A young man, bleeding, lay in fresh snow by the side of the road. He'd been struck by a German jeep as he fled the Nazis, who were fleeing the Russians; this was on a highway near the Czechoslovakian border in November of 1944. How long the man had lain there he didn't know; from the road he could still hear the sound of tires grinding on ice and gravel, but the jeep that had struck him had roared off into darkness long before. He closed his eyes and drifted away from the noise and cold. Sometime later he woke to the sound of German voices: two men in Austrian Wehrmacht medic's uniforms bending over him, asking his name. He couldn't move, couldn't speak. The men picked him up, loaded him onto a stretcher and into an ambulance, and took him to a military hospital in a town called Kassa, where they left him in the care of a Yugoslav doctor named Karoly Dobek. Over the next four weeks this doctor nursed him back to health, until the hospital was evacuated by the Nazis and the young man was loaded onto a train bound for a camp in the occupied territories.
The man was my grandfather, and this was one of the stories he told me 10 years ago when I started researching a novel that took place in Europe during the Second World War . The novel originated from a conversation at my brother's college graduation. One minute I was telling my grandfather about a trip I'd planned with my boyfriend (Two weeks in Florence! Two in Paris!); the next, my grandfather was telling me that he'd spent two years studying architecture in Paris as a young man, and that he'd had to leave school when he was conscripted into the Hungarian forced labor service at the beginning of the war. I'd never known he'd studied architecture, or even that he'd been to Paris; my knowledge of what had happened to him during the war was a series of hazy sketches, a composite of whispered stories I'd half-overheard my grandmother relating to friends and the Holocaust documentaries I'd watched in Hebrew school. I started asking my grandfather about Paris and what had happened afterward, and before long I began to take notes. I wasn't sure yet what the notes would become, but there was an urgency behind his telling of this story that reminded me of certain novels I loved.
It was another two years before I began writing the book that would become The Invisible Bridge. The novel was, to put it mildly, a departure from anything I'd written before. The short story collection I'd just finished was about young women stumbling through adolescence in contemporary America — going to awkward ballroom-dancing classes and nightmarish Macrobiotic Thanksgivings, taking scuba-diving lessons after a near-drowning, having sex for the first time in suburban bedrooms. The novel was set in Budapest and Paris between 1937 and 1946, had a male protagonist, and sent its characters into a hell of forced labor and dehumanizing privation. And the project was all the more daunting because so many other writers had recorded the fate of the Jews of Europe during the war and because the story belonged to people who were still alive, who would know whether what I wrote was false or not.