- Trust and Deceit: A Tale of Survival in Slovakia and Hungary, 1939–1945
Not often have I agreed to review books, and when I have, it has always been within the well-defined boundaries of academic territory, where I dealt with a study grounded in accepted scholarly methods. The present essay is an exception in more then one respect. This is a memoir, and a very personal one.
I agreed to review Gerta Vrbová's biographical book for two very subjective reasons. The first is my family's history. Both my parents came from Czechoslovakia (when it was still one country, as it was in 1918–1939), and both survived the Holocaust but lost large parts of their families. The second reason is the author's last name, Vrbová, which suggested to me that she must have had some connection with one of the greatest heroes of the Holocaust period in Czechoslovakia: Rudolf (Walter) Vrba, who, together with Alfred Wetzler, did the unimaginable and escaped from Auschwitz. After returning to Slovakia, the two composed their famous report on Auschwitz, the most detailed to be written during the Holocaust.
As I suspected, Vrba married Gerta after the war. Although the marriage ended and Gerta remarried, she held on to his last name. Indeed, the book is dotted with names I've been hearing all my life: Viola, Ibolya (my mother's name), Manci. The places mentioned are also part of me: Pressov, Bratislava, Prague, where my father, like Gerta, went to study medicine after the war. It will come as no surprise, then, that I read this book in one day—almost, it seemed, in one breath. It was as if I had already read it a thousand times, yet I read it with the excitement of the first time.
The book, issued in the framework of the Library of Holocaust Testimonies series, was published more then 60 years after the events described in it [End Page 276] took place. Gerta was a child of 12 when the war began and almost a woman of 18 by the time it was over. This is the story of a Holocaust ordeal, but, simultaneously, one of growing up and maturing.
Although Gerta's story is told chronologically, my impression is that it should be divided into three stages. The first is that of Gerta's happy childhood in the city of Tarnava in Slovakia. This is the story of a girl born into a well-off, educated family, surrounded with love and imbued with a strong sense of belonging.
The second stage describes the slow process of Gerta's comprehension that childhood and routine are over, shattering her sense of security and belonging. Suddenly, the only identity left for a Jewish child is Jewish identity, and her only consolation is the Zionist idea. In the third stage, Gerta tells the story of her maturation, in age and also, more importantly, in terms of her changing role in the family. The young, dependent girl from the beginning of the story gives way to one who functions as her parents' mainstay, manifesting a breathtaking resourcefulness in finding means to survive.
Although the book is based on the author's memories, I found hardly any historical flaws in it. That having been said, I found myself raising an eyebrow over two reported details. The first relates to the book's frequent mention of the use of the telephone. It seems as though everyone had a phone in his/her house. I found this rather hard to believe, especially of Gerta's uncle Karol, who lived on a farm (p. 9).
My second reservation refers to the first transports from Slovakia to Auschwitz. Gerta writes: "Just a few days later, in April 1942, those of us who were over 16 had to report for deportation" (p. 24). However, the transports from Slovakia began earlier, in March 1942. The first transport of Jewish women to arrive in Auschwitz was indeed that of the Slovak girls (over 16 and unmarried), who were also...