When Monica Porter first returned to Hungary, the country of her birth, she planned to write about her roots. The resulting book, The Paper Bridge: A Return to Budapest, was published in 1981 but the trip opened a door, quite literally, to a completely unexpected aspect of her past that, in turn, would lead to another book. ‘One day,’ says Porter, speaking to writer Mátyás Sárközi at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, ‘I opened a door and saw steps to a basement…’
The basement in question was in her childhood home, a fine villa set among the leafy Buda hills. Despite the decades of separation following the family’s flight from Hungary in 1956, when Porter was just four years old, the villa still belonged to her mother, the singer Vali Rácz. Rácz, of course, was legendary. Her reputation as the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich was founded on her exceptional mezzo-soprano voice, for which many popular songs had been composed. Her appearance in around twenty feature films between 1936-1955 had made her a national symbol of glamour. She had been everything from the star attraction at the Belvárosi coffee house, owned by Egon Ronay, as well as the solo performer at the Franz Liszt Music Academy. The details of this illustrious career had been well known to Porter before embarking with her mother on that first return trip. What Porter could not have known of, principally because it had never been spoken about, was her mother’s wartime experiences. So, when Porter opened the door leading to the basement, her mother’s reply astonished her: ‘That’s where the Jews were hiding.’
The story of the singer and the hidden Jews became the foundation of the book Porter came to write about her mother’s life, Deadly Carousel: A Singer’s Story of the Second World War. Porter, who ‘never really had a close relationship’ to her mother, found that the process of writing the book was ‘like a bridge’ that brought mother and daughter together. Her mother was ‘willing to help in every way and to dredge up painful memories and details she hadn’t thought about for many years’. In fact, says Porter, ‘it was the only way I could write a book like that’.
By the time the Nazis invaded their allies in March 1944, Rácz had become a star, not only at home but also among the Hungarian troops fighting on the Eastern Front. On the basis of that, as well as being born to religious Catholic parents in Gölle, a village in south western Hungary, she had nothing to fear from the Nazis. But Jewish friends and acquaintances came to her after the invasion, says Porter, and ‘she devised a very clever way to help them’. A secret compartment was built in a capacious wardrobe containing the singer’s costumes, a false wall behind which people could hide, and did hide, for the duration of the war. ‘To deflect suspicion,’ says Porter, ‘she fraternised with the Germans.’ A military vehicle would come to pick her up, which seemed ‘a very good strategy’ but one that ‘got her into a great deal of trouble.’
Inadvertently betrayed by the husband of one of the women hiding, the villa was raided by the authorities and searched from top to bottom. Even though one of the concealed Jews, a 14-year-old girl, had to suppress her bad winter cough for many hours, nothing was found. Suspicion persisted, however, and Rácz was taken for two weeks of questioning at the Majestic, a pension on nearby Sváb Hill where Adolf Eichmann had installed himself shortly after the invasion and which became a notorious centre for interrogation and torture. ‘In the end,’ says Porter, ‘she was very lucky.’ A film director friend, who worked for the underground, ‘sweet-talked’ the police chief.
No sooner had the Nazis been pushed out of Budapest by the liberating Soviet forces in January 1945, than the Rácz villa was requisitioned by a Red Army colonel. A photograph of him, grinning broadly in his highly decorated military uniform, survives. His presence, and protection, though essential, was temporary as he was called away on duty elsewhere. At that point, the singer’s fraternisation with Germans, her entertaining of troops and the question of why she had been let go all came back to haunt her. She was called a collaborator, and partisans threatened to execute her. According to Porter, a priest was even called to perform last rites. It was only the sudden and dramatic return of the colonel that saved her: ‘He came thundering up the staircase,’ says Porter of this moment that seems apposite for the life of a film star. His last-minute intervention saved her, says Porter: ‘I didn’t have to do too much embellishment in the book.’
Just as Rácz’s life was saved, so too were lives saved by her. Once the book had been published in 1990, Porter sent it to Simon Wiesenthal and he passed it on to Yad Vashem. A process of verification began, including the tracing of the people Rácz had saved, some of whom were still alive and living in Israel. In 1992, Rácz was finally and fittingly honoured as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.
Porter, who at one stage considered following her mother’s footsteps into drama but was, as she laughingly puts it, ‘too good for drama school’, considers the honouring of her mother to be perhaps the most important moment of writing career. ‘I’m very proud that it came about because of my book,’ she says, and that her mother, who died in 1997, lived long enough to experience it. When she once asked her mother why she had taken such a personal risk, Rácz replied: ‘I couldn’t not do it.’ This year has been Holocaust Memorial Year in Hungary, and Porter’s book is a profoundly moving testament to an extraordinary life extraordinarily lived.
Monica Porter’s Deadly Carousel is available from Amazon, priced £15.93.
Nick Barlay is an author and journalist. Scattered Ghosts is the story of his Hungarian Jewish family over 200 years. www.nickbarlay.com