HOME POETRY UP

MIKLOS RADNOTI

 

 

HIS BEST POEMS were found by chance in the communal grave of 22 Hungarian prisoners executed because they were also Jewish. They are treasured as some of the most flawless modern additions to their country’s rich poetic heritage. They have gone a little way towards teaching tolerance to new generations of Hungarians in the treatment of their racial, religious and ethnic minorities.
Born 100 years ago in 1909, Miklós Radnóti was probably the greatest among the mature writers of the period to witness and record the Holocaust. He was murdered in 1944, shortly before the close of the Second World War, a victim of the National Socialists’ attempt at the permanent “ethnic cleansing” of Europe.
Anne Frank, Éva Láng and András Mezei were children.Primo Levi and Paul Celan were very young men eventually compelled to turn to literature in order to comprehend and digest the brutality of their experience, for which they had been totally unprepared.
Unlike many others, Radnóti had plenty of opportunities to escape forced labour and death at the hands of the Nazis. He was at the height of his literary powers when he chose to enter the storm, notebook in hand, deliberately seeking to transform the horror into poetry, as he put it, “for reminders to future ages”. His last poems transcend the limits of race and tribe in a universal appeal to humanity. Read in chronological order, the poems follow the author “along the highways, down the soul’s appalling deep chasms” to his clearly anticipated death. These intensely autobiographical pieces describe a writer stripped of all the security and comfort of civilized existence and caught up in history’s insane march towards collective destruction, who yet maintains his stubborn personal dignity and fierce concern for the future.
Radnóti went on publicly fighting back until the end. According to the legend that has grown up around his figure --which I have checked against reality in interviews with survivors of the same camps and the eventual “deathmarch” -- the poet bribed his Hungarian guards to smuggle his work to the outside world. The notebook containing his final and most moving poems and found in the end on his body had been going around from hand to hand, giving encouragement to fellow prisoners.

A facsimile edition of the notebook, containing the work in careful, even handwriting and complete with printers’ instructions, was published in Hungary in 1971. Popular demand necessitated an immediate second printing. Copies have become prized collectors’ items.
He was born in Budapest and educated at Szeged University. He was prevented from pursuing an academic career because of his racial origin as well as his humanism.He was obliged to make a meagre living by producing what are recognized today as brilliant translations from classical Greek and Latin as well as English, French and German poetry. Some of his own poems were seized and others not allowed to be published at all, while the rest attracted little attention. Most of Radónti’s contemporaries never heard of him at the time.
Radnóti introduced himself in his tragic notebook as “a Hungarian poet” despite his deprivation of Hungarian status and identity as well as civil rights because of his Jewish birth. He was executed as a Jew, exactly as he had described in his very last poem the mass shooting of civilian captives, despite his earlier, deeply felt conversion to Christianity.
Today, his poetry and legend mean many things to many people. To me, they are a flame of hope against racist and religious bigotry. For Radnóti’s dogged refusal to tolerate hostile discrimination against any minority has in a way triumphed in the end.
The inane ideology that triggered the Holocaust has blighted the lives of generations of the descendants of its authors and their followers with shame and remorse. They are now the first to cry:
Never Again! We know very little of the execution squad comprising retreating soldiers who murdered the poet at the age of 35. Radnóti goes on, gathering disciples.

Thomas Ország-Land,
London & Budapest, 2009