I enjoyed A Crime in the Family. It is promoted as revealing one of the most extraordinary untold stories of the Second World War. In reality it describes one man’s search to understand his own and his family’s past history and the dark secrets that lurk within. As a journey of personal discovery, I was a little disappointed because for me the narrative didn’t really flow.
In essence we jump backwards and forwards across generations to understand a crime that happened in Hungary at the every end of the Second World War. As Russia’s Red Army advances through Hungary, a party is held at an ancient castle which belonged to the author’s ancestors. The Jews from the local village are rounded up on the night of the party and shot by members of the German army. The mass grave and all evidence of the crime remain hidden for many generations until the author begins to ask questions about his family’s past. The book is, without doubt, a fascinating insight into the post war period when Hungary was engulfed under the tyranny of Communism. In the same way that the Germans stripped wealth, possessions and life from the Jews, after the War the Hungarian State did the same to the landowners and aristocracy. Some were lucky enough to emerge alive.
Sacha Batthyany’s book considers all these dark times and tries in various ways to recreate and make sense of what happened in the Spring of 1945. He looks into his great-aunt’s diary, and talks to his own father as he tries to see where the blame may lie. The diaries are confused, often telling the same story over and over in slightly different ways until a satisfactory version is arrived at. There is guilt about the killing of the Mandls, a Jewish husband and wife who ran the village shop and were obviously well known to the Count and Countess. Records stated that they committed suicide, but the diary tells another story, that they were shot by a German officer.
Batthyany traces the Mandl’s descendants to Buenos Aires and visits them to talk about events in the past, correcting some of what they know and changing forever their understanding of their own history. I enjoyed what I learnt about Budapest and Hungary, but I think perhaps the real meat of the story was a little too thin. There are invented diaries from some of the war time characters and their different tales of survival, even surviving the concentration camps, and then there are trips with the author’s father as they visit relics of the wartime camps, but on the whole the story feels a little too self-obsessed. I know it is a journey of self-discovery but I’m not sure that we need to go on so many visits to the psychoanalyst or delve too deeply into a random meeting with a prostitute on a train journey. All these things got in the way of what is undoubtedly a fascinating true story.