Three weeks after V-E Day/8th May 1945, Míklos Gárdos arrived as a very sick young man, from Bergen-Belsen, to Sweden. Like most of the inmates from the camp, he had typhoid and tuberculosis. On arrival to Lärbro, a town on the island of Gotland, he was told that he would only live for six, at the most seven months.
Looking at his wedding photo, on a news clipping, which is the only document in the book, which shows what he really looked like, you really would not believe, that what happened next, really happened. He was a skinny, scrawny thing, and I would say entirely unattractive with metal teeth and glasses thick as bottles. In my world, he would also be unattractive because of his ways: cramming communism down everyone’s throats, making himself out as too important and lying. In other words, having too high thoughts about himself. But perhaps this is the reason why he managed to beat the odds? Because he beat the odds.
Míklos refused to act sick or accept the death sentence. Instead he set out to find himself a wife! He was 25 years old and was not a dreamer as far as accepting the fact, that noone in his family probably had survived the holocaust. But he wanted a wife at this time of his life and he was not too picky. As long as she came from or around his native town of Debrecen in Hungary, he would accept pretty much anyone. He managed to compile a list of women under 30, who came from the right area, had survived the holocaust and were currently in some hospital in Sweden, just like himself. The next step was to send off 117 letters to those women and wait. All letters being identical except for the salutation phrase. The letters being nothing but a chatting up line, him wondering if they knew him before he was sent off to forced labour, and him claiming to have worked as a journalist in Debrecen before then, even though he was just an errand boy for eight days, before the Nürnberg laws forbade him to work at a newspaper.
At the same time, 18 year-old Lili Reich (in reality Agnes Biro), was taken to a hospital in Eksjö, Småland, with kidney stones. Míklos letter to her, had not made an impression on her, but her new-found friend Judit Gold, packed it for her, together with a diary and a tooth-brush, to go to Eksjö. Judit also encouraged Lili to answer the letter, because obviously the man must feel very lonely.
Míklos had a best friend in Lärbo, named Harry, who also had health issues of course. But the only thing we get to hear of Harry’s illness, is his impotence and how it bothered him, since he used to be a Don Juan. How long they had been friends, is kept a secret and if they shared the same fate in Hungary, is not told either. To be honest, we are not told much about Míklos war years. After Míklos was put in forced labour by the Hungarian military, he escaped in 1941, and joined the Russian partisans. They trained him to spy behind enemy lines, but he was caught as soon as he jumped in behind the front and all his teeth were knocked out, during the torture which ensued.
Of Lili, we find out nothing really, except how she reacted to letters she received. We know very little what life was like for her, before she came to Sweden. Only that she lived with her mother and father close to a train station in Budapest. That her father was a travelling sales man, selling bags and suitcases. And that she was taken for dead, when the Swedish delegation of doctors arrived to Bergen-Belsen. One of them, luckily noticed a tiny movement in a finger, and thereby saved her life. We also find out that she felt so fed up with being Jewish and what had been done to her and all other Jews, that she claimed to be Catholic. When she and the others arrived in Småland, she was given a Catholic family for host family. All patients receiving a host family, who they could spend holidays with and have dinners with, as soon as they were not contagious anymore.
Míklos was soon moved from Gotland, with all the other Hungarian men, to Avesta, which made him very unhappy. He did receive 18 answers to the 117 letters sent and he kept up correspondence with nine of them, but Lili was his favourite. Probably because to her, he was very educated and very well versed in the way of the world. She admired him and absorbed everything he said like a sponge. Soon she was as in love with him, as he was with her. Even though they had not seen photos of each other. As a matter of fact, he did no dare to have his photo taken, since he was sure his looks would turn her off. And this is a very funny part of the book, since he lets himself be photographed with Harry, to send to Lili. But he forces the photographer to make Harry focused and himself unfocused. The girls could not understand why he would send such a photo! I would also have questioned the sanity of this man!
The two “lovers” planned to meet, because of how they felt and because Míklos had such little time left and this is basically what the book is about. The refugees were not allowed to just travel around like they wanted to. They could not just take a train and go visit someone. All of them were sick, that is why they were here in Sweden in the first place. To get well and then get repatriated. They got a little bit of pocket-money, but that was not enough to do anything grand really. Míklos and Lili had to plan very carefully. Especially since some refugee girls had behaved very poorly in other places, not living up to the moral standards of the day.
Lili had help from her best friend Sára Stern, who had been allowed to join her in Eksjö, but Judit Gold, who also had arrived, did on the other hand, do everything to prevent further association between the two “lovers”. Why? Well, that becomes clear at the end of the book. But we could say, out of spite. She did not want this man, but noone else was supposed to either.
When it was finally time for the youths to meet, Míklos did several things. He had received money from an uncle, in Cuba, and with them he bought three chocolate bombs from a bakery, yarn for Lili to knit him a sweater with and nice brown fabric, for her to make in to a winter coat. Loaded with all this and suitcases, he set out on the long train journey. Of course fate had to put a twist on everything, so he fell and broke one of the lenses of his glasses. The man who arrived in Eksjö looked like Frankenstein’s monster. Dressed in a too large coat, with metal teeth gleaming in the evening light and with one eye covered with the daily newspaper’s front page! Lili went in to shock and had Sára pretend to be her, but they did not fool Míklos. It did not take long for Lili to warm up to her letter writer though. So much so, that he three days later, went home an engaged man.
But life did not get particularly better. When the girls were moved to Berga instead, someone stole Lili’s fabric, which devastated her. She realized that someone really hated her, when the police found it, all cut up in strips. Míklos, who wanted to visit her again, for Christmas, was not allowed to do so, which made him run away and as punishment he was sent way up to the north of Sweden, to a community called Högbo. The two of them continued their plans though and one part of the plan was, to convert to Catholicism for real, and live happily ever after as Catholics. Míklos managed to buy rings, by pawning Harry’s violin, and then they just waited for an opportunity.
But Judit tried to prevent all their plans. She sent letter after letter to a Rabbi Kronheim in Stockholm, who had been chosen to take care of all the refugees’ spiritual needs, as well as psychological health, while in Sweden. In her letters, Judit divulged everything which was happening between Lili and Míklos, claiming that Míklos was a con man. Kronheim went to see Lili, first of all, trying to make her see sense about converting and marrying a dying man. And when she would not listen, he went to see Míklos, but he quickly realized that Míklos was not going to bend more than Lili had, so he suggested they marry in the synagogue in Stockholm. The congregation and rabbi Kronheim would pay for absolutely everything. He would write everyone who needed to give their permission, he would see to that Míklos got new porcelain teeth… The offer was made in such a way that they could not refuse! It meant that they could marry quickly. So they married in February 1946 and newspapers covered the story. The couple even received a congratulation letter from the Swedish king. That summer, they moved back to Hungary, because a miracle had happened. Míklos lungs were slowly healing themselves and he actually lived for another 52 years.
We do not find out what happened to his friend Harry, nor Sára, even though they were such important people in the story. Judit Gold, ten years older than the other two girls, was not mentioned further either. But, one did find out one thing and that is that she was one of the 117 women who received a letter from Míklos. She had no interest in answering it, since she thought it an outragous gesture of him to send the letter in the first place. But perhaps she did regret herself, when she saw her friend’s happiness? Or she could not stand seeing happiness so close? I think everyone who reads the book, will draw the conclusion that she was the one who stole the fabric and cut it to pieces, depriving her sick friend of a well needed coat.
I have given this book four stars because two things really bothered me with it, which pulled the rating down. The first thing which bothered me, was the fact that the Swedish edition needed to have gone through a last editing and spell check. Here and there sentences did not make any sense, especially having words lacking some letters. It seems like someone was typing too fast and missing letters, and why was this not caught before going to print?
The second problem I have with this book, is a major one. Either it is a novel or it is a biography. It seems like the author or the publishing company, can not decide which it is. A novel does not need any explanations what so ever. BUT since the book contains documents and photos, in the last part of the book, to prove the story authentic, it has left the novel category. And entering the biography category means, that the author needs to add one chapter of explanations. Why did he keep his dad’s real name in the book but altered that of his mother and her parents? Who was the second couple in the wedding photo, since the newspaper article mentioned no names? Was it Harry? Judit Gold obviously did everything to stop Míklos’ and Lili’s relationship from start to finish, out of jealousy, but was she just added for effect or was there really a Judit and did she really do what she is accused of in the novel? And the Rabbi, did he con them in to having a Jewish wedding and prevent them from converting to Catholicism? Since it clearly is NOT a novel in the ordinary sense, explanations are needed. The reader deserves to find out what is truth and what is artistic liberties. I for one, did not read the book because I was dying to read about true love, but I read it to find out how the Jewish survivors were treated here in Sweden, after the war. I read it, to find out details about their lives in refugee camps and hospitals. What the policies were, from the Swedish side. Obviously, one realizes that conversations are made up, to get to a point, and to make the story interesting/gripping. But I want to know how far away from the truth, the author went. Because if this was a novel in the ordinary sense, the story would be unbelievable. But only because the story is based on the author’s parents’ letters, does it become a remarkable story.