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Castles burning : a child's life in war (1997)

av Magda Denes

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1343155,848 (3.78)15
This unsparing portrait of a childhood in 1939 Hungary--told in the voice of a brave and unforgettable nine-year-old Jewish girl--is the best sort of memoir, revealing not only a compelling story, but also the bruised yet still bold self which bears the weight of its story in memory (The New York Times Book Review).… (mer)
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One of the reasons I like this memoir so much is that it's told in the voice of Magda Denes, the Hungarian Jewish child, as she was experiencing everything that was happening, rather than Magda Denes, the adult psychoanalyst.

And Magda doesn't seem to have been the must cherubic of children: she was, in her own words, "impossibly sarcastic, bigmouthed, insolent, and far too smart for my own good." It is this intelligent, insolent, sarcastic, and often sullen and resentful voice that tells the story, the voice of a child who doesn't always understand what's going on.

The hero of the story is Magda's older brother Ivan, a fiercely intelligent and brave teenager, a devoted big brother, a published poet at sixteen, who later became an activist in the Hashomer Jewish organization. He worked for them as a runner, carrying forged papers and running messages through the dangerous, Arrow Cross infested streets of Budapest, trusting on his cleverness and his Aryan looks to see him safe.

Magda's early childhood was spent in very wealth circumstances, with more servants than family members -- "hopelessly outnumbered by the Proletariat." All of that ended when Magda's feckless, spendthrift father, a newspaper publisher, fled abroad in style, traveling first class with a new wardrobe and all the family's savings. Magda, her brother and her mother had to move into her religious grandparents' lower-middle-class apartment.

Later, they were joined by Magda's aunt Roszi and her son Erwin. Ivan, Erwin and Magda were the best of friends despite the differences in their ages, partners in all of each other's escapades and keepers of each other's secrets.

When Magda developed tuberculosis -- often fatal in those days -- at the age of eight, her mom spent money they couldn't afford to place her in an upscale sanitorium where she was afforded the best chances of recovery. Her mother also visited every week, taking the long trip from the city to bring presents and news from home. Magda felt abandoned, and sulked the entire time she was there. She recovered, and wasn't in the least bit grateful.

The same thing happened again two years later when Magda's family was hiding in the basement of a Hashomer safe house in Budapest as the Arrow Cross ravaged the streets. Because the place was incredibly overcrowded and filthy, Magda's mother decided not to keep her there and risk causing a relapse in her tuberculosis, so Magda was sent to a relatively comfortable children's home where she was absolutely miserable with loneliness, feeling, again, as if she was a burden who had been ditched.

Eventually her mother came to get her when there was rumor that the Arrow Cross was going to attack the children's home. The book describes their harrowing stay in the Hashomer building, dreading starvation or Arrow Cross attacks, wondering from day to day whether they'd stay alive, as the Red Army was besieging the city.

In late 1944, Erwin ran away to be with his girlfriend, leaving a note for his mother, Magda's aunt, promising to be in touch. He never came back. On December 31, 1944, Ivan sneaked out to help someone and to visit his own girlfriend. He didn't return either, and their families did not learn the boys' fates for months: both had been caught and murdered.

In large part due to the cleverness and resourcefulness of Magda's mother and Aunt Roszi, the others survived this "strip-mining of lives" through the period of starvation that followed the Russian liberation of the city (although Magda's grandfather died of an infection in the spring of 1945). The story carried them -- Magda, her mother, her aunt and her grandparents -- right up to the point where they left Europe, traveling first to Cuba and then to the United States.

In a stopover in New York on the way to Cuba, twelve-year-old Magda is reunited with her father who hadn't seen her in eight years. He tells her she's a bright child but not very pleasant. She responds, "I know. Lengthy intense suffering does that at times." ( )
  meggyweg | Jun 30, 2018 |
Dr. Magda Dénes, a Psychoanalyst and Psychotherapist practicing in NY, passed away suddenly at the end of 1996, aged 62. Her autobiographical Castles Burning was due to be published a couple of months later.

The book begins in 1939 in Budapest, as Magda’s father leaves for the US and abandons his family. They were a wealthy Jewish family of four. The narration advances fast onto March 1944 when the Nazis, who were already losing the war, occupied the city to prevent Hungary from changing sides. Castles Burning is then a story of loss and survival during the Holocaust and the postwar occupation by the Russian troops. It is told in a very direct first person manner by Magda the child (the subtitle is “A Child’s Life in War”) although Denes the adult wrote it decades later.

Hungary was late at persecuting its large Jewish population. And when it did, it sacrificed first the population living in the countryside and then those living in the city, protecting them to a certain extent. This they did by building up a wall that circumscribed them in the Jewish quarter in Pest and creating a formal ghetto. In theory the Budapest ghetto was to be more respected than similar arrangements organized in other Nazi-occupied European cities. In theory.

Another important safety center was constituted by the Swiss Consul, Carl Lutz, in the Glass House, originally a glass factory that stood outside and far from the ghetto, closer to the river. Many Jews found shelter there. It also became the main quarters from which the resistance Jewish Youth, with a strong Zionist (and Hashomer) support, organized its courageous underground force. Magda’s brother Iván took a very active role in this resistance. Apart from providing temporary shelter, the Glass House became a factory for forging documents. Many lives were saved. But not Ivan’s own.

Visiting Budapest recently, I set out to find this Glass House. It meant a walk out of the well-trodden tourist paths. I was surprised because the building looked an abandoned warehouse. No monument has been made out of it. The detour was certainly worthwhile when I recognized later that it was there that a great part of the story of this book took place. Reading the images emerging from its pages became a great deal more real.

Here is the photo I took.




At the time, however, it was an astounding building because its bare walls and profusion of glass was seen as the epitome of modernity. This is better captured by this photo from the early 1930s.




The only vestige I could find at this site of its being a monument was this plaque, which I chose to photograph, although I did not know then the names commemorated. Imagine my surprise when browsing through my photo album I now recognize that Iván Dénes, Magda’s heroic but ill-fated brother, is listed on top of the memorial I recorded for my keeps.




The book is often compared to the Anne Frank’s Diary, as both are a child’s vision of the atrocities of the Holocaust. I read Frank’s testimony as a teenager and I cannot therefore venture deeper into a comparison, but two differences jump out immediately. Anne did not survive while Magda did. And Anna’s is a Diary and therefore contemporary to the events recorded, while Magda’s account has the vantage point and possibly distorted vision of a Memory.

Apart from the testimonial value of a period of history that we should not forget, what is most striking about this book is its total absence of sentimentality. This is the result of the very vivid voice of this five – becoming ten – year old narrator.

Little Magda comes across as a very smart, brave, outspoken and lucid child. Adversity awakens anger in her, rather than desperation. She is lucky for this. The former invites to fight and increase the chances of survival, while the latter can easily bring its own demise. It is this affirmed anger that leads her to vote not to commit suicide when the whole family considers this alternative.

The vividness and directness, created by a great deal of dialogue, gives a very agile pace to the reading but it also invites to meditate whether memories five decades old can be so crystal clear and so complete. This is certainly very different from Nabokov’s [b:Speak, Memory|30594|Speak, Memory|Vladimir Nabokov|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1346107008s/30594.jpg|2540547] in which the revived impressions are clothed in a redolent tone more suitable to the genre.

The girl Magda that Dr Denes revives is not a very likeable girl, neither then nor now. At that time her insolence and cheekiness got on peoples' already tightly strung nerves. And now, although her impertinence can be seen as constituting her charm, she also seems to be misplacing and directing her anger too much against those close to her, in particular against her mother Margit. Magda expected all the time an absolutely impeccable behavior from her mother, in particular towards Magda herself. I found this self-centeredness at times very unpleasant and unfair, and made me feel I wanted to hear Margit’s account and her own suffering as well.

It is not surprising then that this is the account of a Psychoanalyst, or that that angry and egotistical child should become such a Therapist.


( )
  KalliopeMuse | Apr 2, 2013 |
Magda was nine when her family went into hiding from the fascist Arrow-Cross. Her father had left them when she was five, and her mother, brother and she lived with her grandparents. Later her aunt and cousin join them. Amidst the chaos of seven people living in a single apartment, Magda always had her older brother, Ivan, to be her rock. When she and her mother fought or she wanted to understand a difficult piece of literature, Ivan was there. Despite their seven year age difference, they were very close. As the situation became increasingly dangerous for the Jews in Budapest, Magda's family was forced into a series of hiding places. On the run and constantly in danger, Magda was often separated from her brother and had to try and understand the world around her without his guidance. After the war Magda and her family had to live as displaced persons, still on the move and trying to find a country to take them in.

In many ways Castles Burning reminds me of [The Diary of Anne Frank]: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood forced into the frightening insecurity of hiding from the Nazis. Precocious and social, the girls share frustrated dreams and both have a difficult relationship with their mother. But whereas Anne is locked in an immobile microcosm, Magda is constantly on the go and interacting with everyone, often at great peril. The book also has elements of [A Lucky Child] by Thomas Buergenthal. It too is about the author's childhood, but written long after the fact, and with the luxury of context and hindsight.

Castles Burning is one of the few childhood memoirs of the Holocaust in Hungary that I have seen. It is important not only for this uniqueness, but also for its vivid language and passionate dialogue. Magda is a girl who confronts the world head on, even as she struggles to make sense of it. Although a bit predictable, I enjoyed cheering for Magda as she made her way in the world. Recommended. ( )
  labfs39 | Oct 18, 2011 |
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This unsparing portrait of a childhood in 1939 Hungary--told in the voice of a brave and unforgettable nine-year-old Jewish girl--is the best sort of memoir, revealing not only a compelling story, but also the bruised yet still bold self which bears the weight of its story in memory (The New York Times Book Review).

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