The Villa That Saved Lives
Sunday Times, 29 February 2004
I was born in 1952 and for the first four years of my life I lived in my mother’s villa in Budapest. An elegant, airy house nestling amongst the hills on the Buda side of the Danube, she’d had it built during her heyday as a popular chanteuse in the late Thirties. It had a big garden with chestnut trees planted by my grandfather, and a roof terrace with a mosaic-tiled floor where my brother and I rode our tricycles and played with our dachshund, Doki. In my memories of that time, it’s always sunny.
Ours was a bustling household. Besides my parents, brother and me, it included my maternal grandparents and our housekeeper, Juszti. I was incredibly pampered. At the age of two I would sit in my high chair like a queen and loftily wave aside the various dishes specially prepared for me by Juszti and my grandmother. Meanwhile the rest of Hungary, crushed by Soviet domination, was an image of Cold War bleakness and austerity. A curious juxtaposition.
The villa was filled with antiques – carved oak furniture, Turkish carpets and oil paintings – but the centrepiece was my mother’s baby grand, in front of the living room window. There, overlooking the garden, she would accompany herself as she sang the bittersweet chansons which had brought her fame – although by the time my brother and I were born her career had been effectively curtailed, as she was no friend of the Communist Party.
After Stalin died in 1953 Hungary edged inexorably towards revolution. When it finally broke out in 1956 it was bloody and short-lived. As the corpses piled up in the streets of Budapest and the nation lost hope, my parents made plans to flee.
That winter, along with nearly a quarter-million other Hungarians, we escaped via Austria. We took only two small suitcases and the secret cache of seventy dollars which had lain hidden in the old rabbit hutch in our garden – the remnants of my mother’s earnings from years earlier. Not much with which to start a new life in the West.
It was a long time before I saw the villa in Buda again. In 1980, now a journalist based in London, married and with a son almost the same age I was when my family left Hungary, I returned to the city of my birth. I went to research my first book, a rediscovery of my roots, to be published on the Revolution’s 25th anniversary.
I stayed in my mother’s house and she joined me there from her home in Germany. My grandparents were dead but the house was occupied by relatives, and amazingly the aged Juszti was still there. Still owned by my mother, the place was a continuous drain on my long-suffering father’s finances, as he had to send remittances every time the roof leaked or a wall needed re-plastering. He urged my mother to sell it, but she clung to this symbol of her starry past.
The moment I stepped inside it again I was captured by its spell. In the silent half-light it seemed as if time had spun a web over everything – the baby grand, carved oak bookshelves and faded carpets. Unaltered, it was almost like a shrine.
It was during this month-long sojourn that I learned of the extraordinary events which had taken place in the house in the decade before my birth. My mother had never spoken to me about her life during the Second World War, but now as I probed into every corner of our family background, the story gradually tumbled out…
When the Nazis occupied Hungary in March 1944 the round-up of Jews began at almost once. My mother was Christian but had many Jewish friends; some of them asked her for help. Over the following weeks she took in five Jewish fugitives, clandestinely sheltering them in her home. They slept in the basement and never went outside. As a precaution, my mother had a secret compartment built into the large wardrobe in her bedroom – a hiding place in case the house was raided by the Gestapo. The penalty for sheltering a Jew was summary execution.
The fugitives were there for eight months. Then my mother was inadvertently betrayed and the feared raid came. Although the Jews remained undetected inside the compartment (and all survived the war), she was arrested and interrogated. After a fortnight, without proof, they let her go.
But her ordeal was not over. When the Red Army routed the Germans and the tables were turned, a group of newly-empowered communists accused my mother of having collaborated with the Nazis. Unable to prove that the very opposite was true, they sentenced her to death. Her life was saved at the eleventh hour by the Russian colonel who had been briefly billeted at her house, and with whom she’d had a steamy affair.
As stories go, nothing concocted in Hollywood could match it and it became the subject of my second book, Deadly Carousel. If my mother was the book’s heroine, the house which had witnessed so much turbulent history was no less prominent a ‘character’ in it.
Some time after its publication in 1990, my mother was honoured by Israel as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ and we went to Jerusalem together to attend the ceremony. It was a high point in both our lives.
By then she had, finally, sold the house in Buda. It was bought by the parents of the Hungarian tennis champion Andrea Temesvari, who ruined the original Bauhaus style by plonking an ugly new roof on it, before selling it on to the Colombian government to be used as their embassy. Now it’s changed hands again.
Whenever I visit Budapest I go to peer at it for a moment from the front gate. The house looks very different and I’ve no idea who lives in it, but my grandfather’s chestnut trees are still going strong – they tower over the house now. Somehow I find that reassuring.