Fever at Dawn by Peter Gardos
You might not believe this story but it really happened. It’s July 1945. Miklos, a Hungarian survivor of Belsen, lands up in a refugee camp in Sweden. He’s skin and bone, and he has no teeth. The doctor says he has only months to live. But Miklos has other plans.
He whistles up a list of 117 young Hungarian women in another camp across the forests of Sweden. In his beautiful handwriting he writes to each of them. He writes obsessively, sitting in the shade of a tree in the hospital garden. One of these young women, he is sure, will become his wife.
In a camp hundreds of kilometres away Lili reads his letter. Idly, she decides to write back. Letter by letter the pair fall in love. In December 1945 they find a way to meet. They only have three days together. And they fall in love all over again.
But there are other forces at work, people and institutions who do not believe either of these lovers should find each other …
Based on the beautifully crafted letters penned in 1945 by the author’s father as a young man, this is a fierce, heart-rending story of love against the odds, and an astonishing tale of how, in its most pure and powerful form, love can outwit death.
The blurb, pretty much tells you all you need to know about the story, as the book is based only on the period after Miklos and Lili were liberated from their respective concentration camps and taken to safety in Sweden. It does have some references to the camps, but not in any great detail as the emphasis in the book is on looking forward and not looking back.
It is at times a touching and comic story of how two lost and in Miklos’s case, possibly dying souls find friendship, meet and decide to marry. The difficulty is, because it is based on the letters sent between the two, it is at times quite repetitive. It is certainly enlightening as to what life was life inside the hospital blocks for the two, and how they coped with their situation, but ultimately with little freedom of choice and the ability to leave and do what they wished, they and the story are constrained.
While I liked the character of Lili, I’m not so sure I actually liked Miklos to the same degree. I felt that Lili invested far more in the relationship than Miklos. After his initial burst of letter writing to 117 girls from his home village, he continues to write to a number of them, even after deciding Lili is his chosen partner. This has an air of hedging his bets, rather than being emotionally involved and that spoiled the love story aspect for me.
It is clear that the author clearly loved his parents and wanted to tell their story. However, while it is a story well worth telling, I’m not sure this was told as well as it might have been. In the hands of an independent writer there might have been more exploration of motives, feelings and actions. I’m also not sure whether a different translation which may have accounted for a less literal and sometimes stilted writing style. What cannot be denied though is that ultimately this story is one of hope over adversity and the power of determination, which can only be applauded.
I received a copy of the book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.