A Crime in the Family by Sacha Batthyany
Early one April morning, journalist Sacha Batthyany made a most unexpected discovery. A newspaper report dropped on his desk by a colleague told of a party, in the spring of 1945, in a castle in Rechnitz, Austria. Among the guests – German aristocrats and SS officers – was Batthyány’s great-aunt Margit, an heiress to the German Thyssen fortune and one of Europe’s wealthiest women, and rumoured lover to at least two senior Nazis.
What Batthyány learned: over the course of the evening, some guests, for fun, shot nearly 180 Jews who had lately been transported to Rechnitz. The victims were stripped naked and forced to dig their own mass grave. Margit drank and danced with the killers.
From that travesty, ordinary in its day, Batthyány has forged a deft and elegant memoir. A Crime in the Family records the high points and despondent moments of the author’s seven-year-long mission to comprehend the uncomfortable trajectory of his own family history through the bloodlands of 20th century Europe, from the Holocaust to the Gulag. His aids are the diary of his paternal grandmother, Maritta, who made a fervently written record of her life in her final years, and the memoir of Maritta’s childhood neighbour Agnes Mandl, an Auschwitz survivor who welcomes Batthyány into her Buenos Aires home.
Agnes and her brother were sent to the camp during Operation Margarethe, the 1944 German occupation of Hungary and the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews. There are two versions, Batthyány learns, of what happened to the Mandl parents, and the correct one is found in Maritta’s diary, in piecemeal passages confirming that decades of distance make certain truths no easier to articulate.
Disguise is tempting, and so is deception, whether of the self or the vast canvas of the past. In regular sessions with a psychoanalyst, Batthyány explores the faultlines of his own existence, wonders why an easy life, as a Swiss citizen descended from Hungarian counts, bishops and princes, isn’t enough for him. He succumbs to the irresistible question – what would I have done? – and knows that no, he would not have hidden Jews. But he ruminates over the witnesses of thousands of other massacres, the millions of Aunt Margits. “And what about all the people who watched the Jews of Budapest – women, children, the old – chained together by handcuffs as they fell into the ice-cold Danube? . . . Why didn’t the passersby begin to scream? . . . . Why did they take it all so calmly?”
Batthyány’s reportorial diligence ensures the sound landing of the odd flight of fancy, such as an imagined Cold War-era conversation in the 1980s between the Nazi soldier who visited the Mandls and a guard of the Gulag camp where Maritta’s husband Feri was imprisoned. How many such exchanges between Germans and Russians must have taken place down the years, their histories lying silent?
A minor bum note is Batthyány’s recounting of his conversation with two Hungarian prostitutes in Zurich. His description of his World War II investigation earns blank stares (“But that’s a hundred years ago,” one woman says), and he quizzes the women about whether they have disclosed their activities to their parents and offspring (they have not). The points are obvious, and unnecessarily made: every family harbours secrets, and Europe’s past horrors preoccupy the minds of very few.
It’s almost reflexive to refer to a well-formed, deeply personal book about atrocity as searing, but the adjective fits, and A Crime in the Family does justice to the Batthyány clan, to the countless millions swallowed up by Stalinism and National Socialism, and to the inevitable future victims of the banality of evil.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones