THE BUDAPEST HOUSE: A Life Rediscovered
Review Oxford Times January 2013
Memories of Conflict
Maggie Hartford talks to a foreign correspondent-turned-author about his new book, which unravels the family history of the wife of an ex-colleague.
My parents, who married on the last day of 1938 after a chance encounter, survived the catastrophes, but thereafter lived under the shadow of the past.
From A Foot in Both Camps.
Marcus Ferrar has no regrets about giving up his globetrotting life as a foreign correspondent for Reuters news agency. “It is a young man’s occupation. It is very strange. It is no sort of life if you want partners and children. "I think there is something perverse about journalists who carry on with it. Wherever you go it has just been destroyed and societies have been pulled apart. It can be depressing.”
Marcus did not ‘carry on with it’, having moved to a management position in Switzerland. He reinvented his career once again when he took early retirement during a restructuring.
He now works from his home in Summertown as a communications consultant and author, having just produced his third book, The Budapest House. His books are all very different. If they have a thread it is that they focus on moral dilemmas and are about “people with difficult histories". This is not surprising, since he grew up in 1950s Britain with a German mother, during an era when boys spent their childhood shouting “kill the Hun” and ‘shooting down’ pretend Messerschmidts.
His second book, A Foot in Both Camps: A German Past For Better And For Worse, describes what it was like to grow up torn between British Wartime heroes and kindly German relatives. “At six, I was taken back to Germany At the time I was reading British comics about evil Germans. That was the beginning of my moral dilemma.”
The book includes an account of his visit to Dresden, bombed to ruins in an unremitting British raid that created a firestorm, killing between 22,700 and 25,000 people, provoking a conflict of loyalty His parents had met at a German language course just before the war, after his mother had been excluded from her college for refusing to join the Nazis. His British father taught modern languages, first in Worcester and later at Radley College, and Marcus found a job at Reuters on the strength of his good German.
In 1971, only a year alter leaving university he was sent to East Berlin, then at the heart of a Cold War drama. He said: “It was a great opportunity The four powers were holding talks on the status of Berlin and the two German states were negotiating a relationship. At a young age, I was covering a top world story."
His flat and office were bugged by the Stasi, the secret police, and he found life grim. There was a livelier atmosphere in his next city Prague, finding its feet again after the 1968 Soviet invasion. “It was the most exhilarating post I had as a correspondent. I learned the language from a dissident academic who had been thrown out of university.” He accompanied one dissident to the border, where they encountered a guard. “He pointed his sub-machine gun at my belly and cocked it."
In Portugal, he faced more ‘hairy moments’ when crowds were protesting against the dictatorship of Caetano. The ‘Carnation Revolution’ was generally peaceful. “But you would be in the middle of a big crowd and firing would start. In my case, the 20 Oxfordshire Limited Edition January 2014 firing was into the air and not aimed at the people, but you only found out afterwards.”
He spent 34 years with Reuters, ending up in Geneva with dual British and Swiss citizenship. He moved to Oxford to be near his parents and now lives in their old house, following the death of his father and his 101-year-old mother’s move into a nursing home opposite.
He says “As a journalist, I never had time to look at things in depth or with a larger focus. At first I found it quite hard – all these books have taken me years to write.” At Reuters, he says, “objectivity was pursued with religious zeal”. Although he was used to analysing political situations, he found it easy to keep his personal feelings to one side.
He met his Slovenian wife Evelina at a communications award ceremony and it was one of her contacts who gave him the theme for his first book, written jointly with aid worker John Corsellis. He had been working with the Friends Ambulance Unit in 1945, in charge of Catholic refugees who fled to Austria from Slovenia, which had been captured by the Red Army.
Marcus said: “The refugees included 12,000 Home Guard soldiers who had been fighting with the Germans. The British authorities put them on a train to Yugoslavia. Within months, they had all been shot by the Communists.” The Red Cross persuaded the military to save the women and children, who told their stories to Mr Corsellis, who had yearned to write a book on the subject ever since.
“He could not write and was advised to find a journalist. I travelled to Argentina, Canada and the US, where many of the survivors had emigrated. They had some heart-rending stories about what they went through. The book, Slovenia 1945: Memories of Death and Survival after World War II, published in 2005, led to an Early Day Motion signed by 62 MPs in the UK Parliament asking the British Government to express regret to Slovenia for forcibly repatriating the surrendered soldiers from Austria to their deaths.
The Slovene version of the book, translated by Evelina, was a bestseller in Slovenia in 2006. “I am rather drawn to these stories about moral dilemmas. These people were collaborating because they wanted to keep the Communists out. Six per cent of the population of Slovenia were slaughtered by the Communists after the end of the war, compared to the British mortalities of 0.2 per cent of the population.
These people were morally compromised but they had their own reasons. And there I was with a German mother and I had a father who had fought the Germans. I found out that one of my uncles had belonged to a Nazi organisation. My relatives were very nice people and I liked visiting them in Germany 'when I was growing up. I wrote these books to get these contradictions out of myself. “These dilemmas are not so common in Britain but they affect millions of people in Eastern Europe.”
His latest book, The Budapest House, unravels the family history of Frances Pinter, the wife of former colleague of Marcus’s. A Hungarian Jew, she grew up in the United States not even knowing she was Jewish. At the age of 13 she found out by accident. Then she realised that half her family was missing because they perished in Auschwitz. Half a million Hungarian Jews were intimated.”
In later life, she became obsessed with finding out more – and with the house in Budapest which she inherited from her grandparents. The book makes clear that ordinary Hungarians, not just the police and Army helped to send the Jews to their fate. Through her story we also learn about the years after the Second World War, when the tenant worked for the Hungarian secret police. “He was a torturer,” said Marcus.
“In the end she did get out of her obsession. I think the book helped her and now she doesn’t care about her house. She has sold it.” An extreme right-wing thread still runs through Hungarian politics, but Marcus believes that the European Union offers hope of a new, more cosmopolitan generation, less interested in the nationalistic antagonisms of the past. “I think my mother was right not to ask too many questions. After war you need to make peace, even if you brush uncomfortable facts under the carpet.”
He has been approached by a publisher to write a book about freedom fighters, and is busy as chairman of the Friends of Summertown Library launching a £400,000 refurbishment appeal. He is also working on his father’s wartime letters from Burma and Nigeria, which he found in a shoebox while clearing the house. “My mother kept them because she didn’t know if he would come back.”
Did the letters provoke questions he wished he had asked while his father was alive? “I think I asked him everything I could. Some of it was a bit close to the bone and the things that I would have thought as being story-worthy, he left out. He was not one to dwell on things.”
Source: Books Oxford Times
Who does not know that the first law of historical writing is the truth? –