True Holocaust Story of A Dancer at Risk

You Fascinating You
Destination:World War II era Hungary and Italy

You, Fascinating You Book: You, Fascinating You by Germaine Shames (NEW March 2012)

Tarnok Cafe, Budapest
Tarnok Cafe, medieval building, Budapest

I cannot review this book.

It fits the criteria of A Traveler’s Library by providing background on a place you might want to travel to, with its main setting of Budapest and various places in Italy. I know that you would enjoy reading it.

Then why can’t I review it? Because I feel like one of many, many godparents who doted on the story as it matured.  I’m even mentioned in the acknowledgements, for my very small part in reading the manuscript as author Germaine Shames went through many painful revisions. So in the interest of fairness and full disclosure….no review.

HOWEVER, I cannot  let You, Fascinating You escape your attention. So I asked my friend Germaine to answer a few questions.

Germaine and I met in a writer’s group when I was just beginning my freelance career, and she was shaping one of her novels. She has since published that novel, Between Two Deserts.  Her incredible life includes a career as a world-roaming hotel executive, extended stays in Mexico and in Israel and London,assignments as a foreign correspondent, a freelance travel writing career, books of non fiction and fiction, the creation of ceramics and sculptures, and a more recent fascination with writing film scripts. You can learn more about her writing life at the Germaine Writes website.

You Fascinating You tells the story of Margit Wolf, a Hungarian ballerina, during the difficult years preceding and during World War II. She leaves her Budapest family, where her father sews clothing and costumes in their apartment. Wih a small group of dancer friends, she seeks fame in Italy. Along the way she meets a romantic, womanizing composer. The book presents their romance and their wrenching separation. Her life is a series of separations–first her great love, then her family and finally her son, Caesare. We see the brave struggle for survival of Margit and her Jewish family and friends.

A Traveler’s Library: Please tell us how you came across the real life story you tell in You, Fascinating You?

Germaine Shames
Germaine Shames

Germaine Shames: A chance meeting thirty years ago with a mysterious Hungarian-Italian émigré planted the seed for You, Fascinating You. That man was Cesare Frustaci.

As we got to know each other, details of his wartime childhood began to emerge: the “shoes” he fashioned for himself from horses’ feedbags, the bullet that tore through his knee as Russian troops entered Hungary, the corpses alongside which he would awaken each morning… He seemed to be describing the perils of an orphaned waif abandoned to his fate, yet he was the son of Pasquale Frustaci (aka the “Italian Cole Porter”), a composer and conductor whose career flourished even as city after city fell.  How then, from the age of seven, did Cesare end up alone on the battlefronts of Europe in the midst of the worst carnage the world has known?

The answer would arrive in my mailbox fifteen years later: a videotaped oral history Cesare contributed to Yale University.  It told the story of his mother Margit Wolf, a Jewish ballerina who fell in love with a dashing Italian maestro and bore him a son—a ballerina who inspired a timeless love song only to fade from history without a trace.  I sat riveted as if hearing the libretto of a classic ballet or opera and knew I would one day share this epic with the world.

ATL: Why a novel instead of a biography?

GS:  Stories this inherently dramatic are rare. Following years of research, however, questions still remained unanswered. Had I written a biography, the reader would have been left to mull the same enigmas that kept me awake nights.

And yet I could “hear” Margit’s voice, could almost eavesdrop on her conversations with Pasquale. As a storyteller it became increasingly clear that I needed to bring the reader behind closed doors into those private corners where drama finds its fullest expression. The novel makes history “achingly personal,” to quote a recent review.

ATL: You have written other novels where the characters were purely figments of your imagination. Did you find it more difficult or in some way freeing to be using real people as the subject  of You, Fascinating You? And since I write about classic film at Reel Life With Jane, I just have to ask,  were Eva and Zsa Zsa REALLY part of the life of the ballerina?

GS: Writing about a real person and great soul confers titanic responsibility. This applies doubly when recounting the intimate family history of a longtime friend.

Regarding the story’s authenticity, anything of historical import in You, Fascinating You is true, and anything fictionalized serves a higher truth and purpose.

[As to] the Gabor sisters, they are among a number of celebrities—Greta Garbo, Vittorio De Sica, an Italian Pope and others—who make cameo appearances in the book and who did indeed play a role in the life of my protagonist.

ATL:  What traveling did you have to do to get the background of the novel right? And what was your favorite discovery?

Chain bridge over the Danube, Budapest
Chain bridge over the Danube, Budapest

GS:  I traveled though three countries—Hungary, Italy and Germany—to piece together Margit’s story.

The most arduous leg of the journey was by car from Budapest across the interior of Hungary to the remote agrarian village of Apagy near the Ukrainian border. More than sixty years earlier the Red Cross had sent Cesare by train to this same village, where he was adopted by a local family.

Road-weary, Cesare and I arrived. To our surprise the rustic cottage where he had been given refuge was still standing. A withered old man hobbled up and embraced him.  Soon, the entire family had gathered to welcome back the half-starved brother they had found crying on the train platform and taken to their hearts.

I will never forget that reunion.

ATL: The readers of A Traveler’s Library read books to learn more about countries that they might want to visit. What travel inspiration do you think they might get from You, Fascinating You?

GS: You, Fascinating You spans three decades. Two world wars, fascism and Stalinism are hardly the stuff of travel posters, but happily East and West Europe have mended and many of the places central to Margit’s story are today appealing hubs of commerce and culture.

Novaro, Italy. Lago di Orta
Novaro, Italy, Lago di Orta

Novara, Italy, for example, where Margit and Pasquale first performed together, has become an affluent Milan in miniature with gleaming storefronts and a well-preserved historic core. One of my favorite European cities, Berlin, Germany, where Margit fought for her life in a series of concentration camps, is once again a cosmopolitan mecca of the Arts brimming with vibrant museums, performance spaces and street life.


 ATL: What else would you like the readers of A Traveler’s Library to know about your new novel?

GS:  I set out to write You, Fascinating You because history forgot Margit Wolf.  What I discovered in my years of research was so much richer than any history lesson: an epic-sized heroine and the priceless example of one artist’s struggle to live with grace and dignity through humankind’s darkest chapters.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with fellow readers of A Traveler’s Library.

The author provided me with a digital version of the completed novel to read, and supplied me with her portrait.  The two photos of Budapest are from my own travel photo collection. Please do not copy without express permission.  The other photo comes from Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license. Click on the photo to learn more about the photographer.

This book makes me think about the enormous number of artists who were lost, or whose careers were destroyed during World War II, and reminded me of the wonderful Jewish writer from France, Irène Némirovsky, whose Suite Francaise we discussed here. Are there other artists you have read about whose careers were destroyed  because of the Holocaust?


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

17 thoughts on “True Holocaust Story of A Dancer at Risk

      1. Thank you, Alexandra and Vera. Libraries are such treasure troves. My grandfather got me my first library card when I was three years old, and I was so excited by the towering stacks of books that I taught myself to read before entering kindergarten.

        Anyone interested in hearing more about dance and music in fascist Europe might tune-in to a radio interview this coming Sunday:

  1. I’ve ever been fascinated and horrified by the holocaust. This is definitely getting added to my ‘to read’ pile. Thanks – I’m glad you mentioned it!

  2. Greetings, David. The tragic irony of my heroine’s story is that while the song she inspired was being sung throughout Europe (including the German Reich) earning its composer fame and a marble penthouse, she, a sparkling young talent, was rounded up, deported and interned in several concentration camps.

    Yes, peace is fragile. One can only hope humankind has the capacity to learn from such unfathomable calamities.

  3. It makes me think how fragile is peace.

    From the title of your article “True Holocaust Story of A Dancer at Risk’ is a lot of the story is concerned with what happened to the heroine in the camps?

  4. What heartening responses to Vera’s interview! Thank you all—Mark, Ruth, Irene, Sophie, Jane, Roxanne, MKES, Julie and Abby—for giving a forgotten ballerina her moment in the spotlight. It’s readers like you who remind me why I became an author, and why I persist despite the many obstacles. All the best!

  5. I have personally fought the novel/non-fiction battle several times, and I have yet to get a book published. Stunning photos and wonderful interview.

  6. Wow! My husband’s parents are from Hungary, that story must be really an excellent one! I think I1m going to purchase the book as soon as possible, maybe more copies, they could be a nice gift to the parents. Thanks for the review!

  7. I’m with Roxanne. Her approach in some way reminds me of Jeff Shaara (alto not his biography) he was able to take liberties with creating dialogue among characters because he chose historical fiction to tell his stories. I’d love to read more about anything having to do with Budapest–what a beautiful city

  8. I love the idea of a novel rather than a biography. I’m seeing more and more writers go this direction, and I find it fascinating.

  9. I thought you were going to say you couldn’t review it because it’s too sad, with the Holocaust theme and all, but then I read on and discovered a rich story full of wonder. Thanks for alerting us to this wonderful book.

  10. Very interesting how she chose the format of a novel rather than a biography. More satisfying to the reader, I’m sure. Funny how WWII never seems to get old. This sounds like a very good read.

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