Parallel Lines, by Peter Lantos

Movingly told memories of a Hungarian childhood shattered at Belsen
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The Independent Culture

As a child of five, in the Hungary of 1944, Peter Lantos saw his mother sewing a large yellow Star of David on his father's jacket. She explained that it was compulsory for Jews, in order that they could be clearly identified. Told that children under 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 on to 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 gone to Auschwitz, he would have been sent immediately to the gas chamber.

It is difficult to take in the enormity of the worst European atrocity of the last century, which is why one person's experience brings it home more fully - particularly when that person is a child for whom the terrible experience was also an adventure. From a comfortable home, young Peter was aware first of the severe privations of daily life in the ghetto, and then immersed in the full horror of Belsen, where inmates were dying of starvation, typhoid and dysentery.

Peter's father died but his mother, a strong and resourceful woman, got herself and her son on to a train out of Belsen. They were rescued by the Americans, handed to the Red Army, and then 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. In 1968, Lantos was awarded a research fellowship 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 this memoir his pilgrimage to relive the past. He even tracked down the American tank commander, George Gross, who had intercepted the train from Belsen. Gross remembered the prisoners, some hardly able to stand, introducing themselves with great dignity by name and birthplace, as if to reassert their individuality. That is the most heartening part of this movingly narrated memoir: the regenerative spirit shown by the survivors.