Marcus Ferrar’s expertise is in writing about people in societies with a difficult historical heritage, particularly those in Eastern Europe and Germany, and in this book— part reportage, part memoir — he is able to bring us the story of Hungary’s darkest hours in a lucid, unsentimental way. Everyone in the story seems to have a past — a hinterland, he calls it — that finds them when they are feeling comfortable and settled and certain that they know their complete identity. For Frances, it happens when she is thirteen and a family friend visiting her at her Swiss boarding school casually lets her know that she is a Jew.
She is struck with horror, as she slowly pieces together the facts about where her family has gone and comes up with one decisive answer: Auschwitz. She had known they were Hungarian, but did not have an inkling of an idea that they were Jewish. “She felt touched by evil,” Ferrar tells us. “She felt the breath of the Holocaust as never before.”
Frances had grown up with no personal history, no historical heritage, almost no family. In that way, Ferrar says, she was not so different from many children growing up after World War II, who “came from nowhere.” But determined to find the meaning of her life, she seeks out her grandfather who, though he had left Hungary many years before, still owns a house there, the Budapest House. She goes there to unlock her past, and with it, Farrar’s own.
The child of a German father and an English mother, Ferrar has a finely honed sensitivity to much of the travails of Eastern Europe and Germany and an affinity for understanding the journeys of people traveling through dark times. In The Budapest House he deftly brings to life the deeply personal stories of individual people told against a well-crafted historical backdrop that is both vividly full and beautiful and yet haunted by a past we can just barely glimpse. Index, notes, selected reading.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.