I’ve never seen such a book as “Tamás könyve” (Thomas’ book). It is essentially is a series of handwritten and drawn letters from and photos of a single person and his immediate family accompanied with some segments of some of the letters transcribed and short lines of personal reflection from the editor. This may sound either dry or too personal, depending on your stance. For me the book was neither as it showed through the story of a single life the story of a historic era. This personal history book exemplifies not just what oral history could be if it was via written records, but also brought the person and his family close to me. I admit the topic was so close to my heart and family that I cried a few times, while turning the pages.
What am I talking about? Here is the life in question in a nutshell: Tamás Hábermenn was born in 1929 in a Jewish family in the southern part of Hungary. The family lived in Italy from 1933, where Tamás was baptized. In 1936 Tamás’ parents separated and his mother took him back to Hungary. His father, Aladár, visited him three times. In 1938 Tamás’ parents divorce became official and Aladár married Tamás’ Italian godmother. Aladár and his second wife lived the rest of their lives in Italy, their daughter, Anna Maria, was born in 1943. Tamás and most of his family in Hungary were deported and killed during the Holocaust. Only person, an aunt survived. The book contains the letters that Tams wrote to his father from 1936 till he was taken to concentration camp. It also contains a large selection of photos of him and other documents pertinent to his life. Such as the papers covering the trails of how Aladár tried to find after the war whether his son survived or not.
Aladár never told Anna Maria about the existence of her half-brother or that he was Jewish. After he died in 1974 the daughter found a suitcase with the letters and pictures. They were in a language she didn’t understand, but slowly with decades of work pieced together what could be pieced together at this point. She showed it to Ildikó Tóth in Italy, who was touched by it and believed that it would be worthy to share these with a wider audience. She sought out Tamás Kieselbach, a successful businessman and supporter of art. He owns one of the best antique stores and auction houses in Hungary and publishes high quality books and catalogues as well. He agreed with Tóth and the book was born.
The book opens with Kieselbach’s and Tóth’s foreword, goes on with Anna Maria Hábermann’s introduction. The documents themselves are annotated by Anna Maria’s musing thoughts. The book ends with a chronological summary of Tamás’ life, a chronology of important historic events of the same years and Anna Maria’s epilogue of a personal reflection.
The copy of the book I read was given by my uncle to my mother with the note “in memory of our brother.” My maternal grandfather had a wife and a son who were killed at the same time as Tamás and his mother. That’s why this book was so personal for us.