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When the Danube Ran Red by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 5, Number 2, July 2012
pp. 85-88 | 10.1353/jji.2012.0022

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The historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi once predicted that post-Holocaust Jews would choose myths instead of history. In this personal memoir set against the backdrop of an especially traumatic period of Jewish-Hungarian history, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth not only tells the story of her own journey from provincial Békéscsaba to a yellow star house in Budapest, but she also fulfils Yerushalmi's prediction. She mythologizes a non-Jewish girl who helped save her and her family in 1944. And at the same time, she fulfils the ancient obligation to remember the victims.

Although Ozsváth cites the Jewish religious tradition as an incentive or motivating force behind the book (xxiii), her narrative reflects a more universal urge to remember the victims of the Shoah and to do the work that psychiatrist and Holocaust scholar Aaron Hass suggests when he states that "there should be six million stories of six million victims." The memoir is a genre that can humanize these impersonal events by naming the unnamed and dehumanized victims. It can place them in the social and emotional map of the storyteller. Ozsváth is an excellent storyteller, as is especially evident in the beautifully composed chapter about Pali, her paternal uncle, who died during his labor service alongside the Hungarian army. Ozsváth not only evokes the close relationship between her uncle and her father, but also sheds light on the brutal treatment of these servicemen. She integrates this story into a detailed picture of her father's anguish over the loss of his beloved brother.

Tzvetan Todorov has noted that the survivor author has to choose for whom to remember and why. Pali seems an obvious choice both because of his close relationship to Ozsváth's father and because of his tragic fate. However, he is by no means Ozsváth's first choice of a person to write about. Rather it is Erzsi, the girl who worked as a nanny for the Ozsváths and who "risked her life over and over again while saving ours." (xxiii) While Ozsváth describes how many times Erzsi acted heroically, she fails to reveal Erzsi's motivation, aside from an emotional belonging to the family. An examination of the deeper reasons would probably have revealed much more about relations between Jews and non-Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust.

Besides her uncle Pali, another painful loss for Ozsváth was Hanna, her schoolmate and a young refugee who reported the ghettoization and mass killings committed by Nazi Germans in a Polish town. The Holocaust's brutality contrasts with the children's innocent worldview here, and this picture haunts Ozsváth, who names Hanna as one of the approximately 17,000 unnamed victims massacred at Kamenets-Podolsk in 1941. They were killed because they could not trace back their families' official presence within the Hungarian Kingdom prior to 1867, and for Ozsváth, "what was behind the deportation and killing of the 'alien Jews' among them my friend Hanna, involved a Hungarian political decision." (35)

There is a longstanding historiographic debate whether to apportion more blame to the Nazi Germans or the Hungarians for the persecution of Jewish Hungarians. In the first chapters Ozsváth presents historical background (13-14) in line with mainstream scholars' views (such as Randolph L. Braham and Attila Pók), in which the Hungarian political elite only accepted anti-Jewish legislation to compensate German leaders for helping the country regain large territories lost at the end of World War I. This view casts Nazi Germans as the main perpetrators of the Hungarian Holocaust. In that the Ozsváths were much more afraid of them than of Hungarian extremists, this understanding fits the dichotomy present in the Ozsváth family and surely others as well: they shared Hungarian national pride despite being humiliated by their fellow citizens. (Seen especially in Chapter 4 and 5.) In the later chapters, however, in a remarkable switch, the author clearly blames the Hungarian authorities—soldiers and primarily the gendarmerie (71, 83)—for deportations and plunder in the provinces, and Arrow Cross (Nyilas) fighters for the mass killings in Budapest. In this sense Ozsváth is closer to a...

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