Friday, August 20, 2021

"A Crime in the Family" by Sacha Batthyany--Nonfiction Review

We’re talking about Sacha Batthyany’s “A Crime in the Family,” which is a hard historical look at a small picture of WW2 in Hungary. It shines a light on the great question of the last century; how could normal people tolerate and abide such evil?

Sacha Batthyany

What I love about this book:

Often books about the holocaust and WW2 are broad in scope, fixated on the numbers of victims and the titans and tyrants of the day. And while that can be fascinating in its own right, I appreciate that this book is about individuals who lived through those times. I like the human scale Batthyany adheres to wherever possible.

I was especially taken with the excerpts taken straight from journal entries of people who lived through the events of Hungary’s participation in the war as a Nazi ally. The journals were from the perspectives of a Hungarian Jew and a minor noblewoman who wasn’t Jewish—both lost everything in their own turn. One when the Nazis came, and the other when the Russian Red Army steamrolled through Hungary.

There is something morbidly fascinating about Batthyany’s story of his great aunt. Maybe she didn’t directly participate in a massacre of Jews at Rechnitz—maybe—but she was still hostess to Nazis and threw the party that involved people getting drunk while casually murdering Jewish laborers. When discovering such a terrible secret about your family, what do you do? Writing a book about it and shining a light on it seems the only responsible thing to do, like Sacha Batthyany did with this book.

This book is unsparing and withering toward the Batthyanys, and it was written by a Batthyany. There is a certain amount of courage to admit the truth that Great Aunt Margit was flat out, stone-cold, evil—and the rest of the family carried that stain with them in their cowardice that also resulted in the deaths of more Jewish people through inaction.

This had to be an incredibly difficult book to write, and I admire Sacha Batthyany for doing it because he didn’t just summarize the past from journal entries. He really did the work, faced the past, went to all the places, talked to surviving family members of the Jewish family who were so entwined with his own. I can’t imagine how anxiety-ridden he must have been facing Agnes and her daughters to talk about the past and how his family failed them in varying degrees.

What I don’t love about this book:

I’ve said this before with nonfictions; I like a little distance between biographer and subject, which is impossible with this book because Batthyany is writing about his family, which obviously he is a member of that family. 

What I really don’t like about this book is when he deviates or creatively imagines what might have happened or how a thing was said when his source materials don’t provide the necessary detail. He imagines how certain family members interacted, sometimes in more than one way, down to their tone, and imagines motivations behind those actions. In my opinion, this is all naval gazing at its absolute worst, and every time he engaged in it, I understood he was trying to inject more character and life into the story. Still, the story didn’t need it—the journals and family stories spoke enough for themselves. They didn’t need his novelistic touches.

Batthyany also includes a lot of his conversations with his psychiatrist in this book, and while I was reading it, I wasn’t sure if I liked that aspect of this book or not. I’m still not sure—so it’s not a dislike per se, but I think my unease with it is, I feel, seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist is a very personal medical thing. Most people don’t talk about their regular doctor visits with strangers. It’s the same thing to me. To me, sharing your experiences with therapy or your doctor is your choice, but it’s odd to me to do it with strangers and not just with family and close friends. I wasn’t against hearing the details of his sessions with his therapist, but I was confused about why he’d want me, a stranger, to know this about him. Maybe the point is to show a ripple effect through the generations of his family from actions and inactions his family took in the past that has had a profound impact on him today.

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Parting thoughts:

Cowardice is important thematically in this book, and it’s something that is nearly universally disdained. Though, in the moment of crisis—if we’re all being honest—it’s hard to know whether or not we have the fortitude to rise to the challenge and stand up for what is right. I know I’ve struggled with this topic before. Sometimes, I’ve had occasion to be proud of my actions, others—not so much.

It’s a hard thing to realize you’re a coward. Admitting it to yourself is soul-wracking. But, what I’ve learned through personal experience is that just because you were a coward today doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be one tomorrow.

Bravery, like any skill, is something that can be practiced and improved. I have many social anxieties, not a shocking revelation—most introverts do, I imagine. Parties or really any social gathering greater than five people make me uncomfortable, as my starting position. I don’t know where to stand, what to do with my hands, how to engage in conversation with someone I don’t know very well, what to do when someone smiles, or even how to ask basic questions. In theory, I do. You just do it. But in practice, I find myself wandering the space aimlessly and wraith-like, not really interacting with anything or anyone just existing in this space.

That’s all just typical human interaction with nothing but a little embarrassment at stake. So when faced with the hypothetical of real consequences, like do I stand up to the Nazis who, for the most part, would think nothing about murdering me, I’m incredibly uncertain. I can understand why the Batthyanys were who they were. Also, why, they, for the most part, were universally against talking about the past. The answer is shame, pure and simple. 

It was vital to tell the story of that shame, though, as Sacha Batthyany did because it provides practice in the realm of the hypothetical for everyone who reads it. Shame can transcend the moment and pass like a stain from one generation to the next. It’s essential to learn that and know that—feel its weight and impact if only vicariously, for maybe that will be your only defense when faced with a test similar to the ones the Battyhanys collectively failed.

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