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The Winds of War Blow Down the Children : BATTLEFIELDS AND PLAYGROUNDS, By Janos Nyiri (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $25; 536 pp.)

November 19, 1995|RICHARD EDER

A Hungarian left his wife, giving her next to no money, so while she struggled to make a living in Budapest she sent her little son, Joszef, to stay with his grandfather, a wine-grower in the town of Usza. A couple of years passed, the child relates, "and then, luckily, the war broke out. I could go home."

The "luckily," is a key to one of the themes in Janos Nyiri's book about Hungary in World War II: the frail mantle that childhood draws about itself in the world's storms. Joszef and his family were Jewish, and the war that sent him "home" would annihilate a vast number of Hungarian Jews, though not in the near-total proportions of Germany and Poland. It would send his father to a labor camp, destroy most of his grandfather's family, and drive him, his mother and older brother from the ever-more-dangerous capital to take refuge, under a fake Gentile identity, in the countryside.

"Battlefields and Playgrounds" has a fictional form but a strong factual and autobiographical substance. The author, who left Hungary in 1956, spent a wartime childhood there; notes at the end link incidents in the book to the events of the time. The mixture is awkward--Nyiri's fiction is jarred by the pressure of his facts. Our sense of Joszef as a child--a half-feral one, to be sure--is distorted by the urgency of the author, well into middle age, to tell a story through him.

Most, though not all, of the other characters appear to us by what they do and say rather than by what they are. It is closer to a chronicler's achievement than to the fine novelist's art found in Louis Begley's autobiographical fiction, "Wartime Lies," in which another Jewish child survives wartime Poland by passing as a Gentile.

As a chronicle, though, and at times as an eloquent polemic, "Battlefields" is in many ways remarkable. Using Joszef as embattled witness and protagonist (he must have teethed in the womb; even at age 5 he insults the village rabbi, and he remains on high boil all the way through), Nyiri tells a Holocaust story in its complex Hungarian specifics.

Under the rule of Admiral Horthy, right-wing regent of a kingless country, Hungary's public life in the 1920s, '30s and into the beginning of the war was considerably though not exclusively marked by social and official anti-Semitism. There were occasional violent outbreaks at the hands of extremist groups, but by and large the atmosphere was one of oppressive toleration. There were legal restrictions--the number of Jews in the professions was limited, and Jews could play professional soccer only in the minor leagues--but also legal protections. Many politicians and churchmen spoke of a Jewish "problem" but not of physical elimination as its solution.

Horthy's entry into the war on the Axis side increased the pressure, but it was only after Germany invaded, partway through the war, that arrests and deportations began, mainly in the countryside. Horthy objected ineffectually both to the invasion and the deportations, but it was only after the Russians advanced to the Hungarian border that he took a stand by surrendering (this may seem like a Central European joke but isn't). Almost immediately, the armed extreme right, backed by the Germans, organized a coup and the killings and deportations continued.

This is the background and setting--horror with some nuances--against which Joszef's story is set. One of Nyiri's achievements is to chart the growth of anti-Semitism from chauvinistic prejudice, not that much different, perhaps, from other kinds of chauvinism, into a unique bestiality. At 5, Joszef and his village friends would be stoned by Christian children, but the stones were small and an hour later they would all be playing soccer. The village blacksmith would complain about Joszef's grandfather as a money-grubber, but he drank with him and slapped his own son silly when he spoke against the Jews.

Living with his mother and older brother later in a cramped Budapest flat, Joszef practices as soccer goalie with the Gentile gang in the courtyard. The leader tells him that he doesn't mind working-class Jews, it's the "bloodsuckers" he can't stand. When Joszef asks if he knows what a bloodsucker is, the other confesses that he doesn't.

At school he and the other Jewish boys are denounced as scum and traitors by the pro-Germans among their classmates--not all are--but they give as good as they get, cheering word of British and Russian victories. Their teacher, an ardent patriot and idealist, eloquently defends the Jews as entitled to full rights. He humiliates one vocal pro-German student by telling him that Hungary's conduct is such that its citizens will be hated throughout the world for years to come.

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