Monday, June 13, 2011

"An Exclusive Love" by Johanna Adorjan

This is a story of Vera and Istvan, a glamorous, chain-smoking couple, who after fifty years of marriage, surviving the Holocaust, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and immigration to Denmark from their native Hungary, decide to end their lives together when Istvan becomes terminally ill.

As Johanna Adorjan tells the story of her grandparents, she also attempts to make sense of their suicide. She travels to their native Budapest where they met and were married, and to Austria, where her grandfather was interned at a concentration camp during World War II. She visits her grandmother's relative in Paris to talk about her life before and during the war, and flies to New York City to retrace a journey her great-grandparents once undertook. Johanna completes her journey in Copenhagen, where, on a crisp and clear autumn day her grandparents committed a carefully planned suicide in a house where they spent the most peaceful years of their lives.

Parallel to her travels, Johanna imagines her grandparents' last day, from their awakening, dropping off their beloved dog with a neighbor, to eating their last meal and taking a lethal dose of medication before going to bed at night. By reconstructing their last day, she attempts to understand and rationalize her grandparents' behavior: her grandmother's fear of being alone and her grandfather's helplessness before his impending death.

Her memoir is not limited to just one family's story, it opens up discussion of a much greater scope: suicide among Holocaust survivors, for taking back the power to decide whether to live or die, and European Jewish identity and assimilation before and after the war. Johanna Adorjan writes with remarkable clarity about a personal and tragic family history, without allowing sentimentality to get in her way.

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