In search of a family’s forgotten dark past: Reviewing “A Crime in the Family” by Sacha Batthyány4 min read
“I am a grandchild of the war. My father spent the war in an air-raid shelter, my grandfather was dragged off to Siberia by the Russians, my grandmother lost her second son — and my great aunt was responsible for the massacre of 180 Jews.”
The murders took place on the night of 24-25 March 1945 in the quiet town of Rechnitz (Rohonc in Hungarian), located 15 km from the Hungarian-Austrian border. That evening, Countess Margit Batthyány hosted a party at her 17th century castle, attended by a number of Nazi SS and SA officers. During an interlude in the drinking and dancing, some officers disappeared to carry out the massacre, before returning to dance and drink the rest of the night away in their still bloody clothes.
The Batthyány surname is an important one in Hungarian history, dating at least back to the Turkish wars of the 14th century. Count Lajos Batthyány was the first Prime Minister of Hungary; more recently, in 2003, the physician Prince László Batthyány-Strattmann was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Following World War II, the family’s property was expropriated in the then-Communist Hungary, and many became aristocratic exiles in the West.
It was in this context that Sacha Batthyány grew up, born in Switzerland in 1973 to an exiled branch of the family. He studied in Zürich and Madrid before becoming a journalist, writing and editing for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others. Covering topics such as the Ku Klux Klan in Texas and sperm donation in the Netherlands, he viewed his family history as a negligible part of his life. This all changed after Batthyány was shown a newspaper article by a colleague with a picture of his great-aunt Margit and the headline “The Hostess From Hell.” According to the piece, this aunt, largely remembered by the author for her pointed-tongue and dislike of children, had taken part in the massacre at Rechnitz. This discovery propelled Bathhyány to dig deeper into his family’s past, eventually giving rise to his 2016 memoir Und was hat das mit mir zu tun? Ein Verbrechen im März 1945. Die Geschichte meiner Familie. It was translated from the original German into English in 2017 by Anthea Bell, and re-published as A Crime in the Family.
Early in the memoir, Batthyany concludes that there is no evidence that Margit shot anyone. Yet throughout the night of the massacre, she danced and celebrated with the murderers. Margit lived until 1989, drinking in Monte Carlo and hunting in Burgenland; she never atoned for what happened that night. This theme of guilt and atonement continues throughout the memoir as it takes a life of its own, focusing more on the diverging lives of his grandmother Maritta and her Jewish childhood acquaintance Agnes. Batthyány discovers that his grandmother saw the murder of Agnes’s parents, and that keeping silent about what happened would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Batthyány’s journey to find answers takes him all over the world — to Rechnitz, where the Refugius Association has organised an annual commemoration service for the murdered Jews; to the Siberian mining town of Asbet, where Batthyány’s grandfather quarried stone from the permafrost by hand; to the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, where Agnes and her daughters live. Batthyány uses the personal diaries of both Maritta and Agnes to show how they conceptualised World War II and its ensuing effect on their lives. During the war, Maritta would lose her family’s land and status and see her husband spend a decade in the Gulag; Agnes would be sent to Auschwitz and her parents killed by Nazi soldiers living in the Batthyány castle at the time, before eventually emigrating to Argentina. Interspersed between these entries and Batthyány’s own research are discussions with his therapist and speculative conversations about what could have been said during important events in his family’s lives, all of which help Batthyány better process what he is learning.
Batthyány’s unique approach to crafting his memoir creates a multi-layered, yet extremely personal reflection of his family’s history. Throughout the memoir, we see how Batthyány grapples with what he learns, and how it impacts his own identity. He struggles with being a good father, seeing the anger he demonstrates towards his child as a sign of the emptiness and “quiet violence” he grew up with. He asks himself to be honest and evaluate whether he could have hidden Jews — he answers no. There are no easy answers in this book. It forces the reader to examine how families struggle to cope with their history; and how the effects of the Holocaust, World War II, and the ensuing rise of Communism in Central Europe are still very much alive and with us today. Indeed, the mass grave of the 180 Jewish victims at Rechnitz, the crime which gave this memoir its name, has yet to be discovered.
Book details: Batthyány, Sacha, A Crime in the Family / Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, 2017, Quercus Books. Buy it here.