POETRY CAN CHANGE THE WORLD
Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the
Translated & Edited by Thomas Ország-Land
Smokestack Books Middlesborough/England 2014
ISBN 978-0-9927409-2-4, Paperback 115pp. Ł8:95
THIS IS pioneering work. Thomas Ország-Land’s
book has changed the pattern, finding, editing and translating the
literature of the Holocaust, and opened a fascinating new page in
the Western poetic tradition.
Until now, there has not been a substantial anthology of Hungarian
Holocaust poetry published either in English or in Hungarian. The
reason for this lies in the denial of the Hungarian media and
literary establishment that has largely avoided the topic for
decades. This phenomenon today is not quite as drastic as it used to
be, but the output, research and study of the literary imagination
of the Holocaust have remained hitherto neglected in Hungary. And
this has been the case even in the West. But this anthology has
Thomas Ország-Land’s small collection expresses
the innermost feelings and aesthetic conceptions of great poets who
wrote about the Holocaust – including a realistic awareness of the
threat of their own, violent death – and describes the Hungarian
face of the tragedy. This is important because, in every country
involved in the Holocaust, the nature of the attack on Jewish life
reflected the culture in which that crime was perpetrated.
With special concern, great poetic talent and aesthetic interest,
Ország-Land has listened. He has seen, heard and conceived the
visions, sounds and artistic expressions of these Hungarian poems
and recreated them in English.
Moreover, having survived the Holocaust as a Jewish-Hungarian child
and remained in its shadow throughout his life, he has collected,
translated and edited the poems with a personal intensity and
enormous love and care. He has selected some of the most beautiful,
heart-wrenching lyrics about this previously unimaginable process
that divested people of their humanity and turned them into ashes.
His book is of great value to our culture – not just because a new
collection of excellent poetry is always welcome, but also because
the poems introduce the reader to the intimate personal response of
eloquent Holocaust witnesses to a still barely comprehensible
sequence of events.
Relentlessly, the book reminds us of an irrational compulsion in
Western culture to condemn the Jews for every conceivable wickedness
in the world, the significance of which cannot be overlooked. For
two millennia, the Jews have been seen as the murderers of God and
as the Devil himself, drinking the blood of innocent Christian
children. In the Middle Ages, the Jews were accused of sorcery and
heresy and even for spreading the Plague.
These ideas have survived the passage of time.
The modern era has created new myths. Many influential philosophers,
artists and politicians in the last two centuries have seriously
blamed the tiny Jewish minority for the contradictory advent of
capitalism as well as socialism and much else besides.
Thus, after Hungary’s defeat in the First World War, the country’s
Jews were accused of war-mongering, foul play, treason and murder.
There was a short-lived communist administration routed in 1919 by a
counter-revolutionary regime headed by Admiral Miklós Horthy. He
unleashed a “White Terror” of murder, torture and mass imprisonment
targeting many thousands of left-leaning citizens from all social
classes prominently including the Jewish minority.
Europe’s first modern anti-Jewish laws were promulgated by Hungary
in 1924, severely restricting the access of Jews to higher education
and their employment in academia and public institutions. Hungary’s
alliance with Nazi Germany followed, leading to the Second World
War, the Holocaust and the subsequent Soviet occupation prolonged
How did, then, the country respond to the meticulously organized
murder of half a million of its own Jewish citizens?
Any artistic representation or public discussion of the Holocaust
was banned in Hungary after 1949 at the personal instruction of
Stalin. His decree was enforced by the Communist Party throughout
the Soviet bloc. Some dissident writers managed to defy the ban. But
they had to write in code or seek exposure in obscure publications
incapable of attracting sufficient attention.
This policy stayed in place until the collapse of Soviet power in
1989. Since then, a few courageous writers plagued by the past have
at last begun to air their response to the Hungarian Holocaust. Some
foreign literature has been translated also into Hungarian to reach
Yet the pendulum has swung back again. New pressures for denial are
emerging. A quarter century after the end of Soviet occupation, an
independent Hungarian government today declines to acknowledge
Hungary’s enduring responsibility for the Holocaust. The official
view is that the country was a victim of Nazi Germany.
But those touched by the Holocaust could be silenced no longer.
Their memories have persisted despite the lingering political
suppression. How could it be otherwise? The experience of the
terror, the fear, the humiliation, the pain that they or their
forebears had once endured is yielding poetry of great value to
readers well beyond Hungary.
This book comprises Ország-Land’s English translations of the work
of 17 other outstanding Holocaust poets, as well as his own written
originally in English. There are 52 poems here born out of personal
experience of a catastrophe that occurred 70 years ago in a very
different world, but addressing us in a language accessible to the
21st century and indeed to the future. The poems go back in time as
far as Jenő Heltai (1871–1957); they end with the work of Eszter
Forrai (b. 1938) who is still writing in France.
Several poets included in this volume, such as Heltai as well as
Frigyes Karinthy, György Faludy and Miklós Radnóti, are well known
and much loved figures of Hungarian literature. Most of them are
certainly not known by their public as Holocaust writers. In fact,
their work – when politically involved – is widely interpreted as
general anti-war protest (p. 12) rather than a desperate plea
against racist outrage.
Heltai, for example, a passionate Hungarian patriot well known in
his country as a great raconteur and playwright, refused to be seen
as “just” a Jew. His trust in the magical power of poetry was simply
Slanders hurt (he wrote). . . but your song is
It will outlive any lie.
Drink up your poison if you must,
but sing until you die.
Karinthy sees no chance of escape or resistance:
Let’s face it, mate, you’ve been brought down
by every law and trick, that’s clear –
The jackals have picked up your scent.
Hungry crows are circling near.
Faludy physically fought back, eventually serving as a tail-gunner
with the American Air Force. This was his protest against the
We recognize no father, mother,
we cut down every apple tree
and poison every well we find
and serve any cause that pays us well.
Without a word, or thought or even
hatred, we guzzle up your wine
and seize and cart away your chattels,
and kidnap, rape and sell your child...
and you must thank us before we go
or we shall brain you by your gate
because we are that shabby lot,
the Germans’ infamous mercenaries.
The great poet Radnóti knew that he would be murdered. But he could
not admit that this would happen because of his racial origin;
rather, he insisted, it would occur because he was a decent human
being, as he put it, One whose own blood shall at last be spilled
/ . . . for I have never killed. But Radnóti was not killed
because of his aesthetic and moral commitment. He was killed because
he was a Jew.
He states in his final poem that he would be shot when he could no
longer walk. The Hungarian original of the poem includes a sentence
in German, Der springt noch auf (translated by Ország-Land as
He’ll get away yet), indicating beyond a doubt that his
executioner about to shoot him for the second time was himself
German. But the troops herding the death march towards mass murder
in fact did not speak German. They were regular Hungarian soldiers.
Ernő Szép, a well-known writer, poet, and playwright before the
Holocaust, demonstrates his rage:
Resist, resist such wickedness.
Insist: Their truth odious!
And have the strength to ridicule
the preachers of such lunacy.
Many poets in this collection were somewhat younger and sought other
ways of living with the tension of survival as Jews in Hungary at a
time of peril. One heartbreaking poem by Éva Láng explores the agony
Swallow? Swallow what? Only saliva
moistens the tongue, not mutton stew
and bean soup, braised kidneys and greens.
Asleep is the palate. The teeth.
Her Wandering Jews also gives a frightening insight into some
survivors’ vision of themselves:
There is no escaping from us,
no shelter even in heaven,
for we are at home in the universe:
wandering Jews, we’ll live forever.
In her last poem before her torture and murder, Hanna Szenes shakes
the reader to the core:
I won’t be 23 in July.
I knew the risks.
The stakes were high.
I played for life. I lost.
Magda Székely confronts the hopelessness after the Holocaust of the
search for responsibility and forgiveness:
. . . What’s the use of retribution
over swiftly passing time?
Can you exercise forgiveness
if all deny the crime?
Ország-Land, himself an outstanding poet with several of his own
poems included in this volume, shares his pain in tense lyrics
addressing Kurt Waldheim, the fourth secretary-general of the United
Nations and the ninth president of Austria. Waldheim had been a
high-ranking Wehrmacht intelligence officer during WWII. His
unsuccessfully concealed war record provoked widespread outrage in
the 1980s. The poem resounds like an incantation or curse:
...for I will record your name as well as the crimes
from which you say you averted your indifferent eyes,
in tales of horror to be recounted throughout the ages
till the end of the march of innocent future generations
to weigh up anew, again, and again, and recoil from your
These poems mourn the Holocaust dead and warn against the recurrence
of such barbarity ever again. The anthology is one poet’s response
to a huge artistic and moral challenge. It is also a very timely
book as some of its contributors are still with us: they have lived
to see how their work has changed the world.
Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth holds the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of
Holocaust Studies at the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies at
the University of Texas at Dallas. Her latest book is Light
within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry,
co-authored with Frederick Turner (Syracuse University Press, 2014).