Life & Culture

The Piano Player of Budapest review: A beautifully performed Holocaust symphony

Roxanne de Bastion has written an extraordinary Shoah memoir


The Piano Player of Budapest

by Roxanne de Bastion

Robinson Books, £22

Next year is the 80th anniversary since the end of the Second World War, yet the flood of memoirs, biographies, and fictional accounts of Holocaust-related experiences shows no sign of drying up. There is a good deal of dross among these accounts. Too often, books entitled “The Something of Auschwitz” do not deliver.

This is avowedly not the case with Roxanne de Bastion’s extraordinary re-telling of what happened to her grandfather Stephen, a Hungarian composer and musician known as “the Piano Player of Budapest”.

She has been aided by voluminous letters and documents, plus her grandfather’s piano, which he played in Hungary during the 1930s and which he managed to transport to Britain after the war where de Bastion’s father inherited it following Stephen’s death in 2019.

But most of all de Bastion, herself an accomplished singer-songwriter, has Stephen de Bastion’s voice, recorded on numerous cassette tapes, gravelly, rumbling, and occasionally playing his original music. So powerful is this voice that she sometimes finds herself having conversations with her unseen grandfather, as though he were in the room. And her skill is allowing the reader to have such conversations, too.

Stephen de Bastion belonged to a large family of assimilated Jews in Budapest. He was a skilled pianist, and both a showman and an original lounge lizard, taking up residence in Hungarian cocktail bars and hotels and, after a failed marriage, having numerous affairs. He worked in London, in Switzerland, as well as in Hungary, hanging out with other musicians, finding success in writing a film score or popular ballads.

Hungarian Jews were, notoriously, the last such population to be deported by the Nazis to their concentration camps. The majority were not rounded up until 1944. Stephen ended up in Mauthausen, in Austria, as the war drew to a close, the remaining prisoners were moved out on a death march to a satellite camp, Gunskirchen.

“In a bid to avoid starvation”, de Bastion writes, “Stephen grasps what he can while he walks, shoving tufts of grass, leaves and nettles into his mouth…anyone who falls behind or out of step is shot”. The very familiarity of this story does not diminish the horror. Eventually the Americans liberated the camp, and Stephen was picked out as an English speaker to help the soldiers, translating and identifying the Nazis who ran Gunskirchen. But, inevitably, there were other hurdles to overcome, and de Bastion makes it clear that this was no Hollywood movie.

Roxanne de Bastion stumbled on her grandfather’s story while she was in mourning for her father, who had recently died.

She tells us: “I don’t remember when I learned that my father’s family, those faces in the paintings and photographs, were Jewish…my dad never identified as Jewish, no matter how much his cousin Judit insisted that he was just that, whether he liked it or not.”

The truly pitiful message is that at no point did Stephen de Bastion seem to understand the point of the persecution. His tribe was not the Jews; his tribe was the musicians. Just the same – bravo, and encore!​

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