by Panni Palasti
reviewed by Paul Smith
Anybody wandering back in time to write a memoir faces the challenge of what to reveal, what to leave out. It’s the way they confront this issue which defines the work as true to character, authentic.
The title of Panni Palasti’s memoir is Budapest Girl” – an immigrant confronts the past. There. Right there on the cover she’s faced it. Inside, in the prologue, she doesn’t back away either. When a stranger asks, ” Why don’t you mention until page 74 that your father was Jewish?” she responds : ‘Why? Maybe because as a child I was afraid of being branded a Jew’. She writes with the same honesty she brought to her work as a journalist .
Panni or Eva as many have known her throughout the years, was born in Budapest in 1933 – the same year Hitler rose to power. Her mother was Catholic, her father Jewish. Match the date and Hitler’s view of Jews and she had ample reason to be afraid.
Even those who were part Jewish could be targets, dismissed by the German word Mischling, (mongrel, cross-breed). Hers though wasn’t a fear which ended with the war. She explains in her memoir how she carried it for decades as a refugee to the United States after the failed Hungarian uprising, and then much later to New Zealand where she settled in Russell.
So questions of identity are the strong undercurrents which run through this memorable and well-crafted memoir. Panni brings to her memoir the best quality of reporting: being there. She does it in deceptively simple style. Apparently random reflections and memories seem to float like icebergs until later in the narrative they coalesce and gather heft as the real drama unfolds.
Bombs fall, she and her family hunker down in bunkers, Nazis take their Jewish neighbours away and then flee from the Red Army. Fear is pervasive, hunger persistent. Through it all Panni remains a youthful witness recalling personal and political dramas. She sees her father being taken for ‘work’ then watches with unspeakable relief when he returns after escaping several times.
Even today she says, she still suffers from recurring nightmares. As the war nears its end she finds a book of poems by French poet Villon and recalls one line which sums up the outsider in her: In my country I am in a faraway land. It speaks to everything she felt about being stuck in the wrong place, about being anywhere but Budapest.
This is a fine memoir by a writer whose poetry, scattered through the text, illuminates this work. It seems at first as if she deals lightly with the slaughter of Jews and Serbs by Hungarian troops and militia at Novi Sad in 1942, referring readers to Wikipedia. But avoiding conventional narrative and seeing it as she does – through the horror of her mother and the resignation of her father – makes the incident more powerful. (Hungarians drove 550 Jews and 292 Serbs onto the frozen River Danube and shelled the ice until it broke up and their victims drowned. Their corpses washed up on the river banks for months afterwards, according to Wikipedia)
Panni’s escape over the border to Austria in 1956 is brilliantly written but is tantalisingly brief – just one gripping page. For all of that though her book is a compelling and haunting remembrance. Now, when this survivor of war and occupation looks forward instead of to the past, she has a message for us: ‘….peace’ she writes, ‘ is only an interval between battles. An aberration, a mere lull, a temporary ceasefire. War stays crouching in the shadows ready to leap’.
* Published by Maitai River Press, 2015.