In the Hour of Fate and Danger

Fer­enc Andai, Mari­et­ta Mor­ry and Lyn­da Muir (trans.)

  • Review
By – October 12, 2020

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Hun­gary in 2003, Fer­enc Andai’s mem­oir of his expe­ri­ence as a young man forced to labor in a Nazi-held cop­per mine in Bor, Ser­bia is an addi­tion to the genre of Holo­caust sur­vivor lit­er­a­ture in the vein of Pri­mo Levi.

In a ruth­less last-ditch effort to keep their war machine run­ning, the Nazis deport­ed thou­sands of Hun­gar­i­ans to lay rail­road tracks to trans­port the cop­per ore at Bor — despite the immi­nent approach of the Russ­ian armies and the loom­ing resis­tance of Yugoslav par­ti­sans, led by Tito. Andai was only nine­teen when his cul­tured exis­tence in Budapest turned upside down and he was forced into this con­cen­tra­tion-camp-like ordeal. He labored at Bor between May and Octo­ber of 1944.

Like Levi, Andai reg­is­ters a pro­found empa­thy for the fate and souls of his fel­low labor­ers who are tor­tured and mur­dered by Nazi over­seers. The pow­er of In the Hour of Fate and Dan­ger resides in Andai’s often lyri­cal, deeply mov­ing nar­ra­tive of his encounter with the forces of dark­ness and his ulti­mate return to light — to civ­i­liza­tion — through the heal­ing pow­ers of mem­o­ry and the work of the great Hun­gar­i­an poet Mik­lós Rad­nóti, who is quot­ed through­out the mem­oir. Recall­ing Levi, Andai wit­ness­es the hell­ish phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal world of the Bor camp as an unimag­in­able, unhu­man land­scape: We are still alive,” he reflects, but we haven’t had a name for a long time — we are only num­bers.” Indeed, Andai’s vision of tat­tered inmates with lead-grey, blood-caked faces and fes­ter­ing wounds” vivid­ly cap­tures the evac­u­a­tion of human­i­ty in the camps. Reduced to noth­ing, Andai writes, I sense what a nonen­ti­ty I have become amid the col­lec­tive insan­i­ty. Now I know that I am a nox­ious pest.” At his low­est, Andai tran­scribes the emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al con­di­tion of his fel­low inmates: We are the liv­ing dead, repos­ing in a world of shadows.”

The most pow­er­ful sec­tions of In the Hour of Fate and Dan­ger recount the har­row­ing death march that Andai under­goes — a jour­ney that will ulti­mate­ly end in return, but to an occu­pied Hun­gary and the bru­tal anti­semitism of the nativist Iron Guard. Andai con­tin­ues to feel defense­less and lost. I’ve become part of some help­less mass. I’ve been deprived of my human iden­ti­ty, but also of my cul­ture and my coun­try.” In the end, Andai finds his way back to Budapest, but he remains, like many after the War, in tran­sit” between nations and iden­ti­ties. He is one among the many scat­tered lives,” to quote a chap­ter title of the memoir.

In a mov­ing after­word, Andai’s daugh­ter Diana tells us that her father and moth­er ulti­mate­ly left Hun­gary in 1957, after the Hun­gar­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion. Her father even­tu­al­ly became a beloved his­to­ry teacher in a small town in Cana­da, inspir­ing thou­sands of his stu­dents with his own sto­ry, which is, at some lev­el, the sto­ry of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. His daugh­ter also tells us that her father returned to Budapest every year to recon­nect with his past. Even through dark­ness and ter­ror,” Diana Andai reflects about her father, life con­tin­ues and lessons are learned.” In the Hour of Fate and Dan­ger offers yet anoth­er exam­ple of how life can con­tin­ue despite the haunt­ing dark­ness of the Holo­caust through the pow­er of memory.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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