The grown-ups in my family felt about Hungary much what Talleyrand had felt about the ancien régime in France, that only those who had lived in the old days knew what douceur de vivre was. The grown-ups provided plenty of evidence, what’s more. I have in my possession a photograph album from about 1900, the leather binding a little the worse for wear but with “Kapuvár” set into it in letters that have lost much of their original gilt. A coloured postcard on the very first page shows a long façade in the classical style familiar in the Habsburg Empire, and “Vár külseje” printed on it by way of explanation – the outside of the castle. Castle, on just two floors? The other side of the house is an architectural jumble incorporating external stairs and a wooden veranda more appropriate to a Swiss chalet. The interior is what might be called Walter Scott Baronial, mahogany, carpets hanging from ironwork banisters, tiled stoves, and antlers on every wall, even of the bedrooms. Gustav Springer, my great-grandfather and the man who bought and enjoyed Kapuvár, earns a mention in the history books. Vienna and 1842 were the right place and the right time for his creativity as banker, entrepreneur and railway builder. In a recent book based on tax registers for the year 1910, Roman Sandgruber, a professor of economic history, ranks Gustav the fourth richest man in Austria at that time, with an annual income of over four million crowns. According to a sympathetic contemporary writing under the pseudonym Comte Vasili, Gustav was “small and stout, very affable and not lacking wit, with the attractions of a playboy”. His large head was conspicuously bald. Any servant was tipped a crown if he said that the Herr Baron had just come from the barber and was right, but fined a crown if he was wrong. One of Gustav’s maxims was “Grund fliegt nimmer weg”, – land never flies away. Another maxim of his was “Buy to the sound of cannons, sell to the sound of violins”. Kapuvár, near Győr in western Hungary and not too far from Vienna, must have seemed the safest of investments. He was to spend up to half the year there. In some of those photographs, his guests adopt suitable poses around the stags that they have just shot and which keepers have laid out as trophies at their feet. No less ceremonial, men in uniforms are on horseback, while in the background stand four-wheeled carriages drawn by a pair of horses. The roll call of Gustav’s properties includes Puszta Bucsa near Debrecen, Rakoncás, Jenő-major, Zodony, Alag, Csongrád, Szabolcs and Nándor. Bucsány was his first stud. Gustav Jantsch, a pre-1918 Austrian cavalry officer is also the author of Vollblutzucht und Turf, a comprehensive study of horse-racing with a chapter about Gustav’s passion for it. The Springer racing colours were black with a red cap. Acquiring Felsőjattó, he had 71 mares in what Jantsch says was certainly the biggest stud in the Austro- Hungarian Empire, Germany, and most likely France too. At one point, he had 61 horses under training, 55 of them winners. In the First War he bought Lesvár, another stud, but reduced the number of mares to 17. After his death in 1920 one obituary praised him as “Ein nobler Sportsmann”, which was not how Viennese papers usually referred to Jewish magnates.

Mitzi, Gustav’s daughter and only child, was born in Vienna in 1886. She was brought up in Meidling, the house built for her next to Schönbrunn, then still on the outskirts of Vienna. At the age of eighteen, she married Eugène Fould from France. A gifted linguist, he learnt Hungarian in order to keep up with the management of the Springer properties. In October 1906, for instance, he visited Szabolcs and reported to Mitzi that in conversation the bailiff there was very professional whereas the bailiff’s wife was a peasant. A two-volume edition of Petőfi’s poems annotated in pencil in his hand has survived. After Eugène’s death, Mitzi married Frank Wooster, acquiring British nationality and converting to Christianity.

Pókvár is not far from Kapuvár, and Gustav had died by the time Mitzi bought it after the First War. Architecturally, it was a more cheerful house than Kapuvár. Max, Mitzi’s son and my uncle, treated it as his home. Invitations to the shooting parties that he organised were sought after. In August 1935 Max’s game-book records that the Duc d’Ayen, Comte de Beaumont, Comte de Maillé, Comte de Montsaulnier, Prince Achille Murat and Jean de Vaugelas, shot an astonishing 6,009 partridges. Photographs show these Frenchmen sitting on the steps of the house, exhausted and stripped to the waist at the end of a sweltering hot day spent walking up the fields of kukurutz, or maize. Helene and Lily, my aunts, and Poppy, my mother, rhapsodised about Pókvár, well aware that they were enjoying time out of life. Alan, my father, was in some ways a Central European manqué. In Budapest for the first time in May 1930, he was at the outset of his literary career. In the diary he was keeping of his Grand Tour, he approves of pretty well everyone he met and pretty well everything he saw. Moving on to Vienna early in 1934, he took up an introduction to Mitzi. She invited him to lunch at Meidling, where Poppy and Lily struck him as “two schoolroom daughters who never spoke except in family jokes”. By the end of that same year, Alan and Poppy were to marry, whereupon this initial put-down itself became a longstanding family joke.

On his first visit to Pókvár six months after his wedding, Alan wrote to his parents that he was contemplating “early retirement into an eccentric Hungarian country life”. His father, a Coldstream Guards colonel and an excellent shot, also came to Pókvár and the photographs show him at the end of the day’s sport still wearing tweeds and a trilby as though in Norfolk in autumn, very different from the casual French.

The incorporation of Austria into Hitler’s Germany put an end to Meidling. The Gestapo soon expropriated the house and its contents. On the last day of July 1938, Alan and Poppy drove to Hungary in a Daimler. A postcard of Alan’s to his parents makes a good story of losing the way to Pókvár in the dark without having the language to ask for directions. Standing on the running board, three gypsies eventually escorted them home on a back road across fields and ditches.

The prose with which Alan evokes Pókvár in his diary conveys a wistful sense of a timeless way of life that must come to an end. The park there, he begins, is very shady and green. “One has to walk warily, because someone is always on the verge of dropping his (or more likely her) hoe and coming to kiss one’s hand; if not, a house servant is creeping along the shrubberies waiting for a chance to carry something. And suddenly the paths debouch into an acacia forest,or a vast open golden prairie, or a great muddy enclosure full of geese, with white glittering cottages like pieces of sugar and huge white barns all round out of which the peasants stare, with the sightless stare of magnificent respectfulness, or an occasional hand-kissing. The air smells like a spicy exhilarating cupboard. The corn is stacked into broad cathedrals, the colour of no natural thing except golden hair; the whole country drips biblically with fatness. And in a few yards the house is always invisible. But once in sight again, how welcoming! The absurd central block ends in a dazzling stepped pediment, built over a big canopied entrance. The windows have round tops and carved corbels, with stucco eyebrows on the first floor. At one end, there is a round battlemented tower like a sand-mould. All blindingly white.” Lovingly he picks out the “ugly and delightful things” furnishing the interior. Callers include “the Verwalter [manager] of one place or another who arrives with tuberoses wrapped up in ribbon; the postman who bows and walks out backwards; the forester, the secretary, the Gestutmeister [director of the stud] who expects monetary orders”.

At the Lesvár stud were nine brood mares, three yearlings and a number of foals. Mitzi, they learnt, was putting more horses into training. In front of stable hands shoeing the horses through their paces, “We looked as wise as we could”. Driving through Kapuvár on a Sunday, they admired people who had put on national costume for the church service and were now filling the main square, women to one side, men to the other. Out sightseeing, they found Esterháza closed except for the stables. “I have never seen any harness rooms of such size and splendour”, Alan wrote. In another part of the building, even more imposing, were “some forty carriages, carioles, victorias, coupés, landaus, goat-carriages… the 1866 coach lined with yellow watered silk… the cream landau which the Regent uses when he comes”. The 900th anniversary of St Stephen was being celebrated in the cathedral at Esztergom. Alan and Poppy stayed to witness the arrival of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary with a part to play on the European stage. A huge crowd had assembled, with a guard of honour and a cordon of girls in national dress, marshalled by nuns. “Officers in magnificent hussar uniforms, with moustaches like a child’s harrow, and expressions of the most bellicose order, drove up in taxis. The Cardinal came out by a side door, surrounded by bishops in full fig. At last the Regent, of course in Admiral’s uniform, very spry and contented, drove up to the National Hymn and walked along the lines.”

“The law against Jews in Hungary is pretty bad”, Mitzi wrote in her diary in the summer of 1939, “my children cannot visit my properties.” Nonetheless she contradicted herself: “We are all making plans to go to Hungary in September.” The outbreak of war put a stop to that. The Hungarian authorities were asking for certificates of baptism for herself and for the parents and grandparents of her husband Frank Wooster. On 9 May 1940, the eve of the German blitzkrieg in the West, Mitzi took to the Hungarian Legation in Paris the documents proving that Frank was Aryan. By the end of June, she and Frank had slipped out of France into Spain and then Portugal.

Life and death, and property or destitution, were issues that depended on having requisite documents. In Budapest Dr Hans Mailáth-Pokorny, her business manager, needed a power of attorney to salvage what he could for her. Mitzi was obliged to apply for it in person to the German Embassy in Lisbon. In an atmosphere of embarrassment and hostility, she obtained what she wanted. Then on 1 August, she took the requisite papers to the Hungarian Legation. She and André de Vodianer, the Minister, risked talking politics. The future of the Balkans, they agreed, was changing from one day to another. Mitzi then enquired about Trissolin, one of the hopeful horses that Alan and Poppy had seen in training at Lesvár. Vodianer stood up. A refugee, Mitzi had the unique experience of learning that Trissolin had just won the Alager Preis, the Hungarian Derby. Trissolin was never beaten. An article in a Hungarian newspaper congratulated “the little Baroness Mitzi” on winning all the big races that season even though the anti- Jewish laws made life in Hungary impossible for her. Vodianer came to dine with her in November, and she quotes him saying that if Hitler took Palestine he would make it a Jewish national state. He also told her what other diplomats discovered only months later, that Germany was already massing troops against the Soviet Union in order to save Europe from Bolshevism.

Mitzi and Frank spent the rest of the war in Canada. To return to Central Europe afterwards was out of the question. Meidling had been badly damaged. In the Intelligence Service and stationed in Vienna, Alan liaised with the Red Army and passed on his fears about Soviet intentions. At Lesvár, Mitzi noted with admirable restraint, “commissars have told our people that if they complain to Pokorny or Alan they will be shot. The Russian officer who insisted on riding Trissolin, the 1940 Budapest Derby winner, was thrown by the horse, drew his revolver and shot it.” Human tragedies were more painful still. Writing from Budapest, Mrs Blum was a Springer relation whose mother had been deported in 1944 to Auschwitz and never returned. Mrs Blum’s husband had spent several years in labour camps before he was dragged off to Germany and murdered there. Her only brother, an engineer, was sent to Ukraine in 1942 as a slave labourer and she had had no word from him since. Acquiring false papers, she had survived deportation but her home and the hairdressing salon she ran had been ransacked.

I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time of the 1956 revolution. Dr Pokorny was now in Vienna winding down what remained of Mitzi’s property and I stayed with him. In his apartment a young relation of his told horrifying stories of the Communism he had just escaped. I hitched a ride with other students on a vehicle delivering medical supplies to Budapest. Fresh bullet-holes pockmarked the streets. Russian soldiers patrolled. Either then or in the course of a later visit I interviewed György Lukács, the Marxist critic whose books were respected at Oxford but I suspect not much read. What remains with me is the photograph on his desk of his grandfather, a Hasidic rabbi, and the overpowering sense of doom that he radiated.Mitzi set up a fund to pay pensions to former employees, nineteen of them, and it fell to me to check whether the Communist authorities were allowing these pensioners to receive hard currency in full. In 1966 I went at last to Kapuvár and Pókvár. Carelessly ruined by the Soviet occupation, these houses were ghostly, their past irrecoverable. Wherever Max lived, he had planted avenues of chestnut trees and some of these were still upright, though straggly and overgrown. I took away some conkers in his memory. The stabling of the stud at Lesvár was roofless, blackened and burnt out by the Red Army. On an open grassy patch the Soviet major had shot Trissolin. To the people in the village inn, my round face and prominent eyes made me recognisable as a Springer descendant. It wasn’t much after nine o’clock in the morning when we began toasting each other with firewater of some sort. Don’t forget us, the villagers implored, one day you will be back.

Mrs István Nagy had lived all her life in the same house and remembered the past. She was the widow of Pista, one of the foresters and a particular favourite of the family. Conscripted into the army, he had been taken prisoner on the Russian front and returned from captivity having lost his toes from frost-bite. Under Communism, he soon died. In Budapest, another pensioner produced an album of photographs taken in 1930, and there are snapshots of the sixteen-year-old Poppy and the fourteen-year-old Lily in white linen dresses harvesting in the field with other girls their age. In the background is a fearsome threshing machine, a contraption with driving belts and pistons.

Gustav Springer could not have foreseen that a day would come when the land he so assiduously bought would indeed fly away. Nothing remains of the life that he arranged for his daughter Mitzi, who could have handed it on to Alan and Poppy, and so to me. After the Iron Curtain had opened, I interviewed for a book I was writing many of the men whose belief system had turned the world upside down, only to be turned upside down themselves. What’s really been lost isn’t property but the chance to know from the inside another language, another people, another country.

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