Michelle Mazel, Julius Matthias:  A Pact with the Devil

, March 24, 2018

Michelle Mazel, Julius Matthias:  A Pact with the Devil, New Meridian, 2017, 381pp.

Michelle Mazel’s latest work, Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil, belongs to the genre of historical/biographical novels. Its subject is the life and times of a Jew, Julius Matthias, in the town of Oradea (Hungarian: Nagyvarad) in Transylvania (part of present-day Romania). The novel’s time span extends from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century – from the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the deportation of its Jewish population during World War II. Thus, Julius Matthias encompasses the transfer of Transylvania from Austro-Hungarian rule, under which it was part of the Hungarian sphere, to the Kingdom of Romania, its return to Hungary, and the Nazi takeover in 1944. The large Jewish population underwent considerable turmoil during these times. The hero of the story, Julius Matthias, exemplifies these changes.

Many well-known epic novels and short stories about Jews in Czarist Russia and in Poland, in Yiddish and in Hebrew, have been translated into English and deal with the same period of history. Mazel’s book, however, introduces the English-reading public to the largely Hungarian-speaking Jews of the towns of Transylvania who often seem to be caught between the local Hungarian and Romanian Christians, the middle class, and the peasantry. The issues of family and loyalty, identity, assimilation, modernity, religious practice and affiliation, possible emigration, and relations between Jews and Gentiles, which make up the classical themes of some of the novels of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and other authors, take on a somewhat different character in Julius Matthias in their Transylvanian setting. The pervasive reality of anti-Semitism affects all of society. For example, Matthias’ father is a strictly Orthodox Jew; his stepmother, a Jew whose first husband was a Christian, returned to her ancestral religion when she married him. Matthias himself identifies as a Jew but is not observant, with the exception of life-cycle ceremonies such as bar mitzvahs, weddings, circumcisions of his sons, and funeral and mourning customs. His choice of a career in medicine, which proves highly successful, and the adoption of bourgeois norms and mannerisms seem to be his way of coping with his position as a Jew in a hostile and distrustful environment. His children leave the provincial town of Oradea for France, where they seem to lose any tenuous affiliation with their Jewish background. Mazel describes these sociocultural phenomena skillfully, eloquently, and naturally. She treats issues that form an integral part of Jewish modernity in Western countries today.

That being said, Julius Matthias, albeit a work of historical fiction, is a novel, and features such as plot, characters, and dialogue are of great importance. Matthias’ arranged marriage to a wealthy older woman with a dark secret in her past, his “pact with the devil,” casts a tragic shadow over his life. His marriage enables him to study medicine, have a successful medical practice, and open an office. His extramarital affairs, particularly a long-lasting love, are understandable in the circumstances. On occasion Matthias displays emotions, and he is particularly warm toward his children, a good father. Mazel diligently portrays the many sides of the novel’s protagonist and successfully presents the world from his viewpoint. Readers can easily identify with aspects of the complexities of his character. Other characters, such as his Gentile friend Sandor, also receive their due.

The work ends with the pogroms by Romanians that accompanied the Holocaust, as Julius Matthias and his family make various choices leading to different destinies. Michelle Mazel’s moving and realistic depiction of the situation in Oradea/Nagyvarad is fraught with suspense, and the book is gripping throughout. We look forward to more fiction by this talented author.

Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer Emerita in Ancient Jewish History at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.