Discovering My Family’s Murderous Nazi Past
Sacha Batthayany on Learning the Dark Secret of His Aunt Margit
It all began one Thursday in April, about seven years before my visit to Buenos Aires. At the time I was working for the Sunday edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It was early in the morning, when there was hardly anyone in the office, and all was calm. I was writing a column about a sperm donor from the Netherlands when a rather older woman colleague, who seldom had much to say to me, put a page of newsprint down on my desk and said, “That’s quite some family you have, don’t you?”
I glanced up and smiled at her. Only then did I look at the article she had torn out of the paper to show me. I was expecting something to do with the 19th century, elaborate period dresses maybe, or horses. Some bridge or other named after one of my forebears, an Àdám, Zsigmund or Ladislaus Batthyány; my surname is well known in Hungary. The Batthyánys had been counts, princes, bishops. One of them was prime minister of the country in 1849, another, Ladislaus Batthyány-Strattmann, was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II for his services to Rome as a medical doctor. The family history can be followed back to the Turkish wars of the 14th century, although here in the West few people know the name, and why should they? They generally think it is Tamil, because the two letters ‘y’ in it suggest Sri Lanka. I get asked about it only during the Christmas holidays, when they show the trilogy of films about Sissi, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, on TV at eleven in the morning, and the Empress, played by Romy Schneider, dances with a Count Batthyány who wears a baby-blue uniform and has a large amount of brilliantine on his hair.
So I expected something like that when I glanced at the newspaper, something harmless. Instead, I read the headline ‘The Hostess From Hell,’ which I didn’t understand, but I recognized the woman in the photograph at once. Aunt Margit. The story said that in March, 1945, she had taken part in the massacre of 180 Jews in the Austrian border town of Rechnitz. Apparently she had thrown a party, with dancing and drinking, and at midnight, for fun, the guests held pistols to the heads of naked Jews, men and women alike, and pulled the triggers.
“Thanks,” I said, putting the sheet of newsprint aside and returning to the cursor blinking on my screen. I still had two hours before handing in my piece about the Dutch sperm donor.
Aunt Margit? My great-aunt with the pointed tongue?
When I was a child, we went to have lunch with Aunt Margit three times a year, always at the most expensive restaurant in Zürich. My father chain-smoked in our white Opel all the way, my mother combed my hair with a plastic comb. We called her Aunt Margit, never just Margit, as if “Aunt” were a title. She had married my father’s uncle, but the marriage was disastrous from the first. Margit was a billionaire from the German Thyssen family. She was tall, with a large torso and thin legs. In my memory she always wears a skirt suit with the jacket buttoned up to her throat, and silk scarves with horse patterns on them; her crocodile handbag is claret-colored with gold clasps, and when she talks about deer in the rutting season or cruising in the Aegean, she puts out the tip of her tongue like a lizard in the pauses between sentences. I sit as far away as possible from her. Aunt Margit hated children, and while I push chopped calves’ liver around my plate I keep looking at her. I want to see that tongue.
After her death we seldom mentioned her, and my memories of our lunches faded, until the day when I read the report in the paper about that little place in Austria. Rechnitz. About a party. About a massacre. About 180 Jews who had to strip naked before they were shot, so that their bodies would decompose more quickly. And Aunt Margit? She was at the center of it.
I phoned my father and asked him if he knew about the party. He said nothing for a while, and I heard him uncorking a bottle of wine. I saw him in my mind’s eye, sitting on the shabby old sofa that I like so much in his living-room in Budapest.
“Margit had a couple of affairs with Nazis, there was talk about that in the family.”
“It says in the paper that she threw a party, and the high point, as a kind of treat for dessert, was when 180 Jews were lured into a stable and guns were handed out to the guests, who were all dead drunk. They all joined in, Margit too. She’s described as the hostess from Hell. The English newspapers are calling her the ‘killer countess.’ And there’s a picture of her captioned: ‘Thyssen countess had 200 Jews shot at Nazi party.’”
“Nonsense. Yes, a crime was committed, but I think it’s unlikely that Margit was involved. She was a monster, but not capable of doing that.”
“How come Margit was a monster?”
Before I read that newspaper story about Rechnitz and Aunt Margit, I hadn’t been especially interested in my family’s history. I had little contact with it. If I had been born in Hungary it would have been different; there were places and monuments there with connections to my ancestors. However, I grew up not in Budapest but in a four-roomed apartment on the outskirts of the city of Zürich, and when I was eight we moved a hundred meters further away to a grey town house shaped like a Rubik’s cube, the puzzle that everyone played with back in the eighties. We had a ping-pong table in the garden, and a large American-style fridge that the previous occupants had left behind. It smelled so good when you opened the freezer compartment and put your head right in, past the frozen peas. I remember, even more vividly, the smell of the fuel station where we sometimes stopped on the way back from visiting friends of my parents. My two brothers and I used to sit squeezed together on the back seat, and I always hoped the tank would need filling. Then I would wind down the car window, close my eyes and breathe in through my nose. The petrol and the cool air, and all of us together in that car on the way home—I never felt safer in my life. And when we arrived I would pretend to be asleep, so that my father would carry me into my room, with his shirt still smelling of wine and cigarettes and summer. It was all part of my childhood.
Like whales who make for calm waters when they are about to give birth, my parents had withdrawn from the outside world to settle here. But unlike whales, who then return to the ocean depths, my parents remained stranded on the outskirts of the city.
Maybe they were hiding from their past. From their memories of Hungary, of the war, of flight and concealment.
Or possibly they simply wanted to begin again in this undefiled place. Rather than thinking back to earlier times, they wanted to make this dead-end spot their home. And it almost worked.
Switzerland is a good country for beginning again and shedding the burden of the past; there is nothing in it to remind you of Hitler or Stalin. The two totalitarian systems of the last century, National Socialism and Communism, the concentration camps and the gulag, are only chapters in school history books to the Swiss. There are hardly any memorials to the victims of wars, hardly any families, apart from those of immigrants, whose stories are interwoven with those atrocities. People don’t ask, “Grandpa, what did you do in the war?” No one in Switzerland was deported or gassed. There’s nothing that the Swiss have to “stomach,” there is nothing to “come out,” as the newspapers always say about revelations in other countries. There was no collective failure, there were no crises outside the world of banking. Switzerland has known only years of prosperity and security; the minds of the Swiss were at ease, particularly in my youth at the beginning of the nineties, when everything was even brighter than before, and people living in city suburbs would get on their bikes at weekends and cycle out to the lakes.
You might expect the color of such an idyll to rub off on its surroundings. You might expect such carefree attitudes to transfer themselves to a family’s fortunes. It isn’t always like that.
Neither my father nor my mother really felt at home in Switzerland, that most comfortably padded of all European countries. They did learn to speak Swiss German, they went skiing, they bought a sandwich toaster when everyone was buying them, and in winter they ate raclette like everyone else, pouring melted cheese over potatoes, maybe adding a little extra paprika. But the fact is that they participated in the life of the country only when they had to. They exchanged civil greetings with their neighbors, but they would rather get to their car unseen by any acquaintances. In secret, Switzerland and the Swiss smiled at that, or so at least it seemed to me earlier. My parents weren’t bothered by the occasional xenophobic remarks of other inhabitants of Zürich—what a funny surname we had, we spoke German pretty well for foreigners, our rusty car didn’t really suit this city—because they knew that they were never going to put down roots there. As they saw Switzerland, it was never more than a toy country, life there wasn’t the genuine article, or at least not real life with its ups and downs, with its joy and grief. Because no one who had not at least lost a few relations in the war, who had not known what it was to see a foreign power, whether German or Russian, turn everything upside down, could truly claim to understand life. Suffering was the common currency. Idyllic happiness counted for nothing. The past was always more important than the future, old was always better than modern.
And so they probably dreamed of another life in their own way, in that little house on the outskirts of Zürich, a city without yesterdays from which my father soon moved.
Two years after the Iron Curtain came down, he packed his bags and went to Budapest. My mother also left Switzerland, and did not seem to feel that she was missing anything. I never bore her a grudge for that. All of a sudden they were both gone, but they had left me with a sense that I was living in the wrong country.
I stayed where I was, all the same, perhaps out of inertia; studied at university, because that was what everyone did, and became a journalist. Soon I was writing about armed gangs of kids in Liverpool, I slept in the caravan belonging to a high-ranking Ku Klux Klan member in Texas, I spent several days walking around the streets of a Zürich suburb to report on the case of a girl of thirteen who had been gang-raped, and I sat on the Dutch sperm donor’s sofa with a lesbian couple who wanted a child. I saw him give them a small container and a syringe, so that one of them could inject herself with his sperm. “I’m just going out to do a bit of shopping,” he called, already in the doorway. “Do you want anything? Cola? Crisps?” The women shook their heads, taken aback. Cola? It was a baby that they wanted.
Hungary might be my parents’ country, but what business of mine was that? I was in my early thirties, newly in love. The Second World War and a war crime involving the murder of 180 Jews couldn’t have been farther away. We had our own problems, I thought, immigration, disorientation, globalization, I wrote about such subjects: too much consumption, too much pornography, too many opportunities.
But after coming up against my family history on the morning when I recognized Aunt Margit in the newspaper article, I began to do some research. I wrote to members of our family in Vienna, Budapest and Munich. “Hello,” I began my letters. “We haven’t met, but we’re distant relations. Have you read what’s said to have happened? Do you know anything about it?” I got hold of files on Aunt Margit and her husband Ivan, my grandfather’s brother; I read books about the Thyssens, the history of Hungary; I spent whole days in archives in Berlin and Berne, Budapest and Graz; and I had many conversations with my father. Aunt Margit had set me traveling back into past history: because of her, I faced the story of my origins for the first time in my life.
It was the massacre of 180 Jews that brought me closer to my family.
From A Crime in the Family: A World War II Secret Buried in Silence—and My Search for the Truth by Sacha Batthyány. Used with permission from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2017.