Recalling "When the Danube Ran Red" in Hungary’s Holocaust

This is a guest post by Vanessa Waltz. Her poem “Anne” was archived at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
When the Danube Ran Red (Syracuse University Press, August 2010; Hardcover, $17.95) recounts with insistent certainty Zsuzsanna Ozsvàth’s time in Hungary before, during, and after the Danube ran red—that is, before, during, and after the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Ozsvàth, presently the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Texas-Dallas, shares in the Acknowledgements section that the impetus from which the book was born comes out of “[he]r obligation to recall the past.” The impetus from which the book’s title was born comes out of the moment in December 1944 when pre-teen Ozsvàth views from her window

“a bunch of children, men, and women standing on the bank of the Danube…bound together by ropes. At least four or five Nyilas [Hungarian National Socialist troops] aimed their guns at them, shooting them into the river, which flowed red like blood… bodies falling into the red foam.”

Red literally colors, then, the moments in the text before, during, and after the moment from which Ozsvàth draws her title. This bit above, which comes near the book’s conclusion, has “bound together” the rest of the book. The author comes from a Hungarian Jewish family, and one which is already feeling the small red ripples of wartime. The book opens in Bèkèscsaba, Hungary, in 1938, with a shared secret between third-grader Zsuzsanna Abonyi and Polish family friend Hanna. The girls are brought together at a birthday party for a mutual friend. At this same party, Hanna tells the former of the “massacre in the marketplace” in her town last year; she witnessed the mass killings of the town’s Jewish men. Within the book, Ozsvàth returns time and again to the reddened pools in which Hanna saw her father and grandfather lying. Consequently, Hanna’s name, and these red pools of blood with which Ozsvàth consistently associates her, comes up again and again in Danube.
When the Danube Ran Red runs, appropriately, from past to present. Less appropriately, such running often takes place in the same paragraph. Ozsvàth instances several moments wherein she mentions a family member in wartime Hungary—and in the next sentence says that her family would never hear from this family member again. Pages later, Ozsvàth, confusingly, brings up remembrances of that same family member. In one instance wherein her young self “just looked at my shoes,” she remembers the year 1944 and 1943 before jumping back to 1944—and all in the same paragraph. To be fair, there is the issue of quibbling with memory in a Holocaust memoir—particularly when those memories rest with a pre-teen some sixty-odd years ago.
There is a similarly insistent and consistent focus on the denial of and the delight still to be found in life in wartime. This is appropriate from a biographical and an authorial point of view. For most of the war, and, indeed, most of the book, the Abonyi family remains somewhat cocooned in the capital. Ozsvàth’s father, Làszló, a well-to-do pharmacist, eventually shuts down his practice and turn to work in a bicycle shop.  Yet he manages to do quite well, and supplies the family with the financial means to keep going to classical music concerts, practicing music with instructors, and reading fine literature and taking tea with friends even as the Nazis close in on the capital. As Ozsvàth remembers it, her parents kept the routine, and even routine luxuries of daily life intact as long as possible for her nanny Erzsi, her older brother Ivan and her. Reading about these same luxuries gratefully offset the images of bloody horror which return with some frequency in Ozsvàth’s tale.
Yet the Abonyis, too, are touched by terror. The Nazis take over ‘Pest, as the capital is referred to, in early 1944, and the family is subjected to the same rules about which they heard so many friends fall victim. They are only allowed outside during certain hours and to certain places, and the yellow star must be present on their overcoats at all times. Làszló alone ventures out during the first months of the Nazi occupation to try to secure arrangements for the family to leave the country. But he is taken to a work camp by the Nyilas in October 1944 before the plans can be fully put into place. Làszló returns to the family a month and a half later; thanks to Erzsi’s help, the four move into a house under the protection of the Vatican. The family remains in the house until early December, when the two Abonyi children are rounded up by the Nyilas and taken to a ghetto. Under Erzsi’s instruction, Ozsvàth herself eventually separates from Ivan and goes to a refugee home for girls under an assumed identity and an assumed Protestant faith. But because Ozsvàth, dangerously, reveals that she is Jewish to one of her housemates, Erzsi takes her to the home of a friend where Ozsvàth recalls that she shakily survived the bombing of Budapest by hiding in a closet and mentally practicing Beethoven. After several days, Erzsi returns to take Ozsvàth to her parents and to Ivan; all three have been hiding in what Ozsvàth remembers as ‘the makeshift “White Cross” hospital’ run by the Nyilas. The book closes with the bombing of the hospital in early 1945 and the Abonyi family’s return to their apartment on Abonyi Street and to a happily sobbing Erzsi.
As mentioned above, I took certain notice of, and issue with, several items in When the Danube Ran Red. Yet also as mentioned above, the book is a Holocaust memoir, and as such, it is also more difficult to take issue with the tricky items available to memory and particularly memory of the grotesque. Aesthetically, I appreciated Ozsvàth’s juxtaposition of the dread and still-delight found in wartime life. While she did at times needlessly attempt a metaphor or two, I would nonetheless recommend the title to readers looking for a Holocaust memoir that commingles Jewish memory with unusual wartime life.
A copy of When the Danube Ran Red was sent to TC Jewfolk by Syracuse University Press for this review.