Conversations with My Ancestors
The Story of a Jewish Family in Hungary
By Andrew Sanders
Gefen Publishing House, 2011, 312 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 9, 2011
Andrew Sanders tells the story of Hungarian Jewry, a now destroyed but once thriving community, and his own ancestors who lived there. He does so in two ways. First by describing what he found by researching, looking at documents, by visiting the country, seeing the places his ancestors lived, and talking to people. He also tells his tale by mean of imaginary sometimes somewhat funny always informative dialogues with his now long dead ancestors, such as a great great grandfather who died centuries ago who told him he would be happy to talk with him; he has nothing else to do. Sanders informs us about life from a couple of centuries ago until the present when "bullet holes (fired at Jews are) still clearly perceptible in the wall."
Jews lived in the Czech provinces for a long time until 1726 when the shortsighted Austrian emperor Charles VI decided that he wanted to reduce the number of Jews in his kingdom. He ordered that only the oldest son of a Jewish family could marry and have children.
Unwilling to live without spouses and families many Jews traveled to nearby Hungary. The ethnic Hungarians were more farsighted than Charles. They recognized that the Jews could help improve their primitive and backward country."Oh," his great great grandfather from 1820 said to Sanders, "they welcomed us with open arms. They needed us. They begged us to come. They needed our brains, our initiative, our energy." They welcomed them with open arms, but in their hearts they retained a simmering anti-Semitism that held the Jews back from achieving all they could, and not allowing the Jews to help Hungary as much as they could. Some towns even refused to allow Jews. Soon Hungary had over a million Jews and, as is well-known, the Hungarians helped kill the Jews in the 1940s.
Yet, despite all, the Jews created a relatively satisfactory life in Hungary. They helped improve the culture. Ironically, in view of later events, they stressed the culture of Germany, and spoke German along with the language of Hungary.
Sanders includes interesting stories and pictures, including the story of the monk who loved and sang the prayer Shema Yisrael. Was he once Jewish?