Sometimes, you just read things that bother you even years later.
I read this book, To See You Again by Betty Schimmel with Joyce Gabriel, years ago. It was, if I remember properly, one of those reading experiences that puts you through the wringer and makes you feel exhausted when you’re finished. It is a nearly unbelievable story of the two lovers being separated by World War II – just so utterly tragic, and showing that there we cannot possible imagine the tragedy, the horror, the pain, the bad awful things that happened to people as a result of the Holocaust. In short, these lovers don’t even know if the other is alive or dead at the end of the war, a situation many people had the tragedy of experiencing. But, this story is a bit different than others because the two lovers in this story always felt the other as an almost present-moment consideration in their lives, always feeling ready to be with the other should she or he be found.
And, many, many years after the war, in a Budapest restaurant, by chance, they do find each other. But they are each married to others. The man held back from marrying for 15 years as he looked for her. Isn’t that amazing? But what do you do when you have one life for living, and you have to choose between the love that may still be out there for you, that idiotic people and world events cruelly tore you away from and….living?? I guess you have to make a choice, and we can all learn from this story to be thankful to God that we haven’t had to make that decision.
So, reading this story, one feels frustration, anger and a sense of loss that the people who lived it felt, as well experiencing all those feelings as an outside wondering incredulously how anyone could ever have gotten through this, (especially with the almost puzzling grace that Betty Schimmel exhibited). The people in the story seem human, not at all perfect – after all, none of us are – which just increases the feeling of angst in this way too human (though uncommon) story. You feel that no one should ever be tested by life this way. To say it was a trying experience is a supreme understatement.
But that isn’t the only disturbing thing in this story.
The man that Betty ended up marrying, whom she didn’t love, kept information from her that she deserved and needed: the love from whom she’d been separated by war was alive and single and looking for her.
What a traitorous husband. No friend there.
It’s easy to say, and a much more difficult subject than I am giving it credit for, and I shouldn’t be so judgmental, but I was livid with this man. The story is so moving that I feel livid again, simply by having read today an article about this story that I’d never read before. This is what I get for revisiting old books on my Goodreads page.
But this is where the catharsis of writing comes in. Sometimes, the reader just has to get her reaction – impertinent and nervy or not – out. I generally don’t care for the phrase “he has no business doing/saying/etc,” but exaggerating for the sake of expression, here it goes: this husband had no business being with this woman. She never loved him. He pestered her. She married him but let him know she’d leave if she found her love. (Questionable, yes, but the whole situation was very outside of convention.) Then, he betrays her trust. And, frankly, he doesn’t sound so sorry about it in 2013 in the aforementioned article, where he speaks. (The book is just from Betty’s point 0f view).
Another frustrating part of the story is the understanding and the grace with which Betty handles herself when she has an opportunity to get back with her ex-love. She does the right thing by refusing him, as he is also remarried. But she is so gracious. She feels sorry for her husband. She has a responsibility to her family that she heeds, even though life was certainly most unfair to her. It seems as though life is beating her up once again, as though she hadn’t been through enough already. And she just seems so good. Meanwhile, I’m thinking she should divorce Otto and sue him for everything, even if she never gets together with her ex-love, or anyone else, ever again.
Ultimately, reading this book becomes a rather exhausting exercise in vicarious living (interesting but not the fun kind), self-examination (What would I do? What does that say about me? Shouldn’t I have more empathy for Otto, who had no family at all remaining after the war?), philosophy (Humans never seem to fail to hurt each other where no hurt was ever needed. How we unfailingly mess things up!), and, of course, judgment (Why? Why do you stay with the husband who betrayed your trust? Couldn’t you at least have been friends with your ex-love?).
There are too many questions and too much to think about after a book like this – thank goodness true love stories quite like this aren’t so common! – to just make no comment afterward. Even years afterward.