Dark Roots and the Myth or Reality of a European Family History

Book review: A Crime in the Family, by Sacha Batthyany

Swiss journalist Sacha Batthyany heard a disturbing rumor: near the end of the Second World War, his Aunt Margit was alleged to have participated in the massacre of hundreds of Jewish prisoners in the small Austrian town of Rechnitz. The crime took place during a party at her home attended by Nazi officers.

He’s haunted, determined to track down the source of the story and see if there’s any truth to it. He remembers Margit somewhat from his childhood, after his parents immigrated from their native Hungary to Switzerland, and they visited with her occasionally.

Most importantly, he sees the discovery of the truth about his family tree’s roots, and learning what skeletons hide in their closets, as crucial to understanding more about himself, his identity, and where he came from. Lending a further scandalous element, Batthyany is a well-known name amongst the old-world Hungarian aristocracy.

He tell his psychoanalyst, “I want to know what’s still left in my bones from earlier times. I’d like to find out what influence past events have in making us what we are.”

So begins his journey across Europe and eventually to South America, tracking the original mystery of the crime, then becoming distracted by a second revelatory incident, plus pursuing hard, long-murky facts about his grandfather’s Siberian Gulag imprisonment. He’s aided by his grandmother’s handwritten memoirs, passed along by his father.

The travel narratives and exploration of family history are interspersed with his psychoanalytic sessions, as well as journal excerpts from a Jewish family connected to his own, and imagined scenes and conversations where he exercises creative license in assuming what transpired to fill in historical gaps.

While reading, I was reminded of a review I read of the movie “Adaptation” that always stuck with me. That movie was based on journalist Susan Orlean’s excellent nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, and if you’ve seen it, you know it’s not at all a straight adaption of Orlean’s story, rather a meta story of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt the book. The review said that Kaufman read The Orchid Thief and found that the most interesting thing in it was Charlie Kaufman. (I’m heavily paraphrasing and can’t find the review, but I have a point.)

The most interesting part of each story Batthyany tells is himself. After the trip to Russia with his father, with whom Sacha has a strained, complicated relationship (depicted through their conversations and his psychoanalytic sessions), he reflects:

“I had travelled to Siberia to understand that I was no match for international history, for all those wars that haunted his mind…Stalin, I whispered to myself, first robbed all your family of its land, then locked your grandfather up, and after that took your father away from you.”

I had trouble connecting to a story that had so much potential to be completely fascinating, in that way that tales of the dark truths and sometimes surprising emergences of humanity are, when it all seemed like one big psychoanalytic experiment to him, as he sought more insight into himself.

I also disliked the imagined conversations – a popular method for filling in details in the narrative, I know, but one I can’t stand nevertheless. To some extent, if it’s done well enough, it can help flesh out a story that’s missing something, but here it went too far into fictional territory. If stories are missing, like pieces of this one are, it seems better to build connected stories around them. He does this somewhat – traveling to South America to meet the one survivor connected to his family’s wartime past and share what he’s uncovered with her and her descendants.

But in another instance, he projects a wealth of invasive, disturbing masculine fantasy onto a Hungarian-born, Swiss-living sex worker he meets on a train, apropos of nothing, imagining explicit scenes from her work. It was appalling and had no place here except to throw around the word “tart” a lot and project his feelings about guilt and morals onto her. It shouldn’t have been published.

This book reminded me stylistically of another upcoming release, Maybe Esther, similarly about tracing family roots during WWII and the Holocaust, also translated from German. I speak German and do translations into English, but I don’t actually read books written in German. So I don’t know if this is something characteristic of the literary writing style, but it’s this disjointed, all-over-the-place structure that I find difficult to follow and fully comprehend.

Now for the good, and why we need stories like this, especially this one with its brief but important element of shining a big spotlight on what Austria is doing wrong.

In Austria’s Burgenland province where the massacre of Jewish prisoners took place, Battyany met with distant relatives, trying to glean what they knew about Margit’s involvement. Snippets of conversation with these Austrian relations:

“What’s the point of it all?”
“Why bother?”

“What’s it to do with us?”
“There’s been enough written already about crimes against the Jews…The crimes of the communists were just as bad.”

Later, an uncle tells him, “Do think about the family’s good name. You don’t want to drag it through the mud.”

The original German title, And was hat das mit mir zu tun?, translates to “And what does that have to do with me?” It’s an oft-repeated phrase among Austrians, in my experience, at least. When I taught business English, around one anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a woman in a course discussing this news item said, disgustedly, “I can’t wait until we don’t have to hear about this anymore. Soon there won’t be anyone else alive from that time and we can stop talking about. It doesn’t have anything to do with us but we always have to hear about it.” I was in such shock I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember that no one disagreed with or challenged her.

Hers is only one such example, another was near verbatim to the above quote about the crimes of the Russians occupying Austria being as bad, if not worse than, those of the Nazis. That person also said that Jewish people in Austria get too many benefits and too much money in the form of reparations, the time of Austria’s crimes is long over and they’ve already gotten a lot so don’t deserve anything more. (Maybe it’s clear why I had to leave work that involved so much listening to Austrian opinions.)

I had to wonder if the German title was changed, not only because that sentence is clunky as a title in English, but because its refrain is well-known if either angrily denied or defended in the German-speaking countries, but wouldn’t be believed elsewhere. Maybe I’m reading too much into it because this issue always gets me, but I wonder.

That’s why this is an important book, if it did have some big drawbacks for me. It’s still true, still a personal account of what exists of a disturbing history, and it’s something that needs sharing. Austria has come very close within the last year to electing leaders from the far-right party built from remnants of the Nazi party. The Freheitspartei Österreich has made increasingly stronger showings in elections. Germany, in its elections in September, saw the far-right AfD party make history by becoming the first openly nationalistic party to hold seats in the Bundestag in 60 years. We’ll see what happens in Austria’s election for chancellor this Sunday. It’s not looking good in terms of swerving clear of the far-right.

Like Faulkner said: The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.

Messily structured but sometimes great, deeply compelling, and contemporarily important; elsewhere a frustratingly navel-gazing look at a family’s complicated wartime and postwar history, and how it all feels in the present.
My rating: 2.5/5

A Crime in the Family:
A World War II Secret Buried in Silence – And My Search For the Truth
by Sacha Batthyany
translated by Anthea Bell
published October 10, 2017 by Da Capo Press

originally published in German in 2016 as “Und was hat das mit mir zu tun?: Ein Verbrechen im März 1945. Die Geschichte meiner Familie”

I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository, a great site offering free worldwide shipping. 
It means I get a small commission (at no extra expense to you) if you buy via these links.
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2 thoughts on “Dark Roots and the Myth or Reality of a European Family History

  1. I think “filling the gaps” is probably one of the hardest things to do when you’re writing non-fiction. On the one hand you want the story fleshed out but like you mentioned, you run the risk of entering fictional territory. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You’re right, it’s so tough to do. When it’s done well it can really add something, but here it’s so extensive, it read like play scenes and felt contrived and boring. But maybe the mix of styles and techniques could appeal to some readers and it’s just me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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