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The Skin of Water
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message 1: by G.S. (last edited Oct 12, 2012 09:08PM) (new)

G.S. Johnston (gsjohnston) | 8 comments Within a few days of release, The Skin of Water had hit number 1 in Amazon’s literature tagged with Hungary. It’s not as great an achievement as it first sounds but it did underscore one of the reasons I wrote the novel.

When I started researching, there was very little in the way of novels available in English about Hungary’s role in WWII. In recent times we had the French experience reconfigured with Sarah’s Key, the British with Atonement, even the German with The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Maybe The English Patient (shouldn’t that have been The Hungarian Patient?) touched on the Hungarian experience (remember Almásy spoke all languages but assumed no identity) but largely there was no Hungarian experience in recently published novels that I could find.

At first I thought it may have been a hangover from the communist era when Hungary was effectively behind a wall, closed off from popular western interest. Even at school, we studied the French, Italian, Japanese and, of course, British and American experience, but I don’t even remember a mention of Hungary, despite its essential role in understanding the events that precipitated WWI.

But as I investigated the bones of my story, in the earlier stages of the war, let’s say from 1939 to 1942, Hungary had essentially ducked involvement. On the premise of being cousins, linked through the Austro-Hungarian Empire and both countries having lost significant amounts of territory through the Treaty of Versailles, German troops marched through Hungary on the way to Poland, Yugoslavia and Russian. As a result of this, Germany gifted back to Hungary significant areas of Hungarian-speaking territories, immediately re-swelling its population and resources. But still it remained largely uninvolved in the active fight.

And very unpleasant anti-Semitic laws were passed, even before the actual outbreak of war, inspired by similar actions in Germany. Forced labour camps were introduced, Jews, Roma and political dissidents were sent to these where working conditions were dreadful but they were not camps explicitly designed to kill. People were sent to work behind the enemy fighting lines, providing the infrastructure for the fighting to continue.

But it seemed for each anti-Semitic law, people found ways around them. One could never say that life for the Hungarian Jews between 1938 to 1943 was pleasant, but, with a little bit of luck, it was survivable. Largely, the Jews in Budapest were untouched, causing many in rural areas to move into the city for protection. For example, the ability to own a business was taken away, but the ownership could be transferred in name to Christian Hungarians and business marched on.

And Hungarian people did actively protest. The internationally famous musician and composer, Ernő Dohnányi, a Christian, refused to adhere to the low quotas of Jews allowed admission to universities and consequently resigned, causing an international commotion.

And in Budapest, life, including the high-life, just went on. The nightclubs and bars swung to the latest American tunes, lyrics translated to Hungarian. In fact, some of the stories I found painted a life on par with Berlin at the height of the Weimar Republic. Come to the Cabaret at the Moulin Rouge or The Arizona.

But many saw the writing on the wall. Of particular interest to me was the exodus of creative people involved in the once thriving Hungarian film industry. Many Jewish directors and technical crew fled to northern European countries, some then on to America and Hollywood.

Of course, all of this changed dramatically when Germany couldn’t stand Hungary’s lack of action any longer and occupied the country in March 1944. Immediately, the new master brought numerous actions against the Jews, Roma, political dissidents and homosexuals deporting them to concentration camps. And, almost as immediately, both the Russians and the Allied forces started bombing Budapest.

Hungary has a great history and an odd and little-told role in WWII.


Literary  Chanteuse I would love to add to this post that this book is free on amazon kindle. Fantastic story!


Patricia O'Sullivan | 36 comments I second Margaret. The Skin of Water is beautifully written.


message 4: by Adi (new)

Adi Reading your post, it is almost as if Hungary was never a part of the Axis, and never participated in the invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.


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