Béla’s Letters by Jeff Ingber is a work of historical fiction so closely tied to history that it reads more like a moving non-fiction account. Inspired by Ingber’s family history, the novel spans eight generations, beginning with Béla who endures the horrors of the Holocaust, and the terrible aftermath where survivors feel guilt, sorrow and immeasurable pain trying to put their lives back together. Woven through the novel are letters to Béla from his family, which serve as a tragic historical window of the period, as horrifying events unfold in real time.
The letters are the strongest component of Ingber’s work. Here is a sample from early in the book:
Berlin is a ballast of evil, papered with swastika flags that form the harsh edges of its beauty. They flutter like cancerous butterflies over the Unter den Linden. Hitler, dressed in a military uniform, attended every day, his hand raised as if blessing the crowd, adulated like he was Moses bringing the tablets from Mount Sinai…An acrid wind carries the smell of his savagery.
The epistolary nature of Ingber’s novel makes the subject all the more powerful, as an historical work looks through the lens of the entire experience, whereas these letters unveil a perspective that isn’t fully aware of what’s ahead. A criticism of the book is a confusion about what makes the book historical fiction or a memoir of his family, as so much real-life detail has been put into the book. However, the fact that the book is based on real people gives the novel an extra level of emotion beyond what is a profound and deeply-affecting work.