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May 4, 2012

“The Invisible Bridge”

by Anne Paddock

At a recent author forum in West Hartford, Connecticut, Julie Orringer spoke about how she came to write “The Invisible Bridge.” An American by birth, Orringer’s roots are in Hungary and the novel is loosely based on her grandfather and his brothers’ lives in the years leading up to and during World War II, before the family immigrated to the United States. As an adult, Orringer realized the stories she heard as a child needed to be told because people – and in particular her family – were deeply affected by the seismic events that took place in Europe in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.  That her ancestors were Jews in a country that was aligned with Germany at the time adds to the sense of horror. Using personal accounts from her family, historical research and a talent for story telling, Orringer wrote the novel “The Invisible Bridge:” a fictional story of a Hungarian family whose lives were shattered because they were Jewish.

Béla, who is also known as”Apa” which is Hungarian for “Papa”  and Flóra or “Anya” (Mama) Lévi of Konyár, Hungary are the parents of three sons:  Tibor, a young man who has worked and saved for 6 years to attend medical school in Italy, Andras, a 22-year old whose goal is to study architecture in Paris and become an architect, and Mátyás, the youngest who yearns to dance in the great halls of Europe while decorating Budapest’s storefronts. These three boys grew into young men in the 1930’s and although they were embarking upon their lives across Europe, Tibor, Andras, and Mátyás were still “their boys, their babies. The little three, as they’d always called them. The little three adrift on the continent, like wooden boats.” That is, until towns were bombed, bridges destroyed and the continent fell apart.

The story begins in September, 1937 on the eve of Andras’ departure from Budapest. The next morning, he is scheduled to take a train to Paris, where he will study architecture after being awarded a scholarship. Andras arrives in Paris with one suitcase, a box to be delivered to the son of a member of his synagogue, and a letter, which he was asked to mail from Paris (to a Paris address) under the pretense that the inefficient Hungarian postal service could not be trusted. When Andras meets the recipients of both the box and the letter, his life is forever changed in ways he could never have imagined.

“The Invisible Bridge” is a long book – 758 pages – divided into five parts that takes place primarily in Paris and parts of Hungary from 1937 – 1945.  Orringer spends a considerable amount of time developing the characters of the story which leads the reader to care deeply about them as the story unfolds. Things that seemed unimaginable in 1937 become both a reality and a nightmare two years later as the brothers struggle to pursue their dreams while Europe is preparing for war. Reuniting in Budapest, the struggle turns to survival when Hungary turns on its own Jewish citizens during the war years through forced labor camps, relocation, and the denial of  basic rights afforded to other Hungarian citizens.

The author eloquently points out that we all learned about World War II in school: “who had died, who killed whom, how and why – though her books hadn’t had much to say about Hungary.“The Invisible Bridge” fills that void in that we read another perspective and yet a human life taken away is still a human life lost, which Andras realizes. In a moment of introspection, Andras upon hearing that 1.5 million Jewish men, women, and children from Poland had been killed in the war, thinks:

…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 a 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?

We’re all still trying.

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