Béla’s Letters is a historical fiction novel spanning eight decades. It revolves around the remarkable life story of Béla Ingber, who was born before the onset of WWI in Munkács, a small city nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. The book tells of the struggles of Béla and his extended family to comprehend and prepare for the Holocaust, the implausible circumstances that the survivors endure before reuniting in the New World, and the crushing impact on them of their wartime experiences together with the feelings of guilt, hatred, fear, and abandonment that haunt them. At the core of the novel are the poignant letters and postcards that family members wrote to Béla, undeterred by the feasibility of delivery, which were his lifeline, even decades after the war ended.
Writing Bela's Letters
by Jeff Ingber
In February 2016, after five years of research and writing, I self-published Béla’s Letters. A historical fiction novel spanning eight decades, it revolves around the life of my father, who was born before the onset of WWI in Munkács, a small city nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. (Although Dad technically was born in Hungary, he proudly considered himself a Czech. In 1919, when he was six years old, following World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region surrounding Munkács was encased within the newly established Republic of Czechoslovakia.) The book tells of the struggles of my dad and his extended family, as well as my mom (who was born and raised in Budapest), to comprehend and prepare for the Holocaust, the implausible circumstances that those who survived endured before reuniting in the New World, and the crushing impact on them of their wartime experiences.
Holding the book in my hand now, it seems inevitable that I would write it. I am a writer by nature and had already written and published a book along with over a dozen professional articles and a screenplay. I have always been fascinated by my parents’ survival stories. My dad told me innumerable tales of his youth and of the war, and I had the foresight to have interviewed him in depth before he died in 2003. Also, I am a lifelong WWII buff and have read hundreds of books on the subject.
But it was not until early 2004, months after my father’s death, when I was approaching my 50th birthday, that I finally decided to write the book. The tipping point was my discovery of dozens of poignant letters and postcards written to my father by family members, many sent before the war began. Those documents, evidence of a resilient family dynamic that the Holocaust could not fracture, remained of such sustenance to my father that he preserved many and carried them to the New World. Upon discovering this treasure, I felt compelled to uncover these buried voices.
Translating those writings from Hungarian into English was a challenge. Most of the correspondence was in a longhand I would have found undecipherable in any language, resembling a doctor’s script, growing smaller at the edges to fill every inch of yellowed and crumbling paper. Fortunately, I found Zsuzsa Racz, translator extraordinaire, whose talents and intuition brought the letters to life, and whose insights formed the basis for the first chapter of the book.
Many chapters are based on stories told to me by my father. But there were innumerable gaps in the known facts that I was compelled to fill in using imagination, deduction, and research. Nonetheless, I strived to have the major facts presented in the book be grounded, to close extent, on reality, and each of the main characters was an actual person. The historical chapters were constructed on extensive research. For example, there is a chapter describing a visit to Munkács by the great Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the summer of 1934. In fact, Jabotinsky did make that visit and, while there is no record of what he said in Munkács, all the statements that I attribute to him are ones that he did make at differing times in his life.
Part of me kicked myself for not having started the book much earlier, when my uncles and aunt were alive and I might have interviewed them (although they all were famously tight-lipped about their experiences during the war). On the other hand, I was aided enormously by performing my research in the new age of self-publishing, which has allowed so many priceless memoirs to come out that describe life in the labor camps and in both Munkács and Budapest before, during, and after the war. Also, in recent years, there have been many invaluable works of scholarship published regarding the glory days of Munkács.
There also continues to be an immense amount of writing regarding Judaism itself, and I immersed myself in much of it as part of my research. As an adult, I’ve drifted away from religious practice but, while doing so, I’ve increasingly been interested in understanding what Judaism truly is all about. Reading some of the great thinkers on Judaism, going back to Spinoza, solidifies my view that the essence of the religion is about timeless principles of compassion, humility, self-reflection, personal growth, and active kindness. As with other religions, too many people focus their efforts on adherence to a vast set of rules and technical nuances. This, to my mind, takes away from the joys of Jewish spirit and spirituality.
There were many pleasures that came out of my writing this book, including of all the conversations it engendered with my mom, sister, cousins, and extended family members. Regarding Mom, I am so fortunate to still have her with me. Now in her 90th year, she continues to have great clarity of recollection, and was able to provide countless helpful details. Once again, I got to work closely with my wife, Linda. She and I spent many hundreds of invaluable hours passionately considering and debating innumerable aspects of the book. And the book displays the talents of my daughter, Arielle Morris, who crafted the book’s cover, the family tree, and the candle theme that appears throughout the book. While writing the chapter on Elmhurst, where I grew up, I caught up with several old friends from high school. And I made new friends, including Marilyn Kaltenborn, who wrote a book on growing up in Fleischmanns in the 50s and 60s (when my family summered there) and was of great help in recreating that place and time.
I also was pleased to help in some small way to preserve the memory of those who acted with great courage, compassion, and humanity during the darkness of the war years. One such person was Kati Tibold, a young woman who offered her identity papers to my mother without being asked, which saved my mother’s life. Another was the nun who befriended my father in the Budapest hospital, a saint whose name is lost to history.
Of course, I learned a great deal about the Hungarian Holocaust, and how my parents survived it, subjects that were fairly mysterious previously. And I picked up a great deal about other matters, such as that my mother-in-law, Inge Shumer, whose family also spent summers in Fleischmanns, was a beauty contestant in the St. Regis Hotel.
Writing this book gave me a sense of my grandparents and other family members who perished, and how wonderful it would have been to have known them. It also brought back many fond memories of my Uncles Joe, Miki, Miklós, and Oli, and my Aunts Inge, Libu, Mary, and Suzy. I gained even more respect for all, together with my parents, who endured the unimaginable, and then had to cope for decades more with what must have been intense feelings of guilt, hatred, loss, and abandonment.
Finally, my father’s spirit was with me throughout the writing of the book, filling me with gratitude for his surviving, giving me life, and loving me so much.
GIVEAWAYAbout the Author:
Jeff is a financial industry consultant, who previously held senior positions at Citibank, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation. His latest book is Bela’s Letters, a family memoir based on his parents, who were survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust. Jeff also has written a screenplay entitled The Bank Examiners. He lives with his wife in Jersey City, NJ.
For more information visit Jeff Ingber’s website. You can also connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
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