Games of Survival:
HOW SOME HOLOCAUST CHILDREN LEARNED TO CONQUER DEATH
When the Danube Ran Red
By Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, Syracuse University Press, 2010,
Hardcover, 184pp. $17.95, ISBN-10: 0815609809 & 13: 978-0815609803
Reviewed by Thomas Land
MANY CHILD survivors of the Holocaust owed their lives
to the deadly serious business of games played collectively or alone, that
enabled them to adjust to dangerous situations, sometimes even to control them,
and to relieve tension in relative safety. This is an area still demanding
substantial academic research.
In a moving memoir reminiscent of Anne Frank’s diary,
Professor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth of the University of Texas describes the role played
by games in her own, childhood victory over death in the climax of war and in
the face of prolonged, organized racist mass murder in Hungary. Her experience
of the life-preserving games of Jewish children during the Holocaust in Budapest
is very close to my own. Other accounts are turning up elsewhere.
If you read just one of the thousands of personal
Holocaust memoirs published nowadays by the thinning, final generation of Jewish
survivors, perhaps this one –– should be it.
The book includes an insightful introduction by David
Patterson, the holder of the Bornblum Chair of Excellence in Judaic Studies at
Memphis University. He explains the dramatically high death rate of children in
the target populations of the Holocaust by the stated purpose of the Nazis to
deny the Jewish people a future. For 12-year old Ozsváth nicknamed Zsuzsa, the
Holocaust ended with the 1944/45 battle for Budapest, one of the longest and
most savage city sieges in European history.
She was then devotedly preparing for the promise of a
career as a concert pianist. Her ability amidst the battle to absorb herself in
the solitary game of playing the piano in the absence of an instrument may have
saved her life. A dozen years later, she left Hungary illegally, taking with her
just one valuable possession: a collection of verse by Miklós Radnóti
(1909-1944), enslaved and murdered by fellow Hungarians because of his Jewish
birth despite his well documented, sincere conversion to Catholicism.
Her excellent English translation of that book,
composed in collaboration with the American poet Frederick Turner, has greatly
contributed to Radnóti’s worldwide reputation today as perhaps the greatest
among the Holocaust poets. In an imaginary dialogue with the Prophet Nahum,
Radnóti describes the total war engulfing Nazi-occupied Europe (in the Ozsváth/Turner
translation published in Foamy Sky, Princeton University Press, 1992 &
slay one another, the human soul stands as naked as
Then to what purpose the exhortations, the hellish
green clouds of
the locusts, what purpose? when humans are baser than
Here and elsewhere they smash on the walls the
steeples are torches, homesteads flower as furnaces,
roast in their embers, in smoke the factories rise up
Streets full of people on fire go galloping, sink with
hugely embedded the bomb-burst shatters masses
shrunken as cowpats on fields in the summer, the dead
piled in the plazas and squares of their cities; and
as it was written
all that you prophesied now is fulfilled. But say,
what brought you
back to the earth from the primal dustcloud?
orphaned the children of men must serve in the hosts
of the blasphemous,
shaped but not natured like men – and that I might see
citadel’s fall and unto these latter days speak and
Judging by her prose, I thought Zsuzsa was a poet in
her own right, almost certainly a Holocaust poet and probably a good one. But
she told me, “My friends keep asking: Where are the Ozsváth poems? My answer is
that there is none. The poems have made such a din reverberating in my head all
my life that I could not put them to paper. But that is well. I’ve got the
Today she is the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of
Holocaust Studies and professor of literature and history of ideas at Texas
University in Dallas. Her writing and lectures have won her a string of
distinguished honours including an American Fulbright and a top Hungarian
Academy of Sciences award. Her new memoir is a profoundly moving work of
literary as well as academic merit.
The title of the book refers to a scene witnessed by
Zsuzsa the child, enacted nightly along the banks of the River Danube throughout
the siege, when the Hungarian Nazis executed groups of Jewish captives, men
women and children, bound by ropes in pairs to prevent survival.
The idea was that if one had by chance escaped death by
shooting, the survivor might still be dragged down by the weight of the attached
“Nobody screamed,” she recalls, “nobody cried. You
could hear nothing but the shots and the splash of the bodies falling into the
red foam (of) the river, which flowed... like blood.”
Hungary is still struggling to comprehend the tragedy.
This country of fewer than 10m souls was responsible for the humiliation and
murder of some 600,000 of its Jewish citizens during the final phases of the
Second World war, most of them brutally delivered for petty financial gain to
the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Zsuzsa and many other Jews crammed into the
vermin-infested ghetto tenements of Budapest or hiding elsewhere in the capital
escaped deportation. But they had to live with the constant threat of mass
murder and worse – there was worse – meted out by the armed thugs of the
Hungarian Arrow-Cross/Nyilas party, the role models of the neo-Nazi rabble on
the rise today throughout Eastern Europe.
Her greatest secret fear was enforced separation from
her beloved parents. That came to pass as the invading Soviets smashed through
the combined German and Hungarian defences. But even then, she managed to keep
her calm, alone in hiding, sustained by games.
The ferocity of the three-month siege, including
vicious hand-to-hand fighting under constant Allied aerial bombardment, is
compared by historians to the earlier battle for Stalingrad. But unlike
Budapest, Stalingrad had been at least emptied of its residents. The siege of
Budapest raged over the heads of 800,000 civilian witnesses, mostly women and
The death toll approached 160,000. While the children
played their games to delay death, many combatants on both sides reserved their
last bullets for themselves for fear of being captured alive by their savage
Even during the final confrontations, the orgy of
anti-Semitic violence continued in the ghetto. (See The Siege of Budapest,
Corvina/Budapest, 1998, subsequently reissued in excellent translations in
Britain by I. B. Tauris, in the the United States by Yale University Press and
in and Germany by F. A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung, the very first book by a
young scholar immediately welcomed as a formidable success by both The Times
Literary Supplement in London and The New York Review of Books.)
Zsuzsa, I, and all the others I know who in any way
participated in the siege of Budapest have never overcome, or even attempted to
overcome the experience.
Nearly seven decades after the event, Zsuzsa feels
still indebted to countless miracles incorporated in the games ghetto children
played to distance themselves from the face of death. These usually took the
shape of a human face.
There was Erzsébet
Zsuzsa’s gentile playmate, friend and nanny who risked all
for the survival of her employers who in turn eventually adopted her. Her name
today is preserved by an olive tree planted in her memory in the Garden of the
Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
There was the family’s kindly, grey-moustached postman
who turned up unexpectedly to seek out Zsuzsa in the ghetto when she was
separated from her parents after witnessing her first massacre staged by the
Arrow-Cross. He must have been aware of the peril he risked as he delivered to
the tearful child messages of hope from her mother.
And there was a uniformed member of a Nazi raiding
party dragging away the Jews, whose hastily whispered advice saved the entire
family. Was he an angel? Or a decent cop? Or a member of the armed Zionist
resistance that regularly infiltrated the ranks of the killers to save their
The imagination of the temporarily unsupervised children
flared as they played in an atmosphere of heightened tension approaching the
state of collective hysteria endured by their families. The games gave the
children “space,” the author recalls, “that allowed us to leave behind the world
of the adults as well as the ghetto house and with it the Germans, our fear of
separation and the threat of death.”
They acted out well-known dramas or invented new ones,
reflecting the cultural pursuits of their community. “Good morning, Ophelia,”
the ghetto children no longer allowed to attend school greeted each other in the
morning, or “Good morning, Tristian,” or “Good morning, Rigoletto!”
Picking up the game, she relates, the person so addressed
would try to meet the challenge by answering the call and stepping into the
chosen theatrical role. The children sometimes changed the script to suit the
prevailing mood or circumstance. They played feverishly together throughout the
day and rehearsed new scenes alone in their minds late into the night.
Some children managed to save lives through play by
diffusing potentially lethal situations, adds
Professor George Eisen, executive director and associate vice-president at
Nazareth College of Rochester, New York. His pioneering, interdisciplinary study
of the ghettoes and concentration camps of Europe (Children & Play in the
Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows, Massachusetts University Press, 1988 &
Corvina/Budapest 1990) cites instances of children’s games staged to divert the
attention of guards from forbidden activities punishable by death such as
smuggling food or participating in educational activities.
Eisen is also a Jewish survivor of the Hungarian
Holocaust and the siege of Budapest. He poignantly quotes a five-year old girl
engaged in serious conversation with her doll: “Don't cry, little one. When the
Germans come to grab you, I will not leave you...“
In fact, people of all ages played games for life but,
despite the relatively high proportion of child victims, the adults were often
less successful. I add below a recollection in verse, rendered in my
translation, by the Jewish-Hungarian poet György Timár (1929-2003) of a complex
of games played in the an air raid shelter of a tenement not far from Zsuzsa’s
own apartment block:
GAMES IN THE CELLAR
(From the Calendar of Horror, Jan. 5, 1944)
The spirit fights back by playing even as bullets
Love as well as mildew bloom in the air raid shelter.
Two awkward gestures. A fleeting kiss: dry but defiant.
Love, those about to die salute thee in their desire.
In the evening, the killers smash in the outer gate.
But we have Mr. Knöpfler, a former bubbly salesman.
He’s bouncing forward, beaming: “Boys, how much for a
For just 10 days of delay? I say, 10,000 in gold...”
Just 10 days till liberation... We’re calculating if
life will pass today this exam in salesmanship.
“That will do! Shut your face... 10,000 then! Pay up
And don’t you worry –
you will yet make a pretty corpse!”
The textile dealer grumbles: Why does he have to toss in,
after the golden chains, his last, expensive sovereigns?
Let’s play while we can. Let each one play an appropriate
I swear on eternal love. Mr. Knöpfler negotiates.
The cannon thunder. Smoke blacks out the firmament.
Knöpfler is smart. He reserves 5,000 until the end.
(But they marched him to the river and executed him
abandoning his corpse by the quayside, on the 10th
The most moving record of a Holocaust survival game
that I know is in Zsuzsa’s book. It describes the triumph of a terrified,
starving girl over a nightmare endured during three days and nights at the
height of the siege when she was confined to a cupboard in an abandoned,
sprawling apartment by the river, exposed to heavy machinegun fire and
She recalls: “I decided to practice the piano in my
head... and started to imagine I was playing Beethoven’s f-minor sonata, op. 3,
from the first measure to the last. Some passages went very well, some not at
all. While my right hand’s fingers were really singing in the second part, my
left hand’s fingers were too slow playing the triplets in the fourth part.
“I need to practice this more, I thought. But I did
not go back to work on those passages; rather I started to play the second
sonata in A major; and again, I thought through every single note. In the
meantime, the bombing started anew... and (I) recited poetry, and prayed and
prayed and prayed.”