The May Beetles by Baba Schwartz

One of the most moving memoirs I’ve read.

The May Beetles by Baba Schwartz

‘The Germans are taking over Hungary!’

In this memoir, Baba Shwartz writes of the first twenty years of her life.  She was born in Nyirbator, a small town in eastern Hungary in 1927, and enjoyed a happy childhood.  She writes of a town, of around 12,000 people, where the Christian and the Jewish families lived in harmony, each respecting the others customs and traditions.  But life changed, when her family and the other Jewish families in the town were transported to the ghettoes and then to the death camps.  Her family was transported to Auschwitz, where her father Gyula perished.  Baba, her two sisters Erna and Marta and their mother Boeske survived.

This is recounting of the past, both good and bad, of specific wonderful moments from childhood, of  an encounter with Josef Mengele:

‘A tall, handsome German officer standing opposite the newly arrived Jews gestured with a wave of his hand which of two lines each of us was to join.  What it meant if you were assigned to this line or that, we didn’t know.’

Boeske’s strength in keeping her family together, in looking out for others, comes across in this memoir.  Baba writes of how, having survived Auschwitz, they were transported to several other camps as slave labour.  They were eventually liberated by the advancing Russian army.

This is a memoir of the first twenty years of Baba Schwartz’s life, of which her Holocaust experiences are part.  The contrast between her life before the war and her experiences during it make those experiences more harrowing.   Baba’s family lost seventeen members, including her father and grandfather. And, as Baba Shwartz writes:

‘- that our lives were just like their lives, that our thoughts and feelings were just like theirs.  That we weren’t another breed; only the times were different.’

Unfortunately, we still need this reminder today.  Perhaps especially today, as the number of living witnesses to the Holocaust continues to decrease.  Baba Schwartz herself will be 90 this year.

After a short stay in Israel after the war, Baba Shwartz, her husband  Andor  and their sons emigrated to Australia in 1958.

I found this memoir both difficult and uplifting to read.  Difficult because of the reminders of inhumanity, the dislocation and loss of lives, while uplifting because of the reminders of humanity.  Baba Schwartz wrote a version of this memoir during the 1990s: I am grateful that she published it.

‘Even at Auschwitz, we wished to sing.  Human beings can feel pain and hunger and terrible fear, but we must also give vent to our feelings of joy.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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