Book Review: The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes

“Displacement hits you later than you expect, just when you think you have settled down and become part of the world all over again. That is when it begins to ache, when a certain inarticulable desolation creeps in. Your body is not where your body ought to be (…). It is as if you had ghosted in but left your soul behind.”

“Life, as learned, was composed of relatively brief episodes, each seeming an eternity at the time, none of them suggesting stability, let alone permanence.”

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes is an exceptional memoir.  It constitutes an exploration of Szirtes’s Romania-born Hungarian – Jewish mother’s life.  The book also provides a compelling commentary on Europe’s darkest chapters from the 20th century and its consequences on a singular life.  

This memoir is a beautifully written, profoundly moving and extremely thoughtful portrait of one woman living through the tumultuous times of the European history. The narrative is a mixture of delicate, sharp prose intertwined with Szirtes’s poetry. Throughout the book, tape recordings photos, letters, and historic facts are used to (re-) construct the life of Szirtes’s mother, Magda (Magdalena).

There is also an exploration of the multifaceted identity – a complex idea especially for the ones, like Magda who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Magda was ethnic Hungarian, yet Romanian by birth, born to secular Jewish parents. Magda’s identity was partially created by the political and frequent border changes. As her identity and status kept changing throughout her life, it left indelible marks on her feeling of belonging, loss and lack of security.

The book traces Magda’s life backwards; this form has been inspired by Anthony Hecht’s poem ‘The Venetian Vespers’ in which the poet imagines snippets of life backwards.

“I have no wish to submit her to retrospective analysis. I want to report her presence and register it as it moved through life by moving back into her past with her. (…) I don’t want to be certain of anything. I don’t want to come to conclusion.”

The book starts at the time of Magda’s suicide in 1975 in suburban London when she was only fifty-one years old, and it ends with Szirtes exploring old family photographs on which his mum is only sixteen years old and two years old. Looking at these old images, he is painfully aware that within next four years this sixteen-year-old girl on the picture will experience the hell of the concentration camps such as Ravesnsbruck.

As Szirtes takes us on the journey into his mum’s past, we learn that she was born in Transylvania and her childhood was mostly spent in the town called Cluj in Romanian, or Kolozsvar in Hungarian and also known Klausenberg. Magda left the school at the age of fourteen to become a photographer. She moved to Budapest to start as an apprentice at one of the photographic studios in the early 1940s. It is important to remember that by 1944 more than 400 000 of the Hungarian Jews were deported to the Nazi death camps, mainly Auschwitz, including George’s paternal grandfather and his maternal grandmother.

 We learn that Magda (similarly to George’s father, Laszlo) was the survivor of the Holocaust. Magda was initially imprisoned in the female-only concentration camp, Ravensbruck, then transferred to Penig, one of the sub-camps of Buchenwald. Later in life she never talked about her experiences in the concentration camps. Szirtes is trying to reflect on what his mum’s experiences might have been during those times based on the historic facts, recollections of other prisoners and his mum’s behaviour during their time in England.

The streets of Budapest at the end of WWII in 1945 were occupied by the Russian troops – those times were characterised by the high level of lawlessness, killings, rape and theft, people were picked up off the street for slave labour in the Gulags. The short-lived democracy was quickly dismantled by installing one party authoritarian communist regime. People who had been imprisoned by the Nazis were now imprisoned by the communists. The end of the war brought some relief but no security. Jews had to change their name to avoid being identified as such, “anti-Semitic remarks were whispered not spoken”. This is Budapest to which Szirtes’s mum returned in May 1945 after being liberated from the concentration camp.  She was only twenty-one years old.. Magda’s entire family perished, and “their perishing was greeted with either indifference or pleasure by those who had previously seemed good-natured and neighbourly.”

Magda wanted to go to Transylvania to find out what happened with her family – she was prepared to walk from Budapest as in May 1945 there was no train but due to the Russian occupation it was too dangerous. She finally made her way to her hometown in September 1945, but she found no one. Any valuables that her parents tried to hide disappeared. No one wanted to speak to her.  There was a complete indifference. “She grew bitter about humanity at large”; the experience of camps and survival has changed Magda; she lived with the ghosts of the past for the rest of her life like many other Holocaust survivors.

“I cannot explain Magda by Ravensbruck or Penig. I cannot define her in such exclusive terms. She had twenty years of life before and had thirty years after. However terrible the experience of the camps they weren’t the only events of her life, nor indeed of any survivor’s life. In each case it was a whole person who went in and a whole person who came out.”

In the post-war Hungary, Magda lived with George’s father’s family in an overcrowded flat in Budapest. George’s parental grandfather perished in Auschwitz, his father’s mother and sisters survived.

In 1946, Magda and Laszlo, George’s father married in Budapest.

“There is nothing after the ceremony. Not even a meal at a restaurant. The couple return to the flat where his mother has prepared a few sandwiches. There is a weekend at a nearby hotel where they spend Friday and Saturday night but leave on Sunday because they have to work the next day.”

No one from Magda’s family was in the attendance – they have all perished during the Holocaust.

There are recollections of Szirtes’s childhood in the post – war Hungary until the Hungarian revolution in 1956 when Szirtes’s family had to leave the country.  

George recalls seeing “bodies on the street [of Budapest] and people hanging from lamp-posts” while they were making their rushed escape. Their aim was to reach Australia, but their immigration application was rejected due to Magda’s medical condition. They ended up in England instead, the place where Magda did not seem to ever feel at home. England was never an intended destination.

“Those early days in England must have been heady for her. At least she as far from danger, further the memory of loss and inhumanity. She did not particularly like England, but she thought she was going to Australia and England was a vital staging post on the journey.”

Magda died at the age of fifty-one in an ambulance crash in 1975 after she was trying to take her own life.

This book is a celebration of George’s mum, Magda Nussbacher, for whom “life was a matter of endless recovery from rejections”. Szirtes portrayed his mum as a nuanced, mysterious, complex individual; he tried to separate Magda – a mother from the Magda – an independent person.

“On the way home she began to dance, executing a modest few step on the snow. (…) For a moment she became someone quite different, not my mother but a woman independent of me.”

The Photographer at Sixteen is one of the most beautiful and moving books dedicated to the parents and their lives. I highly recommend this book to everyone  

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