPhilip Paris has written both a non-fiction account of the short history of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm and this book, the novel I have just read and adored. The fictional form allows the author to imagine some of the relationships for which there is little detail and create others that may have been.

It is a war-time story without guns, battles and tragedy, it could even be said it depicts what war purports to be all about, a strategy to create peace and establish tolerance and what better conduit to promote acceptance than to build a chapel, whose sole purpose is for prayer and reflection, a sanctuary from the day-to-day reality.

550 Italian soldiers are captured during WW2 in Egypt and sent to Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands where they live in ramshackle Nissen huts and are used as free labour to build barriers between the islands to prevent entry to the mainland from invading forces.

“The nearest land is mainland Orkney, which is also an island. You will know from your journey that we are a long way from Italy. You’re all here to do a job, to help build a unique set of barriers between mainland Orkney to the north and between the islands to the south of Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. Four barriers in all.”

In the opening pages, bulldozers arrive with instructions to raze camp 60 to the ground, leaving no trace of the former POW camp. The Italian Chapel sits there beside the Nissen huts awaiting its fate. We then learn the story of how it came to be there.

Image of the Madonna

Image of the Madonna

The novel introduces us to key characters in the camp, the artist Domenico Chiocchetti from the northern Italian village of Moena who keeps a small prayer card his mother gave him, with the image of the Madonna’s face in his pocket throughout the war, retrieving it at moments when he needed to escape the present, or remember the past and whose image will become a symbol of the thing he leaves behind, the only physical reminder that there was a POW camp on the Scottish island during the war.

We meet Aldo, who doesn’t talk about his family, but can source anything the men require, Buttapasta, a cement and stone artist, Giuseppe the romantic who had been a foundry worker in the US, they will all become instrumental in the project that occupies the men when the causeway barriers are complete and their status changes after Mussolini is sacked and the Italians are no longer the enemy. The men decide to create a chapel out of two unused Nissen huts and scraps from shipwrecks and whatever their captors can source.

The prayer card becomes the inspiration for Chiocchetti’s portrait of the Madonna and child, painted on plasterboard behind the altar.  An altar is made from concrete left over from building the Barriers, tiles are rescued from a sunken blockship ( a ship deliberately sunk to prevent access to a channel) and wood salvaged from a shipwreck is transformed into a tabernacle. Carved lanterns are created from Bully Beef tins and candlesticks made from the brass stair rods, all contributing to create a beautiful and peaceful interior.

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

Philip Paris author observing the Rood Screen built by Italian POW soliders

It is a story of optimism, incredible resourcefulness and the things men do to keep their spirits up when the circumstances are against them. It is an easy, light read and moving without being overly sentimental and knowing this wonderful refuge actually exists made it all the more meaningful and special for me as a reader.

Philip Paris has researched this period in history and tried to track down those who were on the island or their relatives and creates a memorable and heartfelt story of tough times that are lightened by a mutual desire to build not just a chapel, but a refuge of incredible beauty that can still be visited today.

“It was the prisoner’s escape, a tunnel to spiritual and cultural freedom, while their bodies remained in captivity.”