Journey to Vaja: Reconstructing the World of a Hungarian-Jewish Family

  • Awards

    Winner: 1998 Elie Wiesel Prize for Holocaust Literature
    Finalist: 1997 QSPELL Prize for Non-Ficition

    One woman’s poignant quest for her past.

    Part autobiography, part family chronicle, and part immigrant saga, Journey to Vaja tells the story of the Weinbergers over the course of two centuries. From settlement in a Hungarian village in the late eighteenth century to the German occupation of Hungary in the spring of 1944, Elaine Kalman Naves places her family’s triumphs and tribulations against the backdrop of Hungarian history.

    Northeastern Hungary was full of places like the village of Vaja, where Jews had farmed for generations. Naves's ancestors had tilled Hungarian soil since the eighteenth century. They had married into similar farming families and maintained a lifestyle at once agricultural, orthodox, and Hungariophile. The Nyirség, a sandy, slightly undulating region wedged between the Great Hungarian Plain and the foothills of the Carpathians, was the centre of their world. But all this changed irrevocably with the holocaust; Naves's generation is the first in two centuries whose roots are severed from the soil that once nurtured them.

    Naves's quest for her past began with her father, one of the few members of a vast extended family to survive the Nazi death camps. His stories and memories of ancestors were a well-spring from which he drew strength, and they became an obsession for Naves as she was growing up and when she had children of her own. Journey to Vaja is her attempt to record the lives of these ancestors and reclaim their lives as part of her and her children's birthright. It incorporates myths and stories with family letters and detailed archival research to provide an extraordinary look at the landscape of memory and a testament to the redemptive power of love and family. 

  • Excerpt - Going Back

    Queuing up for a British Airways flight to Budapest in London’s Heathrow Airport, I became aware of the sound of Hungarian being spoken in progressively shriller and more panicky accents by someone near the head of the line. The flight had been announced in English only, and an old woman laden with string bags was drowning puzzled-looking English flight attendants in a flood of colloquial Hungarian. Taking pity on both parties, I tapped the old woman on the shoulder and assured her in rusty Hungarian that yes, indeed, this was the flight to Budapest; I, too, was headed there.

    On the plane we switched our assigned seats so that we could sit together, although by this time such was the lady’s effusive delight at finding a fellow Hungarian-speaker that I regretted my gesture of help. My companion invoked blessings on my head and regaled me with the history of her children and grandchildren in London. When my polite responses dried up, she asked me why I was going to Hungary.

    This was mid-June of 1986, almost exactly three years after I had last been to Budapest. Then, I had spent virtually all my time in the capital researching in libraries and interviewing family members, and just barely managing a day trip to the part of the country my family came from. This time I intended to spend more time in the Nyírség, the sandy northeast of the country that originally took its name from the birch tree. I planned to start with the town of Nagykálló, the Nyírség’s oldest and most famous Jewish centre.

    None of this was a secret, yet I found myself reluctant to discuss it with my seat-mate. It is common for Hungarian Jews, even expatriates like myself, even today to be slightly paranoid about our Jewish origins with Hungarians we don’t know. Frequently, Jews who work together in mutual respect in Budapest will wonder about the origins of each other’s names or about the shape of a particular nose – yet will never ask the forthright question, “So are you Jewish too?” The history of assimilation is long, anti-Semitism – covert or open – lurks around the corner. Many feel grateful to leave common backgrounds unexplored.

    On the other hand, my choices were apparently to listen to more anecdotes about the old woman’s family or to tell her something about myself. In any case, I wanted no part of hiding my Jewishness. I began to explain that I was heading for the Nyírség to exhume my Jewish family’s past – feeling annoyingly aware of a nervous quickening of my heartbeat. The octogenarian babbling her gratitude next to me had the appraising eyes of a shrewd peasant. Was she more likely to cut or patronize me for my answer. I was startle by her response. The broad Slavic face with its marked cheekbones and generous mouth broke into an enormous smile. She grasped my hand in a gesture of introduction. “My name is Mrs Benjámin. I am also from the Nyírség.”

    Benjámin, I thought, now really surprised – could she possibly be Jewish? We were now well-launched in the game of “guess the Jew.” I had revealed myself; in her encouraging body language and use of her name, she was telling me either that she was no anti-Semite or that she herself was Jewish. The typical response would have been to equivocate further. It’s not playing the game by its subtle and intricate rules to ask bluntly, “Is the lady Jewish?” It is far too direct – and insulting, too, if the lady is not. I broke the rules and asked.

    “Of course I’m Jewish.” Mrs Benjámin nodded. “Born and bred Jewish in Nagykálló.”

    Nagykálló. My destination.

  • What the critics have said

    "A family history that is meticulously researched, rich in personal detail and an unusual resource for those seeking to build a bridge over the Holocaust between the world of pre-war European Jewry and contemporary Jewish life."

    -Helen Eptsein, authour of Children of the Holocaust

    "Occupying a unique place between autobiography and fiction, Journey to Vaja is a haunting evocation of a world of the past and its presence in the present. It transcends time and place, moves back through centuries, and even transcends its own particular family to talk about the trials and pains of families, of people, of generations. It is a book about a daughter's love of her father and family and her ability to explore the past in order to understand the present."

    -David Staines, Department of English, University of Ottawa

    "Nowhere is the moral and political potential of the memoir form so well realized as in Elaine Kalman Naves's Journey to Vaja, in which she combines her personal memories of growing up the daughter of a holocaust survivor with the actual letters of her 'shadow family,' all of whom died in the wake of the last evil effort of the Nazi regime to destroy as many Jewish families as it could in the course of its own death throes. Naves's journey through her family's letters, more than any of the many fictionalized accounts I have seen or read of the holocaust, brought home to me the terrible individual suffering, compounded over millions of lives in a host of families, that has occurred in our times."

    -Helen M. Buss, Prairie Fire

    "A touching story of Naves's family history from the 1780s to our times. She travels through the emotional, historical-geographical terrain of two centuries, meticulously recording events and introducing family members, acquaintances, and the milieu of Hungary's historical times."

    -George Gabori, author of When Evils Were Most Free

    "A personal account of a kind that one encounters but rarely, this evocative story is told in remarkable detail and with empathy combined with a reassuring degree of objectivity. It complements usefully and poignantly the still-growing scholarly literature on the history of Jews in Hungary."

    Istvan Anhalt, Emeritus Professor, Music Department, Queen's University

    “a dynastic tale structured like a triple-decker generational novel…, a loving tribute to a courageous family.”

    Richard Teleky, The Toronto Star

    “The child of Hungarian Holocaust survivors who was herself born in Hungary, Naves combines the genres of autobiography, biography, fiction [and] history to describe two centuries of her Hungarian-Jewish family’s history. Through careful research, Naves manages to bridge the Holocaust gulf to better times, so that today I am able to read … not only how Jews died, but how they lived. … She also displays a courageous honesty in revealing some of the less attractive family history, a thing people are sometimes reluctant to do when writing about victims of terrible crimes. Yet this only adds to the strength and credibility of her story. Eloquent…. Beautifully and heartrendingly written.”

    Libby Scheier, The Montreal Gazette

    “a remarkable portrayal of daily life in pre-war Hungary [written] with the thorough research of an academic historian and the craft of a novelist.”

    Greg McGillis, Ottawa Citizen

    Journey to Vaja reminds us of the haunting words of Nobel Prize winner I.B. Singer, the Yiddish writer who said ‘I write in the language of ghosts.’ Through her meticulous research, Kalman Naves has added to our cultural memory and animated a lost world.”

    Maureen Moore, Vancouver Sun

    Anyone who has listened to a parent spin family yarns knows that such stories are concoctions of myth and fact. But the books that emerge from these tales – Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Denise Chong’s The Concubine’s Children or Michael Ignatieff’s The Russian Album – tend to favour one mode or the other.

    Journey to Vaja fits the pattern: chronicling four generations of her father’s Hungarian-Jewish family, Montreal literary journalist Elaine Kalman Naves learned many of the romantic stories of Vaja, the village in Hungary where her ancestors lived, at her father Gusti’s knee.

    -John Lorin, Quill and Quire.

  • Related Media

    Scarred by History - 4 Square Productions
    Episode 3 - Paradise Lost

    Paradise Lost, a story of the Holocaust shot in Canada and Hungary, is based on the book Journey to Vaja by Elaine Kalman Naves. The viewer follows the triumphs and tragedies of one Jewish family in Hungary over the course of a century and a half.

    • To order the film, click here.

Journey to Vaja

Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press
Date: 1996

Click on the photo to enlarge

Journey to Vaja

Pages: 304 pages
Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press
Date: 1996