Susan Varga’s biography-cum-memoir, Heddy and me, was first published back in 1994, so why am I reading it now? By a rather circuitous route, as it happens. Lesley Lebkowicz, whose The Petrov poems I’ve reviewed, read my post on Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and suggested to Susan Varga that she might like to send me her book to review. Varga apparently liked the idea and consequently I received an email from her personal assistant offering it to me. I had heard of it, and am interested in the subject matter, so I said yes. That was, embarrassingly, over four months ago, for which I apologise, but eventually its time came and here, finally, is my review.
I’ll start with the judges’ comment when they chose the book to win the 1994 Christina Stead Award for Biography, Autobiography or Memoir*. They described it as “the front rank of autobiographical writing in this country”. That’s a big call but, having read it, I agree, because it is an engrossing book which intelligently negotiates two usually opposing forms, biography and autobiography/memoir. In it, Varga tells the story of her Hungarian Jewish mother Heddy – her life in Hungary, her experience of World War 2, and her subsequent emigration with her extended family to Australia. But, in telling this story, Varga, as the title conveys, also tells her own. She was born, mid-war, in 1943 and was just 5 when the family migrated. Hers was a complicated growing up in which she struggled to find self. She finally realised, late in her research, that she straddles two generations: the first (those who migrated) and the second (the children of those migrants).
Now, I can see why Lebkowicz thought I might be interested in this book, because both books involve a daughter not only telling the Holocaust-survival-and-migration story of a mother, but also working through her understanding of and relationship with that mother. Like Blay after her, Varga captured much of her mother’s story via tape recorder:
… the room itself is imposing, with its long oak table and chairs covered in embossed velvet. Imposing but not unfriendly, which is very much Mother’s style.
I switch on the tape-recorder. She talks, I listen. She [unlike Blay’s mother] doesn’t need much prompting; she’s telling me her life story, which she knows will be raw material for a book. In the past when people have said to her, ‘Heddy, you should tell your life story,’ she has said, ‘I’m waiting for Susan.’
I’ve told her it won’t be her life story, not properly. It will be filtered through my reactions and thoughts, my second generation eyes.
And Varga’s eyes are complicated, sometimes testy ones, as she strives to comprehend her strong-willed mother. So, like Blay’s book, Heddy and me is an amalgam of biography and autobiography, thereby neatly sidestepping David Marr’s injunction for biographers to get out of their story! Like Blay’s book, too, Heddy and me is a story of survival – of a peculiar combination of luck, resourcefulness and judgment – and it’s a story of the lasting impacts of the war. For both families, one of those impacts is an ongoing sense of fear:
… the fear of impermanence, the readiness to flee, takes the form, among others, of a deep conservatism running through the older generation, as if any change at all could result in their lives being uprooted again. They are over-protective, still prone to buy their children a diamond, something portable, just in case.
And we children feel a pervasive fear that we do not know how to express. Impermanence and insecurity lurk in the shadows behind this all-Australian red-brick security.
I found this analysis, this explanation of conservatism, enlightening – and helpful.
However, despite similarities with Blay’s book, Varga’s is different. For a start there are the obvious departures. Varga’s family is Hungarian to Blay’s Polish one, and Varga’s mother was married with a young child when the war started while Blay’s mother was still a teenager. Moreover, Varga’s mother managed to avoid, through various subterfuges, being sent to a concentration camp. She didn’t suffer the ghetto and concentration camp terrors and depredations of Blay’s mother, but Heddy and her colourful mother Kató, whose story is also told here, did suffer, including being raped multiple times by their Russian liberators. There are deeper differences too, speaking to the different psychologies of the two families, their individual wartime experiences, and how these subsequently played out in their post-war lives. And there’s the structure. Varga interweaves her own story and her reactions to her mother’s story within the one narrative flow, while Blay carefully differentiates her voice from her mother’s and aunt’s.
A particularly fascinating part of Varga’s book is the picture she paints of Hungarian society before, during and after the war. I learnt a lot, for example, about Budapest – its vibrant pre-war culture and life, albeit a life that, for its Jewish inhabitants, had its paradoxes. They lived, writes Varga, an outwardly normal life, “clinging to continuity while awaiting upheaval”. Varga chronicles the trajectory of anti-Semitism, from pre-war to the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation in which Hungary’s Jews found themselves post-war, when Nazism was replaced by Communism. Indeed, having survived the war, Heddy, Kató and family were prepared to stay in Budapest until it became clear to Heddy “that the noose was tightening again, like Hitler, except then it was against the Jews, now against everyone.” So, Heddy, ever attuned it seems to the political nuances around her, worked on her family until they agreed to move to “the New World”. Later, as part of research for her book, Varga returns to Hungary with her mother, and becomes aware of the increasing (or, really, continuing) anti-Semitism:
As I begin to grasp the subtleties of political life in the post-Communist world, I find it awful that the Jews should once again need friends and protectors, I think of 1943, when Hungary’s Jews still thought themselves safe because Kállay, or some other prominent politician, was their friend.
Once again, I am astonished, though I suppose by now I shouldn’t be, at how deeply anti-Semitism seems to run, particularly in Europe.
And here, I’m going to insert some personal connections with Varga’s story. I mentioned in my review of Sister, sister that I’d spent some time in my Sydney youth with Jewish people – eastern European Jews – who were business friends of my father’s. Blay’s and now Varga’s books consequently ring true for me, Varga’s particularly, because her parents did exactly what many of these people did – they set up business in the rag trade, and then handbags. I still have some handbags to prove it! But, my connections with Varga are more than this, because I went to the same high school she did, albeit a decade later. Unfortunately, Varga’s experience was not as positive as mine, partly due to her increasing sense of disconnection with her family and partly to the fact that by my time in the mid-to-late 1960s society was becoming less rigid (even in strict government girls’ schools). It was at that school that my understanding of civil rights – particularly, then, relating to racism and anti-Semitism – was honed. This is rather ironic given Varga found it “a school of endless strictures and platitudes”.
Anyhow, enough about me, and back to the book. Heddy and me was, I suspect, groundbreaking when it was first published, not so much for its portrayal of personal experience of the Holocaust, because such stories started appearing soon after the war, but for Varga’s intensely personal exploration of women’s experience and identity across three generations, before, during and after the war. Since then, similar stories have been written – Blay’s, for example, and another I’ve reviewed, Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. However, these later books don’t minimise the power of Heddy and me, which not only illuminates the personal and familial costs of the Holocaust, but also provides an historical perspective on that mysterious thing we call human behaviour. This book deserves a continued life.
(Source: Susan Varga)
* Unfortunately FAW’s awards website only goes back to 1999. This comment is on the front cover of my edition, and is credited to “Christina Stead Award”.