Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
“It was the massacre of 180 Jews that brought me closer to my family”
The last few days of the Second World War were congested with events that have become synonymous with human suffering and destruction. Gratuitous violence by retreating German troops, Adolf Hitler’s suicide, liberation of death camps and Russian occupation of Eastern Europe, were just a few. The war took lives and changed other lives forever. A war’s end diaspora occurred in those times – German soldiers fled retribution, released prisoners returned to their old homes or were forced to seek new ones.
One aristocratic family fled from Austria to Switzerland before the Russians seized their land. He was a Hungarian Count and she a German heiress, one of the world’s richest women. Later they were joined by the man’s brother, his wife and son. The son grew up in Switzerland and in 1973 his wife gave birth to Sacha Batthyány.
Fast forward 45 years and Sacha is handed a news report. By then he is a successful and accomplished journalist and editor of a reputable Swiss daily. He is also an academic and is used to investigating stories and seeking truth. The report contends that in 1945, his great aunt, the German heiress Margit Thyssen-Bornemisza, Countess of Batthyány, had thrown a party at her Austrian castle. During the party some of the German military guests had wandered down the hill and executed 180 Jewish people, a scant 3 days before the end of the war.
Sacha asks his colleague “Und was hat das mit mir zu tun?” (And what does this have to do with me?). Perhaps this is a justifiable response to what would have been a shocking accusation. His Aunt was not a blood relation of his and was German by birth; and the (alleged) events took place more than 60 years before.
To his credit, Sacha appears to have been the one person in the family to ask more questions. He embarked on a seven year search, taking him across three continents and culminating in a book with the ironic title “Und was hat das mit mir zu tun?”. The translated version “A Crime in the Family” was published the following year.
His search for truth is beset with untrustworthy sources and few surviving witnesses. Who can he believe – the much-revised diaries of a deceased grandmother, the facial expressions of a taciturn father, the incomplete records of an aborted murder trial, unreliable newspaper reports, the fading and selective memories of distant relatives, or the dim recollections of an elderly Auschwitz survivor? The detail of these events 70 years in the past is scant – eyewitnesses have remained silent or are no longer alive – in some cases meeting suspicious fates before they could give evidence against the perpetrators.
The book cannot settle the facts of the massacre, particularly in relation to any involvement of Aunt Margit or Uncle Ivan. No conclusive evidence is presented for Margit actually shooting any of the 180. Neither is she exonerated by her great-nephew:
“Aunt Margit did not stand in the cold at midnight beside the pit where the naked men and women were kneeling in a row. She was laughing and dancing as their emaciated bodies fell into the ground”
Sacha’s inquiries about the mass executions leads to many other stories that have a direct connection to his forebears. He follows the trail to his Grandfather’s ten year post war imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag. His father is persuaded to come and his unexpected reactions to the investigations are insightfully observed by his son.
The story which eventually is central to the book begins with two young girls who play together in a Hungarian village. One is his grandmother Maritta and the other is a Jew named Agnes. The invasion by Germany late in the war sees the girls parted for ever. They may not be close friends, but events unfold that lead to Maritta witnessing a terrible crime that has a profound effect on Agnes’ family. The story of Agnes is perhaps the most poignant in the book and results, in the present day, in a moral dilemma for Sacha and Agnes’ daughters.
“Agnes had seen Auschwitz, the ovens, she had faced Mengele on the ramp – that’s enough for one human life. Why, at the age of nearly ninety, should she be given the news” [of her parents’ death].
In seeking truth, he realises that he has also become the holder of truth.
The diaries of Maritta and Agnes are extensively quoted and carefully juxtaposed by the author. These are perhaps the most riveting part of the whole book, with their eye witness accounts of such risky times. The fate of both women is in the balance – one held as a holocaust prisoner by Germany and the other hiding in Budapest as the Russians invade and over 160,000 are killed. The sense of imminent danger is palpable and so is the relief. Agnes wrote “Until the morning came when no-one woke us. For the first time in months, there was only silence”.
The author’s tone is moderate and self-reflective, but never strident. The historic events in the book, the skilled writing style and structure, make for a compelling experience. The structure in particular – though complex and occasionally confusing – creates a sense of the author’s own journey with all of its attendant questions, uncertainties and even fear.
“How many people are there in the world whose lives might be different if my grandmother’s parents had helped them?”
“And what about all the people of Budapest who watched the Jews of Budapest – women, children, the old – chained together by handcuffs as they fell into the ice-cold Danube?”
After many such rhetorical questions, Sacha is prepared to admit to a personal shortcoming:
“I opened my notebook ……and wrote ‘Could you have done it – could you have hidden Jews?’ And under it the answer. ‘No’”
Is it reasonable to distrust the author’s motives and conclusions about his family’s involvement? As a descendant of this aristocratic lineage, is this just hand wringing or, worse, a further attempt at cover up – at least in the case of Aunt Margit and Uncle Ivan? I read with doubts along these lines and rejected both questions. He has published against the will of at least some family members and a number of his conclusions – even with limited information – are prejudicial to the family.
The author makes no pretence that he has written an historical tome. It is very much a personal journey with a strong sense of a journalist’s eye for a thought-provoking story. Even the author’s frequent introspection and therapy sessions eventually transform from intrusive to valuable.
The stories of his Grandmother, Grandfather, Great Aunt and most of all, Agnes, underpin the moral power of this book. The capriciousness of life or death under the Nazis and Russians and their systematic and random acts of violence are still chilling to a reader in modern times. This book has helped me to better understand the fear of the victims and know that the suffering they faced should never be permitted to recur.
By Sacha Batthyány
Translation by Anthea Bell
220 pp; £13.99 (paperback)