Hungarian refugee Ann Beaglehole recalls Anne Frank, Lenin, Rupert Bear and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
I read The Diary of Anne Frank at the age of 10. In the first entry dated 12 June 1942, Anne wrote: “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope you will be a great support and comfort to me.”
Anne’s diary prompted me to start mine. In its first entry, in November 1959, I wrote: “I want to put down my real feelings and this is the best way. Anne Frank did it. So why shouldn’t I?” Modestly I added: “I don’t expect this diary to make me famous like Anne Frank’s diary made her famous.”
Anne received her diary on her 13th birthday. By June 1942, Jews in Amsterdam had to wear a yellow star, couldn’t go to the movies, ride a bicycle or sit in the garden. The Frank family were about to go into hiding in the “Secret Annex” behind the bookshelf. In August 1944, the Gestapo found their hiding place. Anne died in Bergen Belsen not long before her 16th birthday. Four months earlier, she had written: “I want to go on living even after my death. And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift … of expressing all that is in me.”
My first formative book had been in Hungarian. It was about Lenin. In mid-1950s Hungary, not even a young child was spared a role in the struggle against bourgeois ideology, and in the imposition of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. We children, in the red kerchiefs of Communist youth group the “Little Drummers”, were the building blocks of the new collective mentality.
The picture on the book’s cover was shocking. It showed skinny workers with thick chains around their ankles, pulling a ship along a canal. Uncaring, bourgeois bosses smoked fat cigars as they watched. Comrade Lenin, perched above the smoke, looked kindly. The caption said: “Only a dictatorship of the proletariat will end the suffering of these workers.”
The October 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union made Hungary “free”. Jubilant crowds burnt red flags, replacing them with the Hungarian tricolour, the Communist emblem ripped out. The mob turned on the hated AVO (the secret police). Some were strung up on trees and lampposts. By early November the Hungarian news agency pleaded for help from the West: “Russian troops are attacking Budapest. Please tell the world of the treacherous attack against our struggle for liberty.”
We fled Hungary after the calls for rescue went unanswered and Soviet troops took control. In Austria, I unpacked the small bag I’d been allowed to take on our flight across the border, and the book about Lenin tumbled out. How did it get in the bag? Perhaps my mother had packed it at the last minute as a memento. In the refugee camp at Korneuburg, it was my only book until the aid worker turned up with another – a picture book in German, Rupert Bear. I had just turned eight and Rupert’s quaint escapades on merry-go-rounds and at the seaside bored me. But learning German didn’t, and Rupert helped.
After six months in the camp, I was ready to burst out into German. But the entry permits for New Zealand had arrived. By the end of 1957, we were in Wellington. At first I dug my toes in and wouldn’t switch to English. My worried mother tempted me with books she would begin to read, then stop mid-chapter and leave open for me to pick up and continue. Finally the ruse worked with Little Lord Fauntleroy.
It’s not hard to see why. Cedric (the Little Lord Fauntleroy) and I had a lot in common. We had been forced to leave our countries (in his case America); we had to deal with our mothers’ grief. “We have no one left but each other,” his mother would say to Cedric, just as my mother said to me. Three of my grandparents and numerous relatives had died in concentration camps. My mother was in a state of endless mourning for her beloved father who had disappeared one day, and was killed at Buchenwald. She read to me:
Then, little as he was, he understood that his big, handsome young papa would not come back any more; that he was dead, as he had heard of other people being, although he could not comprehend exactly what strange thing had brought all this sadness about.
Was she crying? Perhaps she held back the tears. Browsing through the pages of the attractive library edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy (by Frances Hodgson Burnett), I admire the colour plates and pen drawings. “An earl is a very important person,” says the caption under one plate. Another, under a drawing of lords and ladies in a portrait gallery, has the almost eight-year-old Cedric saying: “[T]hese are my ancestors” and “I am a very little boy to live in such a large castle.” My mother must have been constantly interrupting her reading to look up all the new words in the dictionary: curtsying, ancient lineage, gout, coronet, footman, American impudence.
The book – on its surface the rags to riches story of a poor boy who goes away to England to become a rich aristocrat – does not hold nobs and their values in high esteem. “Brave” President George Washington, elected by citizens, holds his own against lords and earls created by a sovereign. While new-world values of “Jack as good as his master” are contrasted with old world snobbery, the main value the book endorses isn’t an “ism” but Cedric’s personal qualities: his “affectionate”, “warm- hearted” nature, “his way of making people feel comfortable”, and his ability to relate to people from all walks of life. Surely my mother couldn’t have chosen a more suitable book as an introduction to the “half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise”?
Not long after reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I joined the Zionist youth group Habonim (“the builders”, as in building Israel). We wore blue shirts, planned “making Aliyah” (going up to the land), and were horrified by the story of Alfred Dreyfus, wrongfully imprisoned on Devil’s Island. The story of his victimhood was clear proof of the need for a Jewish homeland. So was the Eichmann trial. In my diary, I report: “Mummy and all the Jews in New Zealand hope that he will be torchered. Just to be executed is not a big enough punishment for him.”
The influence of Habonim drew me to other Jewish books. I went on to devour Exodus (Leon Uris, 1958), the story “of the Jews coming back after centuries of abuse, indignities, torture and murder to carve an oasis in the sand with guts and with blood.” Anne Frank and her family had hidden like hunted animals. In Exodus, tough Ari Ben Canaan (his name means lion son of Canaan) was fighting back at last to make sure Jews had their own country and what the Nazis had done could never happen again.
I was dazzled by Ari. He is no namby-pamby intellectual type like the Jewish boys from Europe I knew, but native born, a Sabra, named after the fruit of a wild cactus in Palestine which is hard on the outside but inside tender and sweet, just like Ari.
Rereading books from childhood can be an unsettling experience. What do these once powerful books mean now? Little Lord Fauntleroy confounded my expectations. Sections of Exodus are gripping, not spoiled by later events in the Middle East. I’m happy to say that rough, rakish Ari still makes my heart race. Rereading The Diary of Anne Frank, the most powerful book of my childhood, I am overwhelmed by the lucidity of Anne’s writing, by her gaiety and optimism, and by her touching faith that “despite everything people are good at heart”.
Did the books have a lasting influence? I’m struck by the person I didn’t become – not a Marxist or a Communist; not quite a Zionist, a “decidedly non-Jewish Jew” (Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet, 2011). I detest marching and chanting with a crowd (even for good causes). Waving a flag, or cheering and booing some public figure, makes my stomach churn. My childhood reading made me a non-believer, wary of causes and ideologies.