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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
I am Fifteen and I Do Not Want to Die
by Christine Arnothy
Age Range: 14+
I am Fifteen and I do Not Want to Die is the compelling autobiographical account of a young girl caught up in the siege of Budapest in 1945. Hungarian author Christine Arnothy’s poetic prose, translated by Antonia White, vividly capture the appalling depravation, fear and desperation encountered by the refugees of Budapest. While the town burned around them, with no obvious escape routes because the Germans had blown up all the bridges over the Danube, they were trapped in a rat infested city with dead bodies littering the streets, living in cellars with no drinking water or electricity.
In the cellar where Arnothy lived with her parents and other residents candles were made from cooking-fat in a shoe-polish tin with a shoe lace to serve as a wick, giving out a sickening smell and yellow light. The only time anyone ventured outside was when the noise of battle momentarily receded. They constantly wondered whether their conquerors would be the Germans or the Russians and under which two they will fare best.
Arnothy’s commentary is often mater-of-fact. On seeing a dead body for the first time at the baths where she had gone to get water she says it was impossible for her to discern whether it had been a Hungarian or a German, a soldier or civilian. “A startling example of the great justice dealt out by death who makes no distinction either between moral principles or between nationalities.” There are little glimpses of humanity too when the group of residents take Mr Radnai, a Jew with false papers, under their wing or Christine’s pleasure at being able to give the weak and dying horses, who have been left abandoned in the streets outside, a little of her precious water.
The wrecked bridges allow blocks of ice to pile up and obstruct the flow of the Danube resulting in the water rising in the sewers and flooding their cellar. As everyone fruitlessly tries to bale out the water they are menaced by the volleys of machine-gun fire and the exploding mines. When the Germans have their provisions stolen near the building where Arnothy is taking shelter they threaten to blow them up. One inhabitant dryly comments: “Where is any international convention respected these days? What’s our beautiful city turned into? A heap of stinking filth, with thousands of corpses left to rot.”
Arnothy doesn’t differentiate between the cruelty of the Germans or the Russians. When the Russian army entered the city they kill Germans on sight even if they are wounded or dying. Illus, a young woman who shares their cellar, is found near the body of a dying German soldier and is brutally violated. From that moment on the author realises that what is happening is very different to what they had all hoped for. “Everything from now on, was going to be one long nightmare, made up of atrocities.”
When the family eventually manage to escape to their villa outside of Budapest they discover they are less than welcome by the friends they had allowed to stay there. Their belongings have been looted and provisions used up “The behaviour of our friends fitted in perfectly with the spectacle that the capital presented these days. It was neither repulsive nor inconceivable.”
Other shocking images of Russian brutality come in the form of Mr Radnai being shot and killed and the systematic rape of women. One harrowing example is that of an elderly women who is a passenger on the same train that the author’s family are taking to Ovavos. “Who’s going to defend me if they attack me tonight?” says the women. A man in the carriage tells her not to be frightened because she is well past the ‘dangerous age’. When the lady tells him that despite being aged 73 “Last week five soldiers made use of my body, one after then other”, it is deeply shocking.
The poignant title of Arnothy’s book is expressed in more detail towards the climax of her story when she describes her meeting with a priest on the night of her escape from Hungary. “Father, I’ve rebelled at not having known what it’s like to be young and carefree. All the happy time of my childhood has been completely blotted out of my mind that, when I try to piece together a few scraps, it’s no good. It’s blackness, all around me. There’s nothing – Nothing at all except misery and anxiety. If someone stops in front of our house, I imagine it’s a police officer. If I hear footsteps behind me, I think I’m being followed. All that’s only illusion, but it tortures me. I would so very much like to be happy …”
Arnothy’s novel of an innocent sufferer trapped between two armies in a broken city is an outstanding piece of literature and one of the most remarkable personal documents of the Second World War.