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Porter explores EU’s dark legacy

April, 2011

The children walk in the distance. From their chatter and the backpacks they are carrying, they appear to be headed to school.

Someone with a handheld video camera pursues them, the image jerking and shaky as the camera closes in, in the manner of the horror film The Blair Witch Project. But this time, the evil is real.

The children, appearing to be around 10 years old, are Hungarian Gypsies, or Roma, a group of people persecuted historically across Europe. The camera motion gets rougher as adult male voices are heard uttering threats as ominous as they are obscene.

But the kids don’t appear to panic and as you watch, you realize this is not new—they’ve experienced this before. In a startling response, they begin to sing, their lilting transparent sounds an almost tragic counterpoint to the harsh cursing. The image fades to black.

These are real children filmed last year in a YouTube video I discovered after reading Anna Porter’s devastating account in the Globe and Mail (May 2009) about the treatment of the Roma people in Hungary.

The comments posted on the video fueled the brutality it showcased. One commenter wrote in Hungarian that bullets shouldn’t be “wasted” on “these people,” and suggested more economical murder techniques.

In the process that led to her book The Ghosts of Europe: Journeys Though Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future, Porter traveled and asked people about their lives in post-communist Europe, where many states are newly espousing democracy. In her article about the Roma, she wrote: “The new freedom, I have found, has brought something its proponents never anticipated: public demonstrations of spite, racism and intolerance.”

This latest book grew out of an earlier work, the award-winning Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of Rezso Kasztner, Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. It tells the story of a Hungarian Jew who negotiated with Eichmann during the Holocaust and succeeded in saving lives.

In Anne Porter’s book, the evil is real. Photo: Yanka van der Kolk

Kasztner was accused of being a collaborator and assassinated in Israel after the war. Hearing about Kasztner changed the course of Porter’s life. A fiction writer and well-known and respected book publisher, the co-founder of Key Porter Books sold her business so she could tell Kasztner’s story.

“I was fascinated by the person and that he dared to discuss rescue with Adolf Eichmann,” Porter said from her home in Toronto.

“I realized that somebody had to do a book. It was a story that kept haunting me. Eventually I started researching it.”

More than half the people Porter interviewed for the book have since died, but her drive to understand present-day European society did not abate.

Kasztner’s Train was a passion, as is The Ghosts of Europe,” she says. “One book led to the other because many of the ghosts who haunt Europe are the ghosts of the Jews who were murdered there.

“It’s impossible to look at street signs and city signs on a train or driving in a country such as Poland without being horrifyingly aware of what happened there.

Porter is not Jewish but her family had suffered under the Communist regime.

Her father was taken to Siberia by Soviet troops and her mother was imprisoned.

“I listened to a lot of stories and tried to understand how people dealt with changing circumstances and whether or not the changes have meant facing certain truths. It’s about the reality of what happened to the Jews and also to do with the old Communist system, the secret police that was all pervasive. You never knew who was likely to betray you. In some of these countries, the truth has been locked away in archives and it takes a lot to have access to a file. It becomes almost impossible to prosecute someone who broke your kneecaps and pulled out your grandfather’s fingernails.”

Though much of what Porter has discovered is harrowing, there has also been inspiration. “I found some truly amazing heroic people who are changing things from the inside, rather than me writing from the outside.” In response to her stories in Maclean’s and the Globe and Mail, she has received hate mail, including death threats.

“People don’t like the fact that I’ve written about Jewish history in Hungary and the appalling fact that it was fellow Hungarians, not Germans, who shoved people into boxcars.” Porter says that now it is “vaguely embarrassing” to be Jewish in Hungary. “Anti-semitism is walking free, it’s very much out in the open.”

When she talks to a crowd, Porter generates discussion more than she lectures.

“I think we have taken democracy too much for granted. Cockamamie ideologies like fascism seem to garner a lot more wild enthusiasm. I’m hoping that through writing the Ghosts book, people get the message that it’s important to shout from the rooftops about democracy, as much as those who want to have the opposite.”

In her journey, she has had to grapple with the nature of evil and of denial. “I have tried very hard to understand how a perfectly ordinary person can one day turn evil so fast. It’s astonishing to me how many would have a little bit of bacon and bread with their families and then go shove women and children into boxcars, then go home in the evening and kiss the children goodnight and go to bed, how easily they put it out of their minds.”

Porter says that it’s important to face evil with the knowledge that it’s there. Is the potential for evil in all of us?

“That is my fear,” she says.

Anna Porter will participate in the 13th Edition of the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, which begins on April 27.



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