“I am fifteen and I do not want to die”

iamfifteen

Saturday 9 March 2013

There was absolutely nothing to watch last night, on TV, so I started reading one of the books I purchased at the yearly book sale, that started 26th February. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but it had me busy for a while last night and then I finished it this morning, while I had a “baby” cuddling up beside me in bed. I must say that I was a little impressed by it. Of course the diaries that this girl wrote in the last war months of 1945, must have got edited by her or someone else, before it’s publication in 1955, but all the same, she made astute observations and I would say that a book like this, ought to be read in schools, when studying WWII, and be discussed in the classrooms. It’s important for youths to understand that while wars usually are fought by men, the ones that really get to suffer, are women, children and the old. That the soldiers shoot and bomb but most of the time, it is the civilians that end up the targets.

This book is set in Budapest, Hungary in the last months of WWII when the German occupation force hung on to their conquests, even though they were clearly loosing, and the Russian army was standing on their doorstep. The diary reads more like a novel, than a diary, since there are no dates and no sense of time really. There is no explanation to how it was written, originally. But in the few pages that it contains, about 150, it clearly show the horrors that civilians have to go through, when the front has suddenly become their house! One can easily understand what it would have been like to live in the coastal villages of Normandy or the towns in Holland, during operation Market Garden. One hears of all refugees that prevented the soldiers from getting to the front in 1940 France, because they filled the roads with themselves, animals and carriages. This is a story of a house full of people, that did not take to the roads but gathered in the cellar, for protection from the falling bombs. No light available, hardly any food or water and the Germans setting up ammunition trains, bazookas etc, on the street and in the house. None of the people thought they would survive since they became a target, thanks to the Germans.

The living conditions being so appalling and there not being any light, some people having more than the others, caused people to show their true personalities. They really were a very diverse bunch. There was a mother with a six month old baby, that was not breast-feeding, so there was a constant struggle to try to keep the baby alive. The father having abandoned the little family, as well. The medical student. The district attorney who could not believe that he and his wife had to resort to this sort of life, when she was a Swiss citizen. The widow of a bankman, who carried all her jewelry around her neck, in a bag. A Hungarian soldier whose unit had just been dissolved. A Jew that the people in the house had been hiding from the Germans, for a long time.

Throughout the book we get to feel the dampness in the cellar, the hunger, the frustration of not knowing what is happening, the fear. The soldier, Pista, is their saviour since he finds food, he goes to fetch things in bombed flats above, he seems to be like a fairy godmother, till the day that he suddenly dies on the way back with a wedding veil for a bride, that has just got married in the basement, and some cans of condensed milk for the baby. We get to read about how cruel and selfish some people get, and how some still have a heart. The most touching episode in the book is after Pista, the soldier, has taken everyone to the town’s bath house, to fetch water. Everyone had to go so that they could get maximum of water back. The author had a difficult time with the task and they all got so scared going back to the house with the buckets, that they ran. When she got back, instead of going down with the others to the cellar, with her two half full buckets, she walked over to the three horses that the Germans kept in the stairwell of the house. The Germans did not feed them or give them water to drink, so the horses had resorted to eat the wood railing, with the result that they were bleeding out of their mouths. She walked between the three horses and let the three of them drink all her water. They looked at her with grateful eyes and she writes how the horses were crying!

The most upsetting episode in the book was, when the family went to the villa they were supposed to have stayed in, during the wait for the Russians. They had brought all their provisions there, everything valuable. When they got to the villa, to fetch food and other things, they discovered that so-called friends of theirs had occupied the house. They entered right when the people were sitting down to dinner by a table, covered with a white table-cloth and enormous amounts of food. The “friends” had behaved like gluttonous pigs throughout the final battle and had not suffered a bit. All the food having belonged to the author’s family, of course. When the mother, of this bunch, said that they used the author’s family’s linen to sleep in and so forth, to save their own from wear, I really felt disgusted! The family returned to the cellar with hardly any food at all, but shared with everyone else of the little that their “friends” had not already consumed.

They were all waiting for the Russians as their liberators. I of course wondered if the Russians would be so nice as expected or rape as they did on their way to Berlin. I soon had my answer. They raped the young mother of the baby. And they would have raped the author as well, had she not been dressed like a boy and had short hair, thanks to her hair catching fire when she tried to read the book, that Pista had retrieved from her family’s flat. The Jew that had hidden with the flats’ inhabitants, had put on his yellow star as soon as the Russians arrived, only to get shot by them over a minor offence. It could have been a shocking thing to read about the Russian behaviour, had I not had a lot of prior knowledge of their “winning-team-behaviour”.

The last chapters are actually about how three years after the occupation, the family decided to flee Hungary and the political persecutions there. They were smuggled across the border to Austria and took a train to Vienna. This is where I have a problem with the book. The guide that took them across the border, had done so many times before. He received payment, but also sold currency to the refugees, so that they could survive two months in Vienna. When the little family of three, arrived on the train, to Vienna, on tickets bought by the guide, they went in to a café where they ordered coffee and something to eat. When they pulled their money out to pay, the waiter told them that the money they had in their hands, ceased to exist, a year earlier. The mother paid their bill with her diamond ring and that is where the book ends. The author had ten years to write an epilogue! You don’t end a book like that! You need to tell how they sorted out the money situation. How long they stayed in Vienna before they left for Paris. I missed the personal touch of an introduction or an epilogue. If the author could not do it, why didn’t the publishers write something together? As it is now, the book is incomplete. If one is going to spend the money on publishing a book, which is not cheap, why not do a proper job? Very sad!

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