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This book was an intriguing choice from the review pile. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic, wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the Second World War, and in the Communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother’s family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland. Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.
Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha found out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.
Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family’s past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review.
After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn’t. Hungary being behind the Iron Curtain for so long has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do.
Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha’s grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years.
His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha’s grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family.
Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or omitted to do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear.
This book is as much about the author’s journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes’s family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well-documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes’s parents not at all. His ‘family’ guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal.
Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the Second World War. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren’t really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I know it will lead to all sorts of discussions.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
A Crime in the Family
by Sacha Batthyany
Published by Quercus