‘My grandmother was born on the day Gustav Mahler died. Barely seven years after the death of Dvorák. And in the spring during which Stravinsky’s Petroesjka experienced its premiere.’
This is how the debut novel of Judith Fanto begins, a story in which protagonist Geertje goes in search of Viktor Rosenbaum, the mysterious brother of her grandfather. Few documents bear witness of his existence, among which a deportation order with the seal of the Gestapo, that would take him to his gruesome death in Minsk in 1942. ‘For the rest I had to work with the aversion of my grandparents to talk about him, their apparent embarrassment by the whole situation and the possible family secret that may surround my unknown great-uncle who, two generations later, strangely enough seems more familiar to me than all the other dead family members, who were mentioned all the time – if only for him having green eyes, like me.
Switching between the timeline of turbulent Vienna in the first, and that of student-like Nijmegen in the second half of the twentieth century, a portrait emerges of a gifted and colorful Jewish family that, under the threat of anti-Semitism and Hitler’s advancing killing machine, finds itself faced with absurd choices. In six chapters, each with its own character, like a Mahler symphony in words, Fanto describes with humor and melancholy the influence of developments on the world stage on the irrevocable turns of a family history. In the light of a complex family code, a complicated collection of do’s and don’ts the family employs in order to stand firm in the wake of persecution and suppression, the deep connection unfolds between the living and the dead who, even though they never met when alive.
Viktor is more than a book on the issues of the ‘second and third generation’ and the effect of tight family values on the creation of one’s identity. In a loving manner, with humor and a touch of Wiener schmäh, the author writes about the influence of a person’s name on their destiny, the difference between being born and coming into the world and the relative meaning of truth and lie. In her own authentic way Fanto dares to ask sensitive questions without sparing herself in the process. For who actually owns the Holocaust? And above all: who is Judith without her Judaism?