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A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence--and My Search for the Truth Hardcover – October 10, 2017
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"Evocatively written with a sharp journalist's eye, A Crime in the Family lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned."--Literary Review
"Extraordinary... Self-discovery, journalistic rigor, and a novelist's way...congeal against a gripping historical backdrop."--Irish Independent
"Fascinating...With the caution of a sapper dismantling a bomb, [Batthyany] peels away the historical details."--Haaretz
"Dazzlingly written"--Der Spiegel
"Tells Batthyany's twisted family history... An elegant history, relentless and honest."--Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung
"[A] disturbing memoir...Though Sacha was not the first to write about this horrendous deed, his compulsive research and meditations enormously broaden the scope of information and understanding."―Jewish Book Council
"[Batthyany] engrossingly uses diary entries, a script, email notes and a shrink's couch to unfold layers of guilt."
"A brilliant memoir and mystery rolled into one...This book is a fascinating jaunt, examining the raw legacy of war crimes and multi-generational blame and guilt. It is well worth the read."
About the Author
Sacha Batthyany was born in Switzerland in 1973 to Hungarian emigre parents. He was an editor at the Neue Zurcher Zeitung and is now a political reporter for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, based in Washington, DC.
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It is spring 1945, on the Austrian-Hungarian border, not far from the front lines of the advancing Red Army: WWII will soon be over. Countess Margit Batthyany, the writer’s aunt, billionaire member of the German Thyssen family, an old, powerful and influential family, gives a party at her mansion. The German aristocrats, SS officers, dancing and drinking there that night knew the war was lost. Later that night, the aristos, party members, collaborators walked down to the village, where 180 enslaved local Jewish laborers were being held, made them strip naked, kneel over their mass grave-to-be, shot them all, returned to the party. This remained a secret for decades, until Batthyany, himself a member of a Hungarian noble family, who remembered his great-aunt Margit only vaguely from his childhood as a stern, distant woman, began to ask questions. A Crime in the Family, told partly through the surviving journals of the author’s family, is Batthyany's memoir of asking these questions, the answers he found: it might be one of the last untold stories of Europe's nightmare century. That witnessed not just the inhumanity of Auschwitz, the chaos of wartime Budapest, the brutalities of Soviet occupation, but also the many silent crimes of complicity and cover-up, left damaged generations behind.
Hungary’s long been a particularly interesting place to me. It is thought to have been settled by marauding nomads from the East, has a high cheek-boned population with a language and money system impenetrable to outsiders. (I know, was there briefly, and the Danube River-hugging Budapest is quite the beautiful city.) The country, unfortunately, has a long history of antisemitism, unto the current day; also an ability to produce greatly talented people, as Batthyany clearly is. But, unhappily, the man needs some serious editing, which he does not seem to have received before this advance readers copy. This work is terribly repetitive. Readers will know about the massacre it centers upon before even opening the book, but that massacre is mentioned over and over and over again. And where this author has a chance to put some meat on the bones of this rather slight memoir, he fails to do so. We don’t get emotionally satisfying description of the village or castle where the massacre occurred. At one point, the author takes his father to visit with him the Siberian gulag – slave camp—where the Soviets kept the writer’s grandfather prisoner for more than ten years. What a chance to give readers who will largely be unfamiliar with this sort of thing a real feel for the place and its customs. A chance which the author does not take. I was looking forward to this book, as I have particular interests in Hungary, WWII, the Holocaust, as I am of Jewish ancestry. But it was a disappointment to me. Recommended only to readers with particular interests such as mine.
The author's grandfather fought with Hungary for Germany, and then ended up in the Russian Gulag for ten years after the war. The family lost their property and wealth for good when the USSR asserted tight control over Hungary after the 1956 popular uprising there. During WWII, most of Hungary's Jews were sent to death camps and perished, or were murdered before they could be deported. In this work, the author - who was raised in the idyllic world of Switzerland - goes in search of details about his relatives' roles during the war.
The author wants to learn more about a mass execution of Jews which took place during a fancy party going on at a family castle (some of those who participated in the murders were party guests), and about the execution of a married couple, parents to a childhood friend of the author's grandmother, who were shot in the back in a family courtyard.
His exploration takes him to numerous destinations in Hungary, Russia and Argentina, as well as to his psychoanalyst's couch again and again. He is interested not only in what happened then, but how the experiences and atrocities of WWII and its aftermath continue to impact the generations who came thereafter, in particular his father and himself. He also wonders why no one in his family, before him, has ever been curious about these events which involved his relatives.
He also seems to feel guilty because his life in Switzerland has been so placid, whereas his predecessors suffered such tumult during their lives.
For his research, the author has the benefit of a diary or memoir of his grandmother, from which he quotes, but also his book includes what seem to be memories, conversations and diary entries from long ago that the author has imagined (this wasn't entirely clear).
I am not sure that the author's quest led him to figure out much about why his father is the way he is (taciturn and unemotional), or that he gained substantial personal insight, but along the way he taught me things I did not know about Hungary, before, during and after WWII.
This is a quick read which added new dimensions to my knowledge of WWII and the Holocaust. I am glad the author took on this investigation and was able to track down a few survivors from that awful time before they too pass from this earth.