Wednesday 11 July 2012

I Am Forbidden - a stunning first novel in English by Anouk Markovits

I have just finished reading Anouk Markovits' English language debut - I Am Forbidden.  The book traces the history of two girls - Mila and Atara - born into the ultra-Orthdox and virulently anti-Zionist Satmar community in Transylvania before the Second World War.

The Holocaust wiped out much of Transylvania's once substantial Jewish presence and both girls suffer losses during this period.There is reference to Rebbe (Rabbi) Yoel Teitelbaum - a real historical figure who excommunicated anyone with Zionist leanings or even who had contact with any Zionist supporters, yet took a place on the controversial "Kasztner train" that rescued over 1,600 Hungarian Jews from Eichmann's hands, first of all by having them sent to Bergen-Belsen and keeping them away from the other prisoners and then transferring them to Switzerland where they were freed.

Reszo Kasztner was a committed  Hungarian Zionist and depending on your view, risked his life to save as many Jews as he possibly could in impossible circumstances and making terrible choices to do so. Anouk's book makes great play of choices, including choices to be truthful or not, to live or not and to stay in the Satmar community or not. Both girls struggle with their own choices as they grow into adulthood and take different paths.

Mila cannot shake off her childhood memory of seeing her mother run towards the Satmar Rebbe as he sat on the edge of an open carriage on the Kasztner train and seeing her shot down and killed before she could reach him. As she grows up she is told the Satmar story that Kasztner was not responsible for rescuing the Rebbe, rather that Hashem was responsible. This also mirrors history when in the 1950's Kasztner took a court case after being accused of collaborating with Eichmann, of making money from his rescue scheme and of only helping Zionist supporters. The accusations were found to be untrue but the slur led to Kasztner being assassinated in Tel Aviv. It is believed he had asked the Satmar Rebbe to testify on his behalf during the trial, but Teitelbaum refused saying that only God had helped him.

Markovits herself is from a Satmar community but left rather than agree to a marriage that she did not want. Born in Paris, she now lives in New York, has published two books and secured a BSc, an MA (architecture)and a PhD (Romance studies)! She gives interesting insights into a little known world, including some of the rules governing relationships between husband and wife, rules of purity and ideas about how much religious learning is suitable for women and girls. Although she left the community, she stills writes with some affection for the individuals and particularly for the women characters who strive to keep the rules as well as to ensure their families are happy and healthy. There is even some sympathy for Mila's husband, Josef who when finding a terrible truth about his daughter cannot bring himself to denounce her and carries a hard secret to his death - despite the shocking denouement which is not revealed until almost the last page!

The story moves quickly and is extremely engaging despite the unfamiliarity of the world it inhabits. I covered the just under 300 pages in two sittings, not wanting to put it down and not wanting it to end. The reader is drawn into this "otherness" which deliberately separates itself from the rest of the world as well as from other Jews.  Indeed Satmarim deny the Jewishness of Jews who do not subscribe to their view of the world.

If anyone from London's Jewish Book Week is reading this, please book Anouk Markovits NOW for next year's event and continue the tradition of giving us access to great contemporary (and translated) French writers. My book of the year so far.


  1. I too have just finished reading this fascinating book.

    It was my understanding that it was written in English - the fluency could not have been achieved through translation.

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    2. Thanks Stephanie. You are right - this is her English debut. I will amend accordingly. Best wishes.