BOOK REVIEW : Journey Rediscovers Family’s Golden Age

Forgive me, but I confess that I was prepared to enjoy “When the World Was Whole” from the moment that I glanced at the author’s photograph on the dust jacket. His sly smile, the gleam in his eyes, and even the lines on his careworn face hold out the promise of worldly-wise good humor and tales well told. And when I read Charles Fenyvesi’s marvelous stories of Jewish life in Hungary in bygone times, I discovered that my intuition was wholly correct.

Born in a small town in Hungary in 1937, Fenyvesi and his parents managed to survive the Holocaust on forged papers, and he reached the United States only after the Hungarian uprising of 1956. (Today, Fenyvesi is a garden columnist and a journalist at U. S. News & World Report.) The world that Fenyvesi knew as a child--and, tragically, most of the people who inhabited that world--were doomed to utter destruction. All that remains are memories; but in Fenyvesi’s hands, the memories turn out to be a rich legacy indeed.

“When the World Was Whole” opens with Fenyvesi’s journey of discovery to the towns and villages of Hungary and Transylvania where his ancestors lived and worked for more than four centuries. Soon enough, however, Fenyvesi falls under the spell of the stories that he heard as a young child, ranging from the legends of the Baal Shem Tov to the commonplaces of his own family history. Suddenly, we are aloft on a magic carpet, floating back and forth from our own benighted times to what Fenyvesi calls “a golden age that now seems farther away than the heavens.”

We are introduced to the ghosts of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Fenyvesi’s family; we are witness to their most intimate dreams and longings, their darkest secrets and deepest tragedies. And, once we have come to know them and understand why Fenyvesi loves them so, we are confronted with their terrible fates. “When the World Was Whole” is emblematic of Jewish storytelling in the 20th Century--the dreamer of the golden dream awakes in Auschwitz.


But Fenyvesi’s book is hardly a dirge; rather, it is an unabashed (and unashamedly sentimental) celebration of a world of grace and beauty, a world of order and balance. Each vivid character in Fenyvesi’s stories somehow ennobles and enriches the lives of others. We meet a wonder-working rabbi who believes in the curative power of songs and dreams; a strange, obsessed nobleman (“I am myself a ghost”) who bestows wealth and power on a humble Jewish man; a drunken coachman whose failings are eclipsed by the gift of song: “When this coachman sings, the angels start to sing.”

The bounties of the soil amount to a persistent theme in “When the World Was Whole,” and Fenyvesi’s rich prose is redolent of worked earth. His ancestors were farming the hinterlands of Hungary and Transylvania when it was still illegal for Jews to own land and he traces the rise and fall of his family according to its tenure on the land. For Fenyvesi, the fruits of the earth are a philosopher’s stone of enduring value, and a metaphor for the fate of humankind.

“I pick up a walnut from the ground,” he writes of a visit to the scene of his family’s former glories in eastern Hungary. “Its soft husk is half green, full of live tissue, and half black and dead, and I hear myself muttering the opening words of the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead that does not once mention dying or death or the dead, but which helps the soul free itself from the body and rise to a higher sphere.”

Of course, there is a dangerous edge to Fenyvesi’s reverie. The order and balance that he describes so lyrically and so longingly were a cruel illusion, and even the most exalted, kind and beautiful people in his tales were destined to suffer the very worst fate that the human imagination was able to conceive. And he is not afraid to ask out loud: Why did the family forfeit its blessings and fall from grace?

The question has no answer. The very act of retelling these stories, Fenyvesi insists, is a powerful ritual of redemption.

“We can still recapture bits and pieces from a world that was once whole, in which lives were aligned in secret symmetries, one good deed invoked another, and a gift from heaven passed from one generation to another,” he explains. “Telling stories about such a world helps restore it, and the storyteller prescribes a miracle each time he recalls an instance of heaven bending to a human being with a pure heart and a soul on fire.”

Next: Richard Eder reviews “The Healer” by Aharon Appelfeld (Grove Weidenfeld). WHEN THE WORLD WAS WHOLE. Three Centuries of Memories b y Charles Fenyvesi . Viking. $19.95, 268 pages