Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust

Translated & Edited by Thomas Ország-Land

Smokestack Books Middlesborough/England 2014 ISBN 978-0-9927409-2-4, Paperback 115pp. Ł8:95

Reviewed by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth

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 changed that.

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 for decades.

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 the bookshops.

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 unshakable:

           Slanders hurt (he wrote). . . but your song is true.
          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 Hitler-Horthy alliance:

         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 of hunger:

          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 life.

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).