The Budapest House: A Life Re-Discovered

Mar­cus Ferrar
  • Review
By – August 13, 2014

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.

Relat­ed content:

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.

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