We talked to Frances Pinter, editor of Escaping Extermination: Hungarian Prodigy to American Musician, Feminist, and Activist by Agi Jambor. The memoir was written by Jambor shortly after WWII and is being published for the first time now. From the hell that was the siege of Budapest to a fresh start in America, Jambor describes how she and her husband escaped the extermination of Hungary’s Jews through a combination of luck and wit.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how you came across this memoir? And what motivated you to have it published?
Frances Pinter: Agi gave me the memoir shortly before she died in 1997. It was a while before I got around to reading it as I was very busy with my career. Once I settled down with it, I was shocked because none of this had been spoken about while I was growing up. I’d read many wartime memoirs, but they were often written decades later. As I read and re-read Agi’s memoir I felt it had a quality of freshness that only something written soon after the events could achieve. I passed the manuscript around to friends, all of whom without exception said I must get it published. Now, of course, I wish I’d had the opportunity to discuss it with her, but alas all I could do was read through her papers, now housed in the Bryn Mawr College Library Archive. That’s where I found the material for the afterword I wrote for the book. Publishing this memoir means a lot to me. Many of my generation came rather late to knowing what happened to our families in the War. Eva Hofmann explains why this is so very well in her book After Such Knowledge’. Now, we are desperate to know and understand the mark it’s left, not only on us, but to all of society. Finding a sympathetic publisher is my small contribution to ensuring that we do not forget these horrors and celebrate the strength and resilience of an extraordinary individual.
Q: You mention your shock, what were some details that surprised you the most on your first read through?
Pinter: The clearest details that I didn’t know about were about people I knew nothing about, or that they’d even existed, such as the child Agi gave birth to during the War, or a godson who was killed in Auschwitz. But generally, it was more a sense on reading that I was descending into a Hell, taken by the hand and led down the dark stairs into the deepest crevices of human depravity. That someone so close to me managed to crawl out of it with her head held high and her spirit undeterred still fills me with awe.
Q: Written shortly after WWII and not published until now, this memoir is kind of like a time capsule. How does this affect the way it reads?
Pinter: The writing style reflects the author and it is one of crispness, modern in style, and entirely lacking in self-pity. I think people of all generations can relate to its directness. Working with the copyeditor was an interesting experience. We agreed at the outset that we should leave the text as much intact as possible. Agi’s grammar stands the test of time, but there were some small points raised such as whether to retain practices of the late forties for instance regarding when to use capital letters and when not. Language evolves, and here we see some subtle examples of it. That said, the text reads like a thriller written today with a pace all of its own.
Q: Jambor went on to have a brilliant career in America in her later life. This clearly won’t be covered in the memoir by virtue of when it was written. Does any part of you wish that this project was one she took on later in life, or that you had her whole life’s story in her own words?
Pinter: Alas, yes, it would have been wonderful to have a complete autobiography of this exceptional woman. She was such an inspiration to so many women with her own very specific way of forging a life as a woman on her own in the second half of the 20th century. There is more material about this on the website www.agijambor.org and in the Afterword. Perhaps on reading this memoir a writer will come forth wanting to write Agi’s whole biography. From scolding Albert Einstein when they played duets and he proved incapable of counting correctly, to standing up to McCarthyism and campaigning against the Vietnam War this was one very gutsy woman!
Thank you to Frances! If you would like to know more about this book you can get your own copy or request it from your local library.
You can get 30% off Escaping Extermination and all other Purdue University Press books by entering the code PURDUE30 when ordering from our website.