A path through a moral maze

Chasing Shadows
January 26, 2001

Berehovo, a small town in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, has in turn been part of the Habsburg empire, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany and the Soviet Union. Its population was correspondingly mixed and always included a sizeable Jewish component, about half the total in the inter-war Czech period of the town. The many schools in Berehovo corresponded to the variety of languages - Hungarian, Ruthenian and Czech. Only in the Jewish elementary school was Czech the language of instruction. In the Czechoslovak republic, it was mainly the Jews who were Czechoslovaks, otherwise most were Czechs, Slovaks, Germans or Hungarians. Unusually, in the Jewish school modern Hebrew was also taught.

It was here that Hugo Gryn, later rabbi at a progressive congregation in London and outstanding panellist on the BBC's Moral Maze radio programme, was born in l930. His book is a blend of autobiography and history - the former is that of Gryn and the latter that of Berehovo. The whole was assembled by Naomi Gryn, Hugo's daughter, who also contributes an introduction.

This explains the background to the book. Naomi Gryn was herself the producer of a film about her father's return to Berehovo after the war. The aim, she writes, was to get away from stereotypes, from "seeing the same monochrome images of mounds of rotting corpses being shovelled into mass graves, of the emaciated survivors of the Nazi death camps, naked or dressed in filthy rags, exhausted by sickness, starvation and incomprehensible suffering". These images have become cliches, are worn out. The response is therefore indifference, sometimes verging on the pornographic, she concluded. An incomparably more rewarding task would be to show what the Holocaust destroyed.

This book serves the same purpose as the film. It is Gryn's evocation of life in Berehovo in the 1930s and early 1940s and is a truly remarkable recall of past time. Only in the last few pages does the book lapse into sentimentality and verbiage, with calls for "a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference".

Overwhelmingly though, Gryn's account is sober and factual and makes a convincing re-creation of life in a threatened Jewish community as experienced by a young boy. The Gryns were a prosperous family. The father owned a share in a timber business. They lived in a capacious house, with furniture made to order, and with an orchard and vineyard attached. The recollection here is truly idyllic - of a warm, prosperous, extended family life, composed of innumerable aunts, cousins, grandparents, great-aunts and so on - a life suffused with unobtrusive piety and punctuated by festivals and the remembrance of teachers, rabbis, eccentric relatives, bookshops, school friends, visits from touring troupes of Yiddish actors and the boarding school in Debrecen. The Yiddish classics in a Hungarian translation were the young Gryn's favourite reading.

In the autumn of l938, in the aftermath of the Munich agreement, the future loomed dark in the shape of the Hungarian occupation of this part of Carpathia. Prominent Jews put on the uniforms they had worn long ago as officers in the Austro-Hungarian army. The rabbi of Berehovo, Solomon Hirsch, sported the medals he had earned as a chaplain in the army of Emperor Franz Josef.

This was no defence against the "Jew laws" that the Hungarian fascists brought with them: a numerus clausus in education, the professions and the ownership of certain types of land, and all sorts of bureaucratic harassment and intimidation. But, the Jews of Berehovo reasoned, if their co-religionists in Hungary had managed to work out some sort of modus vivendi with the "Jew laws", then so could they. The growing awareness that in Berehovo this would not be the case ends the idyll and takes the 13-year-old boy to the very entrance to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Hugo Gryn and his parents survived deportation, but countless other relatives and friends were killed by the Germans and their henchmen.

The bulk of this book recapitulates the particularly tragic past of a 13-year-old recollected in the years of maturity. Apart from the sheer historical and documentary value of the work, it is a remarkable achievement to show, without artifice or embellishment, how the world was experienced by one's own self decades earlier. This extends to the boy's part in the killing of a more than usually sadistic camp guard from the Ukrainian SS.

The sense of veracity is all the more telling because Gryn does not palliate the calmness and even optimism with which the family initially anticipated life under Hungarian rule. The "shadows" of the title are remarkably substantial, human and moving.

Lionel Kochan is a member of Wolfson College, Oxford.

Chasing Shadows

Author - Hugo Gryn with Naomi Gryn
ISBN - 0 670 88793 5
Publisher - Viking
Price - £16.99
Pages - 265

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