Three Centuries of Memories

By Charles Fenyvesi

Viking. 266 pp. $19.95

A well-established tenet in Jewish folklore maintains that Hungarians are charming. "When the World Was Whole" is both very Hungarian and very charming.

This amiable memoir -- really a kind of family album, with 40 photographs inserted throughout the book -- is the work of the loving memory of Charles Fenyvesi, rambling through the generations of his family going back some 400 years to the first settlement of his Jewish ancestors on a farm in a tiny and remote Hungarian village. This is the most remarkable aspect of the story, for his forebears were farmers all that time until the disruptions of the First and Second world wars and the communist takeover of 1948. Here we have an unusual history since Jews, except in Israel, are widely considered not to be farmers. This may be because, in many countries, Jews were not allowed to own land -- in czarist Russia starting in the 1880s, for example, and in Hungary until 1867; in fact, Fenyvesi's forebears rented their farmlands until that time.

This loosely constructed book -- perhaps too loosely constructed -- makes its way through a wide range of personalities, incidents and topics of discussion. For example, are there affinities between Jews and Gypsies, and if so, why? There is a disquisition on honey cake, inspired by the delicacy that a much older cousin Jenny used to make, that ends with a detailed account of her recipe. At times the happy family scenes seem almost paradisaical, and one often wonders what the flaws were in the picture. But the flaws were major ones.

Here is the scene of a postwar visit home: "I walk over to the house where my grandmother Roza lived before she was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. The gate, loose on its hinges, is ajar. The one-story building seems about to collapse. The mortar is turning into powder and drifts out from in between the bricks, and the red roof tiles are splitting. Built in the nineteenth century, the house was once a fine structure. It had dignity, so important to my gentrified forebears, but now it looks as if it had been part of an abjectly poor medieval ghetto."

The images become bleaker. After many stories scattered through the book about the merry Uncle Shumi, Fenyvesi concludes with this one: "In early 1945, Shumi moved to Budapest, where most of the family decided to live. It was in my parents' apartment on a Buda hillside that he and the rest of the family heard the testimony confirming what Shumi and others had suspected for a long time: his wife and their daughter, his mother and his older sister had been killed in Auschwitz.

" 'There is no meaning to my life,' Shumi declared. "There is no reason for me to go on.' " He acknowledged he was contemplating suicide.

With the exception of somber moments like this, love of the land permeates this book like a fragrance. It seems appropriate that Fenyvesi, now living in the United States, writes a gardening column for The Washington Post.

The reviewer is the author of, among other books, "Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration."