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A hidden heroine

Monica Porter gets to know her mother by taking an enlightening journey into her wartime past

MY MOTHER was 41 years old when I was born, so there was a double “generation gap” between us. I grew up in the America of the 19605 — the most permissive time and place of all. She was born into a devoutly Roman Catholic family in Hungary in 1911 and educated in a convent Her upbringing had been virtually Victorian. She spoke Hungarian to me, while I spoke to her in English. No wonder commu-nication and understanding was strained; we were from dif-ferent planets, we could share nothing.
Eventually, time and age softened the conflicts between us We lived in different countries, and it is easier to get along when you are not together often. But the gap was still there. There were things we never discussed (dare I say it . like sex); we were both still the products of wildly opposing influences.
Since early childhood I’d been aware that my mother, as Vali Racz, was-once a-high star-in Hungary. There was no one more beautiful and glamorous than her in her heyday as chanteuse and film and stage actress, in the 19305 and ’40s. The Hungarian public regarded her proudly as the “Magyar Marlene Dietrich.” As evidence, her youthful portrait, showing a blonde of rare beauty, hung in the sitting rooms of my childhood wherever we lived in America or Europe. But somehow I found it hard to associate that portrait with my stern, ageing mother. Then came the book.
While visiting Hungary with my mother in 1980, I learned about her experiences during the second world war. She had never told me about this episode in her life. (In fact, she hardly ever spoke of her past at all.) She’d had many Jewish Mends and colleagues. I learned, and when the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, flue Jews came to her for help. She hid them in her own home and looked after them for several months … until she was inadvertently betrayed to the Gestapo. They raided the house, but the fugitives, con-cealed behind a false wall in my mother’s wardrobe, were not found. She was arrested, interrogated, escaped death by a hair’s breadth, and then later, after the Red Army and the Communists seized control, she was mistakenly accused of col-laboration with the Nazis and sentenced to death by a committee of vengeful Jewish partisans. By another miracle, she survived.

“She was arrested, interrogated, and escaped death by a hair’s breadth”

I’m a journalist and I know a good story when I hear one. Compared to my mother’s true wartime story, the plot of every contrived, hyped-up thriller is about as compelling as a bowl of tinned soup. I decided to write a book about it
My mother was by no means eager to reopen what had for so long been a closed chapter in her life, filled with painful memories. So many of her closest friends had perished during that era. Yet I couldn’t possibly write such a book without her total co-operation; it would require endless hours of gruelling questions and answers. I had to understand at long last who my mother was, and is. After an inner struggle, she resolved to help me with the book. The research took six months. I read a great deal of background material, and travelled abroad to interview the handful of people still alive connected with the story. I spent two long periods intensively questioning my mother. Often, as the past came surging back, she was close to tears. I felt guilty about this, but wasn’t it Graham Greene who observed that there is a little piece of ice in the heart of every writer? After some initial embarrassment on my part, I dispensed with all inhibitions and probed into everything. I discovered much about my mother I’d never even guessed at For a start, this “Victorian” lady brought up by nuns had more affaires d’amour than would fit into the average blockbuster. And her men were far more remarkable than fictional ones. This delighted me.
But even more significantly, I discovered that the women’s liberation movement of the sixties had nothing to teach my mother. Her relationships with men were always conducted on her own terms, or not at all. Her career came first Men often proposed to her, but she refused to give up her freedom and independence.
I began to write. It was tricky. I had to handle the “love life part of her story with discretion. Better to avoid it as far as possible, I thought After all, it took 37 years before she revealed that intimate stuff to me. She wouldn’t want it splashed around for the general public. And there were my father’s sensibilties to consider. I sent my parents the first few chapters.
My mother phoned some days later. “We’ve read the manuscript,” she said. “It’s all right. But we think you’re making me look like some kind of goody-goody. Who’s going to believe that? Take my advice — don’t leave out the love affairs.”
I laughed and repeated to myself those words at the end of Casablanca: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Monica Porter’s book Deadly Carousel is published by Quartet.

Published: 31 July, 1990 – The Guardian