If the story of Magda Denes’ childhood were a work of fiction, its author would seem sadistic. The heroine’s loss of innocence begins at age 5, when she is abandoned by her father. By the time she reaches adolescence, she has lost almost everything and everyone she holds dear to war--to the insanity and stupidity of adults. Who could inflict so much misery on the head of one little girl?
History was the cruel author of Denes’ fate but not of her story, which, through the power of art, becomes redemptive, if hellish. The writer is Magda Denes herself, recalling the wartime experiences of her idiosyncratic Hungarian Jewish family from the point of view of the girl she was--willful, smart, angrily precocious. This canny, unsentimental perspective makes her World War II memoir, “Castles Burning,” powerful and surprising--and makes the author’s death in New York last week of an apparent heart attack at age 62, just before the publication of her book, especially sad.
The author’s voice is distinctly Eastern European; her poetic romanticism, brutally tempered by life, often emerges as blunt cynicism or sly irony. When she writes about her family’s prewar circumstances, for example, she describes a luxurious life filled with servants (“we were obviously, hopelessly, outnumbered by the proletariat”) but forever short of cash because of her editor-father’s spendthrift ways. “F. Scott Fitzgerald was expensive to emulate, particularly if one lacked his talent,” she writes dryly. In 1939, when Denes was 5, her father, who had published anti-Nazi articles, sold his family’s huge apartment and moved his wife and two children into his in-laws’ tiny one and left them to their fate.
He was off to America, equipped with a first-class ticket, 45 shirts and 12 suits. Denes never forgave him for leaving--and in such grand style, no less--while his family remained behind, destitute. A wonderful grudge-holder, she lets no one off the hook: not the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators, not her father, not even her mother, who didn’t always tend to her daughter’s feelings as their world came crashing down around them.
Only her older brother, Ivan, whom she adored, retains her unalloyed admiration, perhaps because he didn’t grow old enough to disappoint her. Kind and encouraging before the war, he became a hero once the war began, routinely courting danger to help other Jews escape--and to visit his non-Jewish girlfriend in a section of Budapest off limits to Jews. His death eclipses all the other misery Denes endures and only reinforces her suspicion that goodness prevails only in the fairy tales her brother told her.
She took the evocative title for her memoir from these stories, which, in Hungarian, always began like this: “Once there was / where there wasn’t / there was once a Castle / that twirled on the foot of a duck.” In these stories, virtue was always rewarded, the wicked were punished. “Over the years of these whispered fables, I realized that my brother loved to tell them as much as I loved to listen to him,” Denes writes. “I also realized, with a thorn, that as the years passed I believed the substance of these stories less and less. And then, less yet.” Indeed, the stunning effect of “Castles Burning” lies in the child Magda’s passionate fury at losing paradise much, much too young.
The book covers about seven years: from 1939, when Denes is a privileged upper-middle-class 5-year-old and her father leaves, to 1946, when she is a 12-year-old refugee. In between the family hides from the Nazis, moving again and again, constantly afraid of betrayal on one hand, starvation on the other. These terrifying war adventures hold intrinsic interest and terror, but what makes this account especially memorable is Denes’ cool assessment of how people coped in the grim shadowy world of wartime Budapest--and how they behaved toward her, usually badly. She grudgingly acknowledges that the adults are suffering, too, but her sympathy for them is limited. As do many children, she has firm ideas about right and wrong, strong and weak, and none of the grown-ups manages to conform.
Young Magda’s fortitude stems from her self-absorption and her sharp wit, her ability to see absurdity in the behavior of the oppressor and the oppressed. No surprise, perhaps, that she would grow up to become a psychoanalyst as well as an author (she also wrote another book: “In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital”).
Most fascinating and touching is Denes’ account of life after the war, when the desperately yearned-for “normalcy” fails to appear. The immediate danger is gone, but so is the world she has known. “In the eyes of a hypothetical stranger, our lives would have seemed almost nominal. Mother went back to work for Pista Papp. Rozsi worked for Garbowitcs. Grandmother cooked. I pretended to be a child. There were paydays and Sundays and Mondays. But below this visible world a deep rot ate away at everything we were.”
“Castles Burning” is suitably part of an ever-growing body of Holocaust literature that speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. Near the end of her book, en route to Cuba, she finds herself in an outdoor market in the Spanish port of Bilboa:
“The colors of the market were unbelievably beautiful,” she writes. “Yellow bananas, and yellow lemons tinged with green, and greener limes, and deep green spinach and lettuce in rainbow greens. Red tomatoes, purple eggplants, pale gray mushrooms. The palette of God was more various and cheering than any painter’s work.”
But she also realizes that pure “uplift” is not available to her. She’s seen too much. And so she continues: “Oh God. One of these days I would really make him mad. Sir, the previous ‘Oh God’ was a matter of habitual exclamation, not an address. Please. Thank you. Where did I stand on this issue anyway? Did I have to resolve this in a Spanish market, after a long journey?”
This sly internal philosophical debate in a Spanish market may sum up the essence of this memoir about survival and one woman’s uncompromising attempt to reconcile the world’s beauty with its cruelty.