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Love in a Dark Time

by Michael Novak

I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary, by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak (Spiegel & Grau, 400 pp., $27)

It was a lovely custom in Hungary between the wars for a man to treat each woman as a lady, and to kiss her hand. The restraint behind such a kiss could be so gently expressed as to penetrate her heart, awakening passion, even a warming sensuality. But even if not, to be recognized as a lady is its own elixir.

Add then this: To kiss a lady’s hand “many times” is to express a special passion, a longing for commitment. Such a restraint our own poor age does not exercise. Too much, too fast, without any honor — a heavy price to pay.

Such was the romantic story of love that to my amazement bore fruit in my own parish, in the Szegedy-Maszaks’ house next door to Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington, D.C. That Patterson Street home was torn down for the parish playground, but how much more romance it once added to our neighborhood. All parishes are built on intimate loves of husbands and wives and (soon enough) flirting teenagers. But the romance of this story, the romance of the Szegedy-Maszaks, touched a level of its own.

Their love — Aladár and Hanna’s — tied together two of the most prominent families of Hungary. She was from the most powerful manufacturing company not only of the nation but of the region. He was a brilliant rising young man in politics — everybody said he would one day be foreign minister. He was Catholic. She was Jewish. Their gentle, refined courtship proceeded at ever-higher temperatures. Then in 1942 the government, under the pressure of new Nazi laws, forbade the marriage of any gentile male to any Jewish woman. At first the two lovers paid little heed to this law — it would not, they imagined, apply to them.

Awful realities slowly drew tighter around them, more and more keeping them apart. For his opposition to the new and brutal government imposed on Hungary, Aladár was sent to Dachau, where he wasted into a mere shadow of himself. His young sweetheart moved with her family into exile — it cost them the family fortune to be allowed to leave safely for Portugal (luckily, some of the family’s factories produced war munitions). For long months, neither lover knew whether the other was alive. A heavy choking pall descended upon them. Several times in Dachau, Aladár dropped into unconsciousness, despair, hallucinations, and awful typhus until, near the end, a Dutch doctor saved his life.

It took many months for the two lovers to meet again, he looking like death, she tender now, after having been disconsolate during those empty, empty days. The letter Aladár sent Hanna when at last he was able to write from Paris (American intelligence had spirited him there when he was found at Dachau) deserves to be immortalized:

My Dear Hancsi,
This is the first opportunity to write you, to ask you: do you still love me and to tell you that I love you. In my case, there is no change, and I wish that you would be my wife as soon as possible. That is, unfortunately, one thing that did change. I became a bit worn out, physically and maybe even emotionally. I had typhus, myocarditis, prison diarrhea, and nephritis. I almost perished, but I had a Dutch medical doctor friend who saved me at the last minute. Now I am in general okay, but I still move around with difficulty and have to watch my heart. This is the physical part. The emotional one, of course, I cannot judge myself, but sometimes I feel as if I have problems there too. I am even more indecisive and helpless than before. Consequently, I feel that it is irresponsible to want to tie your fate to mine, yet broken and without a job, I am asking you to be my wife.

Hanna welcomed him. Oh! did she welcome his note. By Christmas after the war’s end they were wed. Aladár had been appointed minister to the United States, so that within a month they made it to Washington, D.C. From a large cache of writings and documents, some hunted down in various countries, their daughter Marianne, born in Washington, recreated this wonderful story. Once encountered, it is difficult to forget.

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak is a wonderful writer, who here employs an ample range of styles and sympathies, in stately and tender rhythms, to bring back to consciousness a noble way of life, now gone, lived out with grace during history’s most awful years.

And yet, as if to test her parents one more time and beyond all bounds, the Lord allowed them to endure a pain sharper than a serpent’s tooth: the unnecessary death of their firstborn son, even in “safety” in America. I found even reading this bit of narrative exceedingly hard to bear.

The newborn son had been a perfect, active, darling son, until one day he was plainly in unbearable abdominal pain. The American doctor told the mother she was too worried and sent her home with a useless palliative. He had failed to do a simple, crucial test. The child remained in excruciating pain. His intestine had become folded over onto itself, from a failure to develop normally, and none of his intake could pass. When the doctor finally grasped his mistake, he hurried mother and child to Children’s Hospital. It was days too late. The author records the death of her parents’ first child 99 days after his happy birth:

[The baby] survived the operation, but the doctor offered no reassurance, only sympathy. Hanna’s breasts were still full of milk. She and Aladár and Tom stood in little Aladár’s room, watching as each breath seemed to take him farther away from them. He had stopped crying. They would have given anything to hear his cry again.

Early in the morning of November 4, 1947, he died, a perfectly unnecessary death.

Nothing compared to it. Not the Nazis, not Dachau, not Rákosi. Their devastation was absolute, infinite, shocking.

If you want to read a love story you will not forget, take up I Kiss Your Hands Many Times. What a brave and tender couple Aladár and Hanna were.

– Mr. Novak, author of many books since a first novel in 1961, is now distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Florida.

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