Szablya (The Fall of the Red Star, 2002, etc.) presents a memoir about life under Nazi occupation and Communist rule in Hungary.
For the author, air-raid sirens marked the onset of World War II and the end of her childhood. Her grandfather, who founded a chain of drugstores in Budapest and created a popular line of beauty products, had secured a comfortable existence for the family. The clan had two homes, commanded an army of servants and had considerable influence in the community—a life that slipped away when the Nazis occupied Hungary. As the bombing intensified and yellow stars appeared on Jews’ lapels, the family took shelter in the countryside and witnessed the Red Army’s advance, which the author describes as more scourge than salvation. Helen was taught to say that she was 9 to avoid being raped; her pretty mother was kept out of sight for the same reason. Her father, who served as a doctor for wounded soldiers, helped avert the worst encounters. Peace was elusive, and even an armistice didn’t mean the end of the family’s nightmare. The Soviet Union took control of Hungary, the family business was nationalized, and, in time, Helen’s mother was arrested by the secret police. Spanning 14 years, Szablya’s memoir reads like an oral history full of poignant anecdotes: After the siege of Budapest, a man’s house collapsed on him while he ate lunch; a woman whose family was killed could complain only that “the Soviets had taken all of her black slips.” Still, many readers may feel that the book might have benefited from more rigorous editing; the author often gives free rein to childhood memories that seem extraneous, including a trip to Paris packed with exhausting details (“The French sold their bread in long sticks, by the meter”). Some incidents might have had more resonance if the author had provided more psychological insight. That said, the book is a welcome addition to firsthand accounts of the era; historians may find it worthy of perusal, but more casual readers may wish for a more streamlined account.
An uneven coming-of-age memoir of life under two regimes.