The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover

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This book ends with a journalist from Manchester praying at the Viennese graveside of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who managed Eusebio’s Benfica to two victories in the European Cup. It’s certainly something different.  I read a *lot* of books on Central European history and I read a fair few books about football, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that combined the two before. The author clearly got extremely involved with his subject, and he does a great job of drawing the reader in as well.  I’ve read better-written books, but (it was only 99p on Kindle special offer, and) it was a fascinating story, both from a historical viewpoint and from a footballing viewpoint.

Football history as political history isn’t really a big thing in England, but it is very much so in many other countries.  We’re seeing that at the moment, with FC Barcelona issuing official statements about the situation with the Catalan independence leaders being unfairly jailed; and it can tell us a lot about politics and about in general.  The author obviously feels very strongly that insufficient recognition has been afforded to football players and managers who were affected by the Holocaust, both those who were killed and those who survived against the odds, and, amongst other things, he’s seeking here to redress a little of that balance.

This is a biography of Bela Guttmann, a Hungarian footballer and manager, whose name is surprisingly little well-known considering that he was the first manager to win the European Cup twice – although, as the author points out, managers weren’t as high-profile in his day as they were later. OK, everyone’s heard of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, but how many non-British managers from the ‘60s can you name? Guttmann, although he doesn’t sound like the pleasantest of people – he was always falling out with players and club officials, and was involved in a rather unsavoury incident involving a fatal car crash – had a fascinating career, and a fascinating life in general.

He started off at Torekves, and then moved on to MTK Budapest, who aren’t one of the top Hungarian clubs now but won six titles in a row in the 1920s … and was with them whilst they were managed by Herbert Burgess, who was from Manchester and played for both United and City – he was one of the group of players, Billy Meredith et al, who moved from City to United after the 1905 bribery affair at City. The author clearly enjoyed getting in as Mancunian links as possible. Gold star for that!

Then he moved on to Hakoah Vienna, the all-Jewish Viennese team who won the Austrian league title in 1925. If the idea of a top football club in which all the players were of one religion seems weird now, remember all the hoo-ha when Mo Johnston became the first Catholic to sign for Rangers? It wasn’t that long ago! Hakoah were the poster boys of the “Muscular Judaism” movement of the inter-war years, which saw a far higher proportion of Jewish players and managers in football than there’s been before or since.  In terms of clubs managed by Austrian and Hungarian Jewish managers of this generation, we’re looking at, amongst others, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Torino, Feyenoord, Panathanaikos, Flamengo, River Plate … these are some of the biggest club names in world football.

The author clearly feels that this is a part of footballing history that’s been forgotten. However, it was largely a Central European thing so it’s perhaps understandable that it hasn’t received much attention in English-speaking countries.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that TV coverage and European club competitions brought about increased awareness of domestic football in other countries.  And the fact that Hungarian football in general, domestic and international, was so good in the 1930s has largely been forgotten: most football fans are familiar with the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskas (whom Guttmann managed in the late 1940s) & co, but certainly far less so with the teams of the ‘30s.

Hakoah went on a number of overseas tours, and became the first Continental club side to beat an English club side in England. Their victims were West Ham, LOL.  However, the club inadvertently shot itself in the foot with a tour of the US – seeing what a rapturous welcome they received there, as opposed to the anti-Semitism they so often encountered in Austria, Guttmann and a number of other players chose to join American teams. However, he later returned to Hakoah, also spent some time with Twente Enschede in the Netherlands.

In 1938, he got a much-prized permanent residency visa for America, and with many Hungarian Jews desperate to get away, you’d have thought he’d have grabbed it both hands – but, instead, he returned to Hungary, to become manager of Ujpest, and consequently ended up being in Hungary all through the war years, under the Nazi-allied Horthy regime, the Arrow Cross regime and then the Nazi occupiers. He was hidden for a while by the family of his Catholic girlfriend, but was then sent to a slave labour camp – alongside Ernest Erbstein, who later became manager of Torino and sadly died in the 1949 Superga plane crash. He survived, but many of his relatives were killed at Auschwitz.

After the war, he spent time as manager at umpteen different clubs – in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Austria, as well as a spell as manager of the Austrian national team – but the pinnacle of his career was his first spell at Benfica, during which time they won the 1961 and 1962 European Cups. After a falling out with the club’s directors, he’s supposed to have said that Benfica wouldn’t win another European Cup for 100 years, and some Benfica fans genuinely believe that this was a curse – including Eusebio, who’s prayed at Guttmann’s grave to ask that the curse be lifted!- and that it’s the reason they haven’t won the European Cup since, despite losing five finals! He died, aged 82, in 1981 – not exactly in poverty and obscurity, but not all that far from it.

So that’s the actual story, but there are various themes running all the way through it. One is football tactics and managerial styles, with numerous references to Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho (who was manager of United when the book was written) and Pep Guardiola. Another is the impact of politics on football. Hakoah Vienna were shut down within a few days of the Anschluss. Kispest, the year after Guttmann left them to move to Italy, were taken over by the army, and renamed Budapest Honved.  They were just referred to as Honved when I was a kid. We knew that Honved, Steaua Bucharest etc were army clubs, and that Dynamo Moscow were the Soviet police team, and so on, and it didn’t seem weird at the time because it was just the way it was … but it doesn’t half seem strange now, and it must have seemed even stranger at the point at which the clubs were actually taken over by the authorities. It’s not just an Eastern bloc thing either – when you look at the impact of politics on Bayern Munich, Barcelona … just be very grateful that we’ve never had these issues here.

And another is the ongoing history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Every chapter in which Guttmann moves to another European city is prefaced with a short account of an incident in that city or area involving anti-Jewish persecution – mostly from the Middle Ages, and not directly relevant to the subject matter, but clearly something that the author wanted to get across.

I think what most struck the author, though, was the fact that Guttmann didn’t speak about his wartime experiences. No-one in the footballing world really knew about his time in a slave labour camp until David Bolchover researched and published this book. Obviously a lot of Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about their experiences, because they found it too painful … but the impression you get with Guttmann is that he didn’t say anything because he thought it might affect his career, or, at least, because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that this had happened to him.

Last December, I went to Munich for the Christmas markets, and, whilst I was there, I went to see Bayern Munich’s stadium and museum. Bayern, who had a Jewish president and manager in the 1930s, were deeply affected by the onset of Nazism, but it wasn’t really spoken about until the 1970s, because they became seen as a great West German success story and no-one wanted to dwell on the horrors of the past.

In former Eastern bloc countries … this is a really sensitive area, and one which is still a big issue now, and it’s hard to think how best to put it. There does seem to be an ongoing issue with coming to terms with the past, even now. There haven’t been the educational programmes, or, until recently, the museums or memorials, which exist in the West. In Hungary and Romania, in particular, there’s the very delicate subject of the extent to which the local population were involved. And now, at least in Poland and the Baltic states, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on Soviet atrocities, with Nazi atrocities being emphasised less as a result. It’s a very difficult area to speak or write about, because it is so sensitive. And times are changing now. But it is an issue.

In June, Poland played Israel in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Warsaw, and, before the match, there was a ceremony to commemorate Josef Klotz, who scored Poland’s first ever international goal, and later died in the Warsaw Ghetto.  I didn’t know his name.  I’d heard of Hakoah Vienna, but I hadn’t heard of Maccabi Warsaw or Jutrzenka Krakow, the clubs whom Klotz played for, both of which (as far as I can gather) were dissolved in 1939.  As the author says, this is a part of European footballing history which isn’t spoken about.  This is a biography of a man who had a very interesting life and career, but it’s also a real eye-opener into a neglected area of history.

And, yes, footballing history does matter.  It tells us about life, and society.  The governments of both the UK and Bulgaria got involved after the recent disgraceful scenes in which black English players were abused and Nazi salutes made by Bulgarian “fans”.  And scenes like that show exactly why everyone should be aware of stories like this.  Very interesting book.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

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 Based on the author’s family’s own experiences in wartime Hungary, this book reaches areas that other Holocaust novels usually don’t, including the treatment of men who were both gay and Jewish, the sinking of refugee ships, the Hungarian forced labour battalions, the “unseen Holocaust” of mass shootings and the attempts to identify victims and let survivors know what had become of their loved ones once the war was over.   It’s had mixed reviews – have people not got the patience to read long novels any more? – but I thought it was excellent.

The main character, Andras, whom I think is based on the author’s grandad (or maybe her great-uncle) is one of three brothers from a lower middle class family in a small Hungarian town. Restrictions on the numbers of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities in the 1930s mean that he’s unable to pursue his dream of studying architecture at home, but he’s able to get a place to do so in Paris instead. His brother, meanwhile, goes to study medicine in Modena. Once in Paris, Andras becomes part of a circle of friends, all Jewish students from various different countries. One will eventually emigrate to what was then Palestine. Another will suffer particularly horribly because he’s gay, but will survive and become a hero of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Looking for a job because funding for Hungarian Jewish students is withdrawn, Andras becomes involved in the world of the arts, and begins a relationship with Klara, a ballet mistress who’s a connection of someone who met in Budapest, and who has a complex and troubled history.

It’s a very long book, and there are a lot of characters, a lot of politics and a lot of romance. If anyone’s reading this, I highly recommend reading it for yourselves and finding out all about the characters and what happens to them!   Andras is unable to continue his studies when the Hungarian authorities refuse to renew his visa. He has to return to Hungary, and he and Klara marry and settle in Budapest – but he’s conscripted into one of the forced labour battalions in which so many Hungarian Jewish men died, and sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

There are a huge number of characters in this, and a lot of small sub-plots, some little more than a few lines, drawing attention to various aspects of the history of the times. We learn that Mendel, Andras’s childhood best friend, qualified for the 1936 Olympics – “muscular Judaism” being a big thing in parts of Central Europe – but the Hungarian authorities refused to let him compete because he was Jewish. As Oswald Mosley did in Britain, far-right groups try to whip up trouble in pre-war France. There are social class issues: Klara is from quite a well-to-do family, whereas Andras is not. At one point, both families, plan to flee to Palestine, but the man they hope will arrange it for them has doubts following the sinking of the Sturma, a refugee ship refused entry by the British authorities and then hit by a Soviet torpedo. Andras’s labour battalion is billeted in a former orphanage: the children have all been murdered.

The basic plot isn’t actually that complicated, though, so I don’t seem to be writing very much – I know I go on at great length sometimes!! – but there’s a lot of detail, and there’s a huge cast of supporting characters. As you do with Holocaust novels, you hope that they’re all going to survive, whilst knowing that many of them probably won’t – and, inevitably, that’s what happens.

We live through the agonising wait of the survivors in Budapest, as they wait for the lists of names of identified victims. I was going to say that it’s a bit like the famous scene in Gone With The Wind where the women wait for the casualty lists to come in from Gettysburg, but it’s even worse, because identification is being made by exhuming bodies from mass graves and looking for papers or dog tags or any other form of identification.   The work to identify all the victims is still going now, as are similar projects to try to identify the victims of other genocides. The place where the characters in this book go in search of news is somewhere I’m due to visit next month.

But the book does end on a hopeful note, with miraculous survivals, and then the leap forward to 1956, and the emigration to America … seen as the land of the free.

Considering how long this book is, I’ve really not written very much. I can’t fault the history, so I’ve got no moaning to do!   And, as I’ve said, it’s more about the detail and the back stories and the sub-plots than it is about the main plot and what happens to the main character, and I think that’s why some people have criticised it, saying that it’s too long for what it is. But I don’t agree with that: I don’t think there was really anything in this that didn’t add something, and I think the author’s tried very hard to write a different sort of Holocaust novel, and succeeded. It takes some reading, because it is long, and there are a lot of characters, but it’s worth the effort.

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.