Monday, July 4, 2011

An Exclusive Love: A Memoir by Johanna Adorjan

“'Perhaps you live a longer, happier life if you don’t look back so much,' the author writes at one point. The reader can be thankful that Johanna Adorján didn’t quite believe her own counsel." from a review by David Michael in Book, an online review of the New Republic 6/22/11
This slim but powerful memoir by Johanna Adorjan (b. 1971) is an investigation and meditation on the double suicide of her paternal grandparents, Veronika and Istvan Adorjan, Jewish Hungarian refugees who lived in post-war Denmark. They were both survivors of the Holocaust and the Soviet invasion of Hungary and ended their lives in October of 1991 when the author’s grandfather was approaching death due to heart disease.

There are many interesting pieces to this story. Neither her grandmother nor her grandfather would ever talk about their lives during the war. Adorjan describes her grandparents as having been assimilated Jews who lived in Budapest when Hitler invaded Hungary. Her grandfather was deported to Mauthausen; her grandmother survived because she had forged papers, but both her grandmother’s parents were shot. Despite conversations with her father, other relatives, and interviews with many surviving friends from before and during the war, she learned virtually nothing about their wartime experience.

Another interesting aspect of this memoir is that it is as much an investigation into aspects of the author's identity as it is an attempt to understand her grandparents. Adorjan relates that she herself had never thought much about her Jewish heritage. Adorjan’s mother is not Jewish which made Adorjan’s connection to her Jewish identity even more remote. She was amazed that a trip to Israel had such a strong emotional impact on her, surprised at how at home she felt there.

Throughout, Adorjan asks herself insightful questions. For example, since her grandparents were unwilling to talk about their experiences during the war, what gives her the right to try to learn about their experiences by talking to relatives and friends? Is it an invasion of privacy even though her grandparents are dead?  Is it possible to ever understand another person? She cites statistics of Jewish suicides during the war in Budapest. She talks about the suicides of survivors after the war and puzzles over her grandparents’ double suicide 45 years later, hoping that what she might learn about their lives, especially their wartime experiences, will provide explanations, will help her to know them better.

To read an article in Haaretz about a study of suicide rates amongst Holocaust survivors in Israel, click here.


Sandor Adorjan (formerly Samuel Adler) – married Frida Mayersberg
            Istvan Adorjan – son of Sandor and Frida; married Veronica (Vera) Fellner
                                    Johanna Adorjan – granddaughter of Istvan and Frida; author
                                    David and Gabriel Adorjan – grandsons of Istvan and Frida
Josef Adorjan – brother of Sandor
            Istvan Adorjan  - son of Josef
Elemer and Gizella Fellner – parents of Veronica Fellner Adorjan (see above)

Budapest, Hungary
Zalaegerszeg, Hungary
Charlottelund, Denmark
Melbourne, Australia
Munich, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Mauthausen, Austria
Gunskirchen Lager, Austria

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