Review: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

This book, which was included in the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2010, is Julie Orringer’s first novel, and as she describes in the credits, it is written as a tribute to her grandparents and great uncle and aunt.  This book is a sweeping story that covers World War II from beginning to end from the perspective of a Hungarian Jewish family.  I learned an enormous amount from this book about Hungary’s involvement in WWII and the Holocaust, its role and motivations as an ally of Germany, and its treatment of Hungarian Jews.

The Invisible Bridge tells the story of the Levi family and takes place from about 1937 to 1945.  At the start of the book, Andras Levi is a twenty-year-old who has received a scholarship to study architecture in Paris.  His brother Tibor is studying to become a doctor, and his younger brother Matyas is an actor and dancer.  Andras is excited to embark upon the adventure of going to Paris and fulfilling his dream of becoming an architect.

The first part of the book describes the brothers’ hopes, dreams and adventures, in a time of growing anti-Semitism.  Andras expects Paris to be a great improvement over Hungary in this regard, but he is surprised and disturbed by the hatred he encounters at his school.

Despite worries about money, family, his studies, and the looming threat of war, Andras falls passionately in love with Claire Morgenstern, a woman nine years older than he is with a belligerent teenage daughter.  Neither of them thinks this relationship can work, nor do any of Andras’ friends and family.

As the story of their relationship unfolds, at times it seems frivolous, given what the characters know is happening in the world and what we know as readers is going to happen.  But the book reminds you that it is frivolous to let things like age and class differences get in the way of a meaningful relationship — when all things fall apart, love and family are all we have, and these are the things that help the characters to survive.

I loved the level of historical detail in this book and the unique perspective of the characters.  I’ve read many books set in the time of the Holocaust, but this was the first one I’ve read set in Hungary.  Orringer describes in great detail how Hungary develops a somewhat reluctant alliance with Nazi Germany, in exchange for land taken from Czechoslovakia.  She describes how the Hungarians felt that Germany was using Hungarian soldiers for the most dangerous assignments in attacking Russia.  Germany appears all too willing to throw away the lives of Hungarian soldiers in order to advance their domination of Europe.  I’m not a historian so I can’t say how accurate a depiction this is, but it was  fascinating to read.

Also interesting to me was how the characters, and I myself, expected Jews in Paris to be much safer than Jews in Nazi-allied Hungary, and yet the opposite was true.  Most of us know already how badly Jews fared in Paris during the Holocaust.  But what I didn’t know was that by joining with Germany, Hungary was able to maintain enough independence to resist Nazi deportation of its Jews for most of the war. Unfortunately the deportation and murder of many Hungarian Jews happens by the end of the war, but by that time at least some families had the opportunity to escape.

One theme I saw in this book, that is common to many novels about the Holocaust, is how the indignities and suffering faced by Jews became gradually worse and worse, and how this gradual change kept many from escaping when they could.  Andras at first is horrified by the resentment he faces at his architecture school, and devastated by the thought that being Jewish might hinder his career.  Of course there is much worse to come as the Holocaust unfolds.  At times it was hard to read this book because you know so much more than the characters about the atrocities that occurred.  The Hungarians hear about the happenings in Paris and in Poland from a distance — the mass executions are hard to believe and harder to react to.  By the time they realize the need to escape it is nearly impossible to do so.

Describing the events in Warsaw, Orringer writes:

The battle lasted until the middle of May, and ended, as everyone had known it would, with the clearing of the ghetto: a massacre of the Jewish fighters, and the deportation of those who had survived.  The next day, the Pesti Naplo reported that one and a half million Polish Jews had been killed in the war, according the the exiled Polish government’s estimate.  Andras, who had translated every article and radio program about the uprising for Polaner, couldn’t bring himself to translate that number, to deliver that staggering statistic to a friend already in mourning.  One and a half million Jewish men and women and children: How was anyone to understand a number like that?  Andras knew it took three thousand to fill the seats of the Dohany Street Synagogue.  To accommodate a million and a half, one would have had to replicate that building, its arches and domes, its Moorish interior, its balcony, its dark wooden pews and gilded ark, five hundred times. And then to envision each of those five hundred synagogues filled to capacity, to envision each man and woman and child inside as a unique and irreplaceable human being, … each of them with desires and fears, a mother and father, a birthplace, a bed, a first love, a web of memories, a cache of secrets, a skin, a heart, an infinitely complicated brain — to imagine them that way, and then to imagine them dead, extinguished for all time — how could anyone begin to grasp it?

The idea could drive a person mad.  He, Andras, was still alive, and people were dependent upon him; he couldn’t afford to lose his mind, and so he forced himself not to think about it.

At times in this book, it almost seems like Andras is unrealistically lucky – at some of his worst moments he finds allies in compassionate commanders, wealthy benefactors, and somehow maintains contact with most of his family.  But Orringer also seems conscious of that idea of “luck” – Andras recognizes that he could easily be one of the many that perishes.

Orringer includes this poem by Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet, at the end of the novel, which expresses that idea much better than I could:

Any Case

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.

You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.

Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.

Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?

So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net’s mesh was tight, but you? through the mesh?
I can’t stop wondering at it, can’t be silent enough.
How quickly your heart is beating in me.

– Translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds.

While this book was tough to read, it actually wasn’t as emotionally powerful as other books I’ve read relating to the Holocaust.  It’s written with so much historical and factual detail, that while we grow to know the characters, it isn’t as gut-wrenching as I expected — and there’s definitely part of me that appreciated that.  Instead, it gives you the big picture of what was happening in that place and time.  A good comparison is Sarah’s Key, which is emotionally devastating but not nearly as well-written.  Of the two, I recommend this book.

This book was particularly interesting to me on a personal level, because both my mother’s and father’s families are Eastern European Jews.  My father was born in Czechoslovakia and my mother’s family are Polish and Romanian.  My mother’s family came to the United States before the Holocaust, but my father’s family escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1939, barely in time to avoid the Nazis, and immigrated to Palestine.

For several years now I’ve been planning a trip with my husband to see Eastern Europe and explore some of my family history (to the extent that’s possible as a tourist with no ability to speak the language).  On our list of places to see are Prague, Bratislava, Krakow, and Budapest.  This book offered a fascinating window into the lives of Hungarian Jews during WWII, including the impact of the war on the city of Budapest, and I know it will enrich our trip.  I can’t wait to see this city, and this part of the world, in person.

  4 comments for “Review: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

  1. December 16, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Wow, wonderful review of what sounds like a great book…I’m reading Holocaust history/literature at the moment, and I may want to go right to this one when I finish. Thanks.

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