A Crime in the Family

Sacha Batthyány; trans. Anthea Bell
  • Review
By – September 22, 2017

A Crime in the Fam­i­ly by Sacha Batthyány | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ger­man in 2016, this dis­turb­ing mem­oir tells of jour­nal­ist Sacha Batthyány’s con­fronta­tion with the truth and mean­ing of the heinous crime his fam­i­ly com­mit­ted dur­ing the twi­light of WWII.

Dur­ing a par­ty held by the author’s great aunt, Count­ess Mar­git Batthyány, her friends and rel­a­tives mur­dered 180 enslaved Jew­ish laborers.

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. He draws from his per­son­al expe­ri­ence as well as diaries, pub­lic records, pri­vate papers, and inter­views con­duct­ed with a mix­ture of deter­mi­na­tion and anx­i­ety. His jour­ney into the past becomes a jour­ney into his deep­est self – his life as a grand­child and child, as a hus­band and father.

Not strict­ly lin­ear; the book reads more like a col­lage or mosa­ic. Past is set against present, spec­u­la­tions are set against ver­i­fi­able facts, and the words of char­ac­ters long dead are set against the mem­o­ries of oth­ers. The over­ar­ch­ing sto­ry of the author’s search for truth, the lay­er of mem­oir, inter­acts with the diaries and oth­er tex­tu­al remains con­tain­ing the voic­es of key char­ac­ters from the past. All along the zigzag way, the pres­sure of those buried secrets grows stronger and stronger, as does the ques­tion of whether and how rev­e­la­tions about what hap­pened in a small Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an town can bring spir­i­tu­al restora­tion and solace.

Through­out, Batthyány takes pains to recre­ate the dou­ble-wham­my of Hungary’s (and much of Europe’s) mid-20th cen­tu­ry tra­vails. How the joy brought by the end of war and Nazi doom fades into the ongo­ing decades of Sovi­et communism’s own mur­der­ous repres­sion. How dis­placed per­sons remain psy­chi­cal­ly dis­placed wher­ev­er they may be. How secrets are poison.

The mass grave of the 180 mur­dered Jews has not been found.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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