Castles Burning by Magda Denes

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I’m revisiting Hungarian history at the moment, and this particular book also ties in with Holocaust Memorial Day (which is tomorrow).  It’s a different sort of Holocaust memoir, partly because the situation in Budapest was different to that anywhere else, and partly because, whilst it’s aimed at adults, it’s told from the point of view of a child.  Magda Denes somehow manages to be very entertaining whilst never shying away from the details of life in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, the militant secularist Zionist resistance group with which her brother was involved, and – over a third of the book – her time as a Displaced Person once the war was over.  She felt for many years that she wasn’t entitled to talk about her experiences, because of a sense that only those who’d been survived concentration camps or massacres had that right; and she only wrote this book when she was dying.

I read a newspaper article last year, which sparked off a lot of discussion in a Facebook book group to which I belong, saying that it was inappropriate for Anne Frank to have become the face of the Holocaust (for lack of a better way of putting it), because her diary isn’t about concentration camps.  The author seemed to have completely missed the point of The Diary of a Young Girl – that it humanises all those horrific statistics about the numbers of people killed, by showing that they were all just ordinary people.  Anne Frank wrote about squabbles with family members, and about fancying Peter van Daan, just as any other teenager might have done, because she should have been just like any other teenager.  Likewise Magda’s observations about family dynamics, school, and so on.

Holocaust memoirs don’t have to be about concentration camps.  Many Holocaust victims died in massacres, in forced labour battalions, or in ghettoes.   Survivors’ experiences are valid whether they survived camps, ghettoes or forced labour, or whether they went into hiding.  And they’re valid no matter what group of persecuted people they come from: the current right-wing Polish government seems to think that it’s some sort of competition, which it assuredly isn’t.  No-one’s comparing different experiences: it’s not a question of comparison, and it’s certainly not a competition.  It’s very sad that Magda Denes felt unable for so long to speak out.  And, from what she said, many other people in similar situations felt the same.

Following Prince William’s visit to the grave of his great-grandmother, Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andrew of Greece, last year, there was quite a bit of talk in the media last year about the Jewish family whom she’d helped to hide in wartime Athens.  When I went to Lithuania, I had a long chat with a tour guide (I don’t think she was used to British tourists being au fait with Lithuanian history.  I’m weird!) whose grandmother had hidden a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation.  In Assisi, one of my favourite places, tens of Jews were saved by being hidden in the Basilica of St Francis.  There are a lot of these stories, but they aren’t often told.

They usually involve heroism, on the part of those who risked their own safety to hide those at risk, and sometimes, where families were separated, on the part of those who sent children away to try to save their lives, knowing that they’d probably never see them again.  And, when thinking about the Budapest ghetto, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of people by issuing protective passports and arranging sheltered accommodation under Swedish protection.

Distressing as any sort of Holocaust story is, these tales of heroism are also quite uplifting.  The way in which this one starts is anything but.  Magda Denes came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest.  Her father was a well-respected publisher.  In 1939, fearing for his safety, he liquidated the family’s assets and fled to America, leaving his wife and two young children behind, with nothing.  He was supposed to be sending for them, or at least sending them money, but he never did.  It was brave of her to write about that.  You don’t expect stories like that … and yet, of course, the fact that he was a complete bastard, who scarpered with all the family’s money and left his wife and kids to face their fate, didn’t make him any less of a refugee and potential victim of persecution.   There’s a lot to think about, with this book.

Magda, her mother and her brother moved in with her mother’s parents, who weren’t well-off and weren’t overly pleased at having three extra people in their small home. At this point, no-one in Budapest was actually either in hiding or in a ghetto.  However, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany, and, in 1938, began to introduce anti-Jewish laws – around 5% of all Hungarians, and around 23% of the population of Budapest, being Jewish.  The Hungarians got an extremely raw deal when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered after the First World War, and that, along with fear of the Soviet Union, explains although obviously doesn’t excuse the Nazi alliance. The laws became more and more restrictive as time went on

In 1941, foreign Jews living in Hungary, mainly refugees from Poland, were deported to Ukraine.  It’s thought that they numbered around 16,000 of the 23,600 people massacred by German, Hungarian and Ukrainian forces at Kamianets-Podilskyi.  Many Jews were killed, along with many Orthodox Serbs and Romani people, were killed by Hungarian forces who occupied Vojvodina, either killed outright or in appalling conditions in the copper mines, and many Hungarian Jews also died in forced labour battalions.

The book didn’t really say much about this, or about anything that was going on between 1939 and October 1944 – but, from the viewpoint of a small child, there probably wasn’t much to say.  There was an interesting interlude in which Magda was diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium, where treatment included eating as much fatty food as possible, lying outside whilst wrapped in blankets and receiving blood transfusions from her mother.  She made a full recovery.  There was quite a bit about food shortages, but, other than that, nothing was really specific to the war, never mind to the Holocaust … but always with the background of the increasing restrictions.  Normal and yet abnormal.

Despite what had happened in 1941, the Hungarian government didn’t allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camps, until relations between the Hungarian authorities and Nazi Germany deteriorated, and the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944.  Deportations began in May 1944 … but not from Budapest.  Jews in Budapest were forced to live in designated houses, marked by yellow stars and horrendously overcrowded, but not deported.  It’s not entirely clear what was going on, but it is clear that, by this time, reports about what was going on in the death camps were circulating around the world.  It seems that there were plans for mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in the summer of 1944, but that they never took place, after intervention from, amongst others, President Roosevelt and King Gustav V of Sweden.  What was going on?  Had the Hungarian authorities decided that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and were trying to avoid making themselves look any worse than they already did?  And why was Budapest treated differently to the rest of Hungary?  It’s thought that around a third of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau were from Hungary, and yet the deportations from Budapest itself were stopped.   Was it just a matter of timing, in terms of external intervention?

In October 1944, the Hungarian government negotiated a ceasefire with the Soviets, to which the Nazis responded by facilitating a takeover by the far-right Arrow Cross party.  Most of the book is set from this time onwards.  They forced the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, and began deportations from Budapest to labour camps and death camps.  There were also mass shootings of Jews on the banks of the Danube.  This has been in the news lately: during some work being done in the area, bones were found, almost certainly those of the victims of those massacres.  Israeli divers have begun an operation to recover the bones, planning to give them a funeral, but some Hungarian Jewish community leaders are unhappy about it and feel that the bones should be left undisturbed.

Even before the Arrow Cross takeover, a number of foreign diplomats – Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg is the best known, but there were others too, from Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, and Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish Hungarian lawyer who bribed Adolf Eichmann to let 1,600 Jews leave Budapest for Switzerland  – had been trying to try to save as many Hungarian Jews as they could, by issuing them with passports, and enabling them to live in houses which had been declared part of their embassies and were therefore not legally Hungarian territory – the so-called “International Ghetto”.

This formed a big part of the book, and it’s well worth reading because it is something unique to Budapest.  Magda was initially taken to stay in a house under the protection of the Spanish Red Cross.  Tragically, it was later raided and those there killed, but, by then, she’d been taken to stay with family friends.  En route, she and her mother were shot at by Arrow Cross men who knew her mother from her former job and recognised them: this apparently wasn’t uncommon in Budapest.  She then joined her mother, brother and other relatives at a building under the protection of the Swiss consulate.  It’s written from the prospective of a child, and she was more concerned about why they’d all gone there without her than anything else, but we then learned what was going on there.  It wasn’t just a safe house – not that it was all that safe, with 3,600 people crowded into a building which was only meant to house 400, food short, disease rife and the city under siege.  It was the headquarters of an organisation trying to help people to escape.

I’m not particularly au fait with the Hashomer Hatzair movement.  Apparently it’s still a well-known Jewish youth organisation, operating in many countries, but it hasn’t got any branches in the UK so the name isn’t really known here.  It (thank you, Wikipedia!) began life in Austro-Hungarian-ruled Galicia just before the First World War, and became popular in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe, partly as one of the many Scout/Guide type groups which became so popular in many places in the inter-war years and partly as a Zionist socialist group, with wings of it affiliated to far left organisations.  It was only one of many Zionist groups, and one of the more extreme ones, but, as I say every time I get involved in a discussion on the Middle Eastern situation, Zionism was originally largely a left-wing, secular movement: the idea of it as a right-wing, religious movement is very recent.  Anyway, that’s another story.

This group was heavily involved in organising the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and, in Romania (where many of its leaders were executed), Lithuania and Hungary, in gathering intelligence and trying to help Jews to escape or to go into hiding.  Magda’s mother and brother became very involved in it, doing work such as forging identity documents and warning people of planned deportations.  Later on, we saw Magda’s mother and aunt carrying two sets of identity papers, one set showing them as Jews and the other as Catholics, and fumbling in their bags, trying to decide which set to use.  The grim humour of this book makes it very readable.

The work they were doing was extremely brave and heroic, and saved many lives.  However, the organisation itself sounds quite dictatorial.  The “committee” organised everything that went on in this building, and everyone had to do as they said.  And their views were quite militant: I gather that organisation’s anti-religious views cause issues between it and other Zionist organisations even now.  Although the building was under Swiss protection, at one point the Nazis shot at committee members, and a woman was killed.  Someone wanted to hold a memorial service for her, and asked for volunteers to form the quota of ten post-barmitzvah males without whom the Jewish prayers for the dead aren’t supposed to be said.  Magda’s grandfather and many other men wanted to step forward, but didn’t dare do so for fear of angering the committee, who didn’t want any form of religious service being held.

Without wanting to write a great long essay about the Dreyfus affair and Russian narodniki and religion being the opium of the people and all the rest of it, I do get the idea of Zionism and secularism … but that sort of militant secularism, making people feel afraid to hold a religious service when they’d just suffered a bereavement, if that was what they wanted to do, just sounds very … Soviet?   But this organisation saved many lives – and, after the war, helped Magda and the other surviving members of her family again and again, to leave Budapest, and during the time they spent in Paris, and even when they were in Bilbao, waiting to take ship across the Atlantic.  There are a lot of nuances and complexities in this book, right from the beginning when the publisher who’d bravely spoken out against the Nazis spinelessly abandoned his wife and kids.

Again, it’s very unclear what was going on, but it seems that, in January 1945, plans were afoot for the German troops in Hungary to murder all the remaining inhabitants of the main ghetto, and that this was stopped – according to some reports, because Raoul Wallenberg told the German commander that, if it went ahead he’d ensure that he was tried for war crimes once the war was over.  Other reports say that it was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman posing as a Spanish diplomat, who saved the Budapest ghetto.  It really is frustrating that we can’t seem to find out.  Nor can we find out exactly what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared – probably executed by the Soviets on allegations of espionage.

Meanwhile, Budapest was under siege by the Red Army, and also undergoing intense aerial bombardment. The ghetto was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945, and the city of Budapest surrendered unconditionally in the February.  The behaviour of the Red Army in Hungary was beyond appalling, with thousands of women raped and all able-bodied men conscripted for forced labour.  However, the lives of as many as 90,000 people in the Budapest Ghetto were saved.  But it was too late for Magda’s brother, captured and shot dead a week earlier.  So close to survival, but he didn’t make it.  Her cousin lived to see the liberation, but the Red Army sent him to take a message behind German lines, and he never came back.  Her grandfather died of an infection, too weak to fight it after years of poor nutrition.  Her mother, aunt and grandmother survived.  So did her uncle and another cousin, who survived Mauthausen.

This was still only halfway through the book.  With Budapest in chaos, Magda and her mother and aunt decided to leave.  They got on a train, any train, and ended up in Debrecen.  The book used “Russian” instead of “Soviet” all the way through.  Most American authors do that.  It really, really, annoys me!  That didn’t go well, so they returned to Budapest.  And, still only eleven years old, she went back to school, and life was supposed to return to some sort of normality, but it couldn’t.

She does an excellent job of describing how she couldn’t cope with normality.  She didn’t want to read, or go to the pictures, because she’d get lost in the world of a book or a film and then it’d all hit her again afterwards.  And her mother felt oppressed by the new communist regime, and decided that they had to leave.  Going to Palestine was ruled out because, at that point, only very few immigrants were being allowed in.  Zionist contacts got them false papers, and they were able to reach the American sector of Austria and register as Displaced Persons.  There were millions of, maybe as many as twenty million, Displaced Persons in post-war Europe, maybe more.  Most were able to return to their countries of origin – or were forcibly repatriated.  Over a million couldn’t, because of fear of persecution.  Displaced Persons camps were set up.  Magda and her mother, aunt and grandmother found themselves in a camp in Bavaria.

Life in the camp … it reminded me a bit of things I’d read about internment camps on the Isle of Man, except that obviously this was in far different circumstances.  The people there became a community. They organised a school – although this meant Magda learning Yiddish, as most of the other pupils were Yiddish-speaking.  Incidentally, the book could have done with a glossary: a lot of Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were used, which not all readers would have understood, and they organised variety shows. And she was OK with that.  It was normality that she couldn’t cope with.  Eventually – and why did the useless father apparently do nothing to try to get them visas for America? – some relatives who, for some reason, had ended up in Cuba, gave then affidavits (presumably guarantees in terms of financial support?), and they were then taken to Paris, to wait for full visas.  It all seems to have been very complicated.

Her use of language is wonderful, and her description of being a Displaced Person is in some ways more powerful than her description of life in the ghetto.  She couldn’t deal with being in Paris, a city that the Nazis had been persuaded not to destroy, because it was too grand, and too beautiful, and people were living too normally: she couldn’t process it.  She was sent to school and made a friend, but the friendship didn’t survive the other girl seeing the chaos in which the Denes family were living, in a hostel full of Displaced Persons.  Silly expression, isn’t it, “Displaced Persons”?  It sounds so mundane.  The grim humour came into it again – she remarked on the number of books showing life as an émigré in Paris to be glamorous and exciting.

Struggling at her French school because of the language barrier, she was sent to a school for Hungarian émigrés, but it was a disaster.  As much as she knew that none of the children there were responsible for her brother’s death and everything else that had happened in Budapest, she couldn’t cope with being around Hungarians who weren’t Jewish, because they seemed to represent the people who’d torn her life apart.

This is an incredibly sensitive area, even now.  Maybe especially now, with the rise of the far right in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.  No-one’s trying to point the finger, to make any suggestions of collective responsibility, and certainly not to blame anyone now for things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but, despite what the Eastern Bloc regimes in particular tried to teach, it wasn’t all about Nazi Germany.  Also, this was why so many people couldn’t go back to their places of origin.  Some did, but many felt that they couldn’t.

Eventually, the visas came through.  There was a nice interlude in Bilbao, where, the civil war long over and Spain having been neutral during the Second World War, there were no food shortages: there were some fascinating descriptions of the family’s reactions to seeing the food stalls in the markets.  And then the ship across the Atlantic.  It docked in New York.  Magda was eventually to end up there, but not yet, and, with the idea of America, the land of the free, in her mind, she longed to disembark, but knew that she couldn’t.  Then, bizarrely, her father came to visit them – and just moaned that New York was full of crime.

The book ended with their arrival in Cuba.  I’d like to have known more, about how they got on in Cuba, and about how she eventually ended up in New York, but it was a positive ending.  They’d survived.  A new life lay ahead.   And she’d thought her story didn’t deserve to be told.  It did.  It really, really did.

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