Author to speak at bookshop about bid to unravel mystery of his mother
PUBLISHED: 08:57 17 May 2019
What did it feel like for Hungarians in 1956 to arrive in England?
Magda Szirtes' advice to her young family was that England was damp and inevitably foggy. The English were taller than us. They wore bowler hats. They were not snappy dressers unless they were upper class and the upper class was not the same as the traditional Hungarian gentry. They were laconic, undemonstrative, but fastidiously polite.
Her son, George Szirtes, aged eight at the time of the Hungarian Uprising, recalls this in writing about his mother's life. She was born in 1924 in Romania to Jewish family. As a young woman with an ambition to become a photographer she travelled to Budapest. During the Second World War, she was captured by the Germans and survived two concentration camps.
She was liberated by the Americans, only to find that every single one of her family had been killed. Returning to Hungary, She married the young man she had been engaged to before the war and had two sons.
She had a weak heart from childhood - but it wasn't that which killed her, not the camps, not the frailty, not childbirth. At 51, she took her own life - and even that in the end came down to bad luck.
George's book opens: "The ambulance was waiting at the junction. She had taken an overdose and time was short. The driver thought he saw a gap, moved forward, then stopped because the gap wasn't big enough. The car behind ran into the back of the ambulance. The ambulance was damaged. Drivers got out and my mother died."
George, a prize-winning author, poet and translater with honourary doctorates to his name, has written about his mother's life backwards, as if to unravel the mystery that was her. He will be speaking about the book, called The Photographer at Sixteen, at Harts Books in Saffron Walden on Tuesday, May 21.
Magda died in 1975, when George was in his 20s. She had told him and his younger brother little about her life. They knew she had been in the camps but she didn't tell them she was Jewish. The fear of what that meant never left her.
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After his mother's death. He began to talk to his father about the wife he had lost.
"He was distraught, I was just asking questions and recording the answers, I got a lot more information, the book was waiting to be written but I didn't know how to do it."
He wrote poems about her, one called The Photographer in Winter. In 2015, George went back to Budapest. "I met a friend who was between trains. We went from coffee shop to coffee shop. We spent hours in the city, it was one of the hottest days in the year. I told him about my mother and he said you have to write 200 pages and I'm giving you six months.
"I still didn't know how but there was a second coincidence, I received an email from Germany sent by someone I had never heard of who had a list of women who had been transferred from Ravensbrück to Penig (concentration camps). He wanted to know if one of the names was my mother's. He invited me to look at his archives and that made the book just about possible."
Few of us can truly imagine our parents' lives before we were born. Hardly anyone in the West today can recreate for themselves the horrors of Europe under the Nazis - or what it was like to live in Hungary at a time of inflation so high that people wanted to be paid in goods rather than cash because money was worth less and less by the hour.
George doesn't dwell on the horrors of the camps. The book tries to unravel his mother's personality and there are some intriguing glimpses of a 1960s childhood.
When his mother was bed-bound after heart surgery in 1967, they had a council-paid-for home help. (A system of free home-helps for people who needed them continued until the 1980s). George was still at school.
"I only met two of them. One was an out of work actor, the other was a singer called David Jones with eyes of different colours. He was later known as David Bowie."
George will be talking about the book (published by MacLehose Press) at Harts bookshop in King Street, Saffron Walden on Tuesday, May 21. 6.30pm. Tickets £3 from 01799 524552 or in-store.