By Peter Lantos
(Arcadia, £11.99; 246pp)
The Independent – book review
As a child of five, in Hungary of 1944, Peter Lantos saw his mother sewing a large yellow Star of David on one of his father’s jackets. She explained to her son it was compulsory for Jews, in order that they could be clearly identified. On being told that children under the age of six did not have to wear it, he said firmly that he wanted one too.
Until that year his family had lived peacefully in a provincial town where his grandfather ran a timber yard. But with the Nazi occupation of Hungary, the machinery of the final solution swung into action. Jews were first excluded from public life, then forced to move into a ghetto, from there to be herded onto cattle trucks for the camps. Peter and his parents were put on a train to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration rather than an extermination camp. Had they been put on a train to Auschwitz, as a child of five he would have been sent immediately to the gas chamber.
It is difficult to take in the enormity of the worst European atrocity of last century, which is why focusing on one person’s experience brings it home more fully. Particularly so when that person is an innocent child for whom the terrible experience was also an adventure. From a comfortable middle-class home, young Peter was aware first of the privations of daily life in the ghetto, the discomfort of not having enough water to wash, not having a change of clothes and being forced to eat unpalatable food. Then he was immersed in the full horror of Belsen where the inmates were dying of starvation, typhoid and dysentery.
Peter’s father died there but his mother, a strong and resourceful woman, got herself and her son onto a train out of Belsen. They were rescued by the Americans, handed over to the Red Army and escaped again, hiding on a goods train to Prague. Back home in Hungary, the communists came to power and their family business was expropriated for the second time within five years, this time for the crime of being class aliens. In 1968, Lantos was awarded a research fellowship from the Wellcome Trust to work at the Middlesex Hospital and managed, with difficulty, to get an exit visa. He did not visit Hungary again until 1989.
Lantos, recently retired from a Chair at the Institute of Psychiatry, weaves into the memoir his present day pilgrimage to relive the past as seen through the present. He even tracked down the American tank commander, George Gross, who had intercepted the train from Belsen. Gross remembered the prisoners, some of them hardly able to stand, introducing themselves with great dignity by name and birthplace to the American soldiers, as if to reassert their individuality.
That is the most heartening part of this movingly narrated memoir – the regenerative spirit shown by the survivors.