Photo Credit: Amsterdam Press

Title: Not a Real Enemy: The True Story of a Hungarian Jewish Man’s Fight for Freedom
By: Robert Wolf, Janice Harper
Amsterdam Press



At its core, this book is a fairly typical Holocaust memoir, yet it is undeniably a stellar five-star read, as attested to by the multiple awards it earned. The book chronicles the life of a young Hungarian Jewish man from his childhood as a coddled only child of well-to-do parents, through the harrowing depths of the Hungarian forced labor camps during the Holocaust, and eventually to adulthood in post-war Communist Hungary. While the Holocaust narrative may be familiar to many readers, the latter part of the book offers a unique perspective, delving into the relatively-uncharted territory of post-war Communist Hungary. The acknowledgements in the back of the book reveal that there were many rounds of editing and proofreading, and a lot of people were involved in producing this wonderful book. All those efforts shine through in this beautifully-written, well-executed masterpiece.

What sets this book apart is its distinctive narrative structure. Surprisingly, a significant chunk of the narrative doesn’t focus on the young protagonist, but instead pivots to his father’s story. The reader is transported back to his father’s boyhood and follows his father’s journey through marriage and early adulthood. It is a gripping account of a young man’s struggle to succeed in an anti-Semitic society, highlighting the resilience and perseverance he displayed while pulling himself up by the bootstraps to become a highly-successful Jewish doctor. This legacy of success doesn’t stop with the protagonist’s father, but – spoiler alert – it extends to the protagonist himself and even to the author, who happens to be the protagonist’s son. Remarkably, all three generations of men were Jewish doctors. This familial echo adds a poignant layer to the narrative, underscoring the multi-generational impact of the father’s resilience and determination.

Another integral facet of the protagonist’s identity was his strong connection to Hungarian high culture – the arts, opera, music, and theater. This cultural immersion was synonymous with a certain higher standard of living. A poignant scene in the book paints this picture vividly: during summer swims, while other swimmers on the riverbanks settled for humbler lunches, his housekeeper would present him with a sumptuous multi-course meal served on delicate chinaware. These refined sensibilities continued to shape the protagonist’s life, anchoring him to the world of Hungarian high culture.

As an aside, my husband’s family is of Hungarian Jewish heritage, and all four of his grandparents hail from Hungary (at least in the Jewish geographical sense). One of the characters in this book was named Uncle Laci, and he is somewhat reminiscent of my husband’s great-uncle Laci, who was affectionately known as Laci Basci (with basci being the Hungarian term for “uncle”). My husband’s great-uncle was a true Hungarian gentleman, who cherished the theater and classical music. Reading this book helped me better understand another facet of our Uncle Laci.

Yet, there were aspects of the protagonist’s choices and experiences that left me dismayed as an Orthodox Jewish reader. The protagonist and his father very conspicuously identified as Jews; they not only believed in G-d, but also in the efficacy of prayer. This Jewish pride led the protagonist to hate having to feign being Christian during the Holocaust (when he could not openly admit to being Jewish). But although they were proud to be Jews, there was only a vestigial remnant of Jewish observance. For example, the protagonist fasted on Yom Kipper and had a Jewish wedding (even under communist rule, when this was forbidden).

One particular incident that stood out was when the protagonist casually partook in a meal consisting of potatoes and lard. This did not transpire under starvation conditions, wherein one obviously eats whatever one gets in order to stay alive. The protagonist seemed to disregard fundamental principles of Jewish dietary observance without hesitation. It was rather disconcerting that somebody could be so proud of being Jewish, yet stray so far from Judaism. Of course, the protagonist (clearly a good and moral person) cannot be blamed for these shortcomings, because he was raised secular, but nonetheless I found it unsettling.

However, I was even more disturbed by a different part of the story: During a financial depression, the protagonist’s parents relocated to an Orthodox neighborhood in an attempt to save money. At that time, the protagonist was still a young child, so he transferred to the local Orthodox school, but he was unable to make any friends. This left him a very lonely little boy (especially considering he was an only child, so he didn’t have any siblings). Later in life, he realized that the other, religious, Jewish families in the neighborhood forbade their children from playing with him.

This dynamic comes up again, in the work camps. There, the religious boys shunned the non-religious Jewish boys (many of whom came from families that had converted to Christianity). They were all stuck in the same work camp together because they were all Jews, yet the religious boys still viewed the non-religious ones with animosity. I wanted to go back in time and yell at them.

In the work camps, the conditions were harsh, with grueling labor and meager rations that bordered on starvation. However, the protagonist’s work group seemed to fare better than most others (perhaps because many of the boys had converted to Christianity). It’s notable that none of the boys in this particular work group succumbed to the relentless labor or starvation.

Another heartening and distinctive aspect of this Holocaust memoir was the presence of human decency amid the darkness. The Jewish boys in the work camp would often sneak off at night to beg or buy food from sympathetic peasants in the vicinity. In Hungary, there were still some good people left, who recognized that Jews were people too and that the persecution they endured was unjust. Some went to great lengths to extend a helping hand, even at the risk of their own safety. This contrasted with some other memoirs from Holocaust survivors in Poland and other parts of Europe, where it seemed like the whole world had gone mad and absolutely everyone was out to get you.

Despite the unsettling moments and observations, this book remains a truly excellent five-star read, an engrossing page-turner that provides unique insights into a complex and challenging era.


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Shira Yael Klein (nee Deifik) lives with her husband and four children in Beitar Illit. In between sending kids to school and making lunch, she sometimes does some editing, writing, and laundry. She can be reached via email to: [email protected].