The Collaborator: A Novel

  • By Diane Armstrong
  • HQ Fiction
  • 496 pp.
  • Reviewed by Janet A. Martin
  • July 21, 2020

Inspired by true events, this stirring tale captures the plight of Hungarian Jews during WWII.

The Collaborator: A Novel

Tragic World War II reminiscences can be disturbing to read, and stories about the fate of the last contingent of Jewish families in Hungary during the dark days of the Nazi occupation of Budapest are no exception. However, in her fourth novel, The Collaborator, author Diane Armstrong re-knits savage history into a successful weave of heroism, betrayal, vengeance, and hope.

Armstrong (herself a survivor of the Holocaust) portrays the life of a modern-day young editor, Annika Barnett, who has quit her job at a magazine, leaving behind an unfulfilling career editing 21st-century weight-loss recipes and fabricated celebrity profiles. Unexpectedly, she soon becomes involved in solving the mystery of her grandmother Marika’s lurid past in war-torn Hungary.

Set in both 2005 and 1944, the story explores an actual event — how a Jewish man foiled Nazi plans to eradicate Jews from Europe by negotiating with Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust, for the release and transport of 1,500 Jewish families by train from Hungary to Switzerland.

When Annika visits a contemporary Holocaust exhibit and finds Marika’s photograph among those of the Jewish refugees who fled to Switzerland, she entreats her grandmother to tell her about it. Marika rebukes her granddaughter, denying the event ever happened and commanding Annika never again to mention the name of the man who organized the escape.

Instead, Annika, spurred by her journalist’s instincts and determined to learn the truth, sets off on a global fact-finding journey from Sydney to Budapest to, eventually, Tel Aviv. In the process, she uncovers unknown family history and facts about an unjust 1953 trial at which the mysterious man who rescued her grandmother and others was depicted not as a hero but as a Nazi collaborator.

Effectively balancing factual events with fictional characters, Armstrong captures the cruelties of the wartime German occupation through the eyes of Annika, a tourist learning her family’s history through her travels. The author’s descriptions are searing and graphic:

“Past the impressive Hapsburg building that houses the parliament, they continued their riverside stroll until they came to a row of oddly assorted shoes spread along part of the promenade. When they come closer, she sees that they are bronze installations, bolted to the cement path. There are little children’s shoes, women’s high-heeled pumps, work boots and men’s lace-up shoes. Some are lying on their side, as if they had been carelessly kicked off, while others are neatly lined up as if in a wardrobe. She looks at [the guide] questioningly.

“‘This is in memory of another event in our unhappy history. In 1945, Hungarian fascist militia, Arrow Cross, brought thousands of Jewish people to this place. They forced them to take off all clothes, tied hands behind backs, and shot them. To save bullets, sometimes they tied families together and shot the person in front, so all fell into the Danube and drowned.’

“Annika’s mouth is so dry she can’t speak. Although the sun is warm on her shoulders, she shivers. What a horrible way to die…She thinks about her grandmother. Thank God Marika escaped such a terrible fate.”                       

With constant attention to accuracy, Armstrong lures the reader from present to past and back again, tying the lives of three generations together with a long-buried secret. As the mystery unfolds, the author maintains the tension of a Greek tragedy, deliberating on the well-known history of widespread sadism without losing grip of her unique tale.

Eventually, Annika realizes that her own life fits within a much larger puzzle of struggle and significance; she finds pride in her Jewish heritage. Ultimately, she learns that “the redemptive power of truth and forgiveness” can set people free.

The Collaborator is a stirring work inspired by real people and events. The novel is a well-researched, compassionate story that illuminates the complexity of the courageous, often impossible life choices made by individuals during — and because of — World War II.

Janet Martin lives and writes in rural Gordonsville, Virginia. She is the author of a Christmas fable, The Christmas Swap.

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