Monday, December 2, 2019

The Sweetness of Forgetting by Kristin Harmel

While at times a little far fetched, I was really sucked into this wonderful story.

Hope is in her mid-thirties, recently divorced, running her family's near bankrupt bakery and trying her best to raise an angry 12 year old, Annie.  She has also lost her mother to cancer and her beloved grandmother, Mamie, is slipping away into Alzheimer's.

In a moment of lucidity Mamie realizes that if she does not reveal the secrets of her past to her granddaughter they will be lost forever.  So she sends Hope to Paris with a list of her family members to find out what happened to them.

In Paris Hope discovers Mamie has been living a lie - though for the best of reasons.  The interesting story is how Hope tracks down what happened to Mamie's family as well as a long ago lover.

In her quest she is helped by her daughter, who becomes more supportive as she learns more of her family's past, and Gavin, a friend who would like to be more if Hope can only open up her heart again.  She is also aided by Jewish organizations in Paris and the US, Muslims in Paris, as well as an unlikely Muslim Albanian family.  Her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend (and unfriendly banker) are less supportive.  With time she also realizes that the fairy tales her grandmother has been telling her for her whole life contain more truths about her past than she realized.

While some of the story is sad - as Mamie has lost so much time, some of it is very hopeful.  Mamie is able to teach Hope and Annie about the power of love, even after decades apart.  And she also comes to appreciate the family bakery legacy more than she ever had.

Kasztner's Train: the True Story of Rezso Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust by Anna Porter

I picked up this somewhat older book at a book sale, and confess it was a little too academic for my liking (I struggle when reading any book for pleasure that has a multitude of footnotes).

Despite that I got sucked into the story and finished the book even though at the start I doubted that I would.  It helped when I realized it didn't really matter if I precisely remembered who each and every character was as constantly checking the index for that started to drive me a bit crazy.

Kasztner was a Jewish lawyer and journalist living in Budapest at the time of the Nazi invasion of Hungary.  In 1944 he somehow managed to meet Eichmann and other senior Nazi officers and negotiated a deal to allow over 1600 Jews to escape to Switzerland rather than being shipped to Auschwitz.  In other dealing he also may have saved about 40,000 other Jews already living in camps.

The book goes through these negotiations and all the characters involved in painstaking detail.  We get insights into other Jewish community leaders, those who supported Kasztner and those who didn't, various Nazi officers, and Jewish leaders in Switzerland, Turkey, Palestine and the US.  Kasztner struggled both during and after the war to get the support of these other leaders - many of whom were just in denial about the gravity of the Nazi action in Hungary.

After the war Kasztner settled in Israel where he was accused of selling his soul to the devil.  His reputation in tatters he was eventually murdered.

While his tactics may have been questionable there is no doubt several thousand people and their descendants owe their lives to Kasztner.  In addition to knowing nothing about him before reading this book, I also learned far more than I ever did about the Nazi action against Jews in Hungary.

Love Lives Here by Amanda Jetté Knox

This is a very interesting autobiography of a woman's family life - and how she becomes a successful social activist in order to support her family.

Amanda lived a fairly unstable life - she never knew her biological father, she was bullied mercilessly at school and she struggled with alcoholism as a young teenager.  As a result she grew up never feeling like she really belonged.  However, when she married the love of her life at age 20 and had three children she thought she had found the stability she craved.

When only 1, her middle child who she thought of as a boy came out as transgender.  While this was entirely new territory for her, she supported her fully and fought in every way she knew how to find the support her daughter needed.  Her spouse and other two children were also supportive, but her spouse continued to be very unhappy.

Less than a year later her spouse also came out as transgender.  For a long time Amanda thought this might be more than she could handle, especially when she was unable to find positive role models for a marriage surviving transitioning.  However with time she realized how much happier her spouse was now that she was no longer hiding her true self - and that ultimately led to a stronger, happier marriage.

This is a great story of the power of love and acceptance - especially in the face of external criticism.