3. Victims of Persecution

On the pretext of the bombing of Kassa on 26 June 1941 by unidentified*The official inquiry found, on inconclusive evidence, that the aircraft involved in the raid were disguised Russian bombers. A new inquiry held after the war found, again on inconclusive evidence, that the raid was carried out by a unit of the German Air Force, disguised as Russian planes. Independent research outside Hungary has recently put forward yet another theory. The raid was carried out by the Slovak Air Force on the spur of the moment, when they decided to change sides. They went over to the Russians and dropped their bombs on the way, on account of their ill-feeling against the Hungarians in the territorial dispute concerning the part of Slovakia which was returned to Hungary in 1938. None of the theories is proven, but all are possible. aircraft, Hungary declared war on the Soviet Union, and thus entered World War II on the German side. At first Hungary’s participation in the war was formal, although her commitment to Germany was serious; Hungary’s inter-war foreign policy hoped to achieve its aims with German assistance. The First Vienna Award (1938) had secured former Hungarian territories in the north; the Second Vienna Award (1940) reinstated Hungarian rule in Northern Transylvania. Furthermore, when Germany demanded free access to Yugoslavia through Hungary in early 1941, it was granted, despite the non-agression pact existing between Hungary and her southern neighbour. Prime Minister Pá1 Teleki, who saw no way out of the dilemma, committed suicide. The Germans were able to invade Yugoslavia, and Hungary received her share of the booty: the former territory of Bánát and Bácska was returned, but for another year the Hungarian government managed to postpone active participation in the war, for which she was ill-prepared.

In home affairs, the most serious issue concerned the ‘Jewish question’. Germany enforced her racial policies on her allies at first with excessive cajolery, later with open pressure. Hungary had a sizeable Jewish population, whose participation in the 1919 revolution had fostered anti-semitism. The first anti-Jewish Act was passed by Parliament in 1938, and the third Act, accepting the notorious Nuremberg Law regarding the definition of a Jew, in 1941, yet the Hungarian Government was reluctant to take part in the ‘final solution’ until Nazi Germany formally occupied Hungary, her former ally, on 19 March 1944. Large-scale deportation of Hungarian Jewry took place in the summer of 1944. Previous to this, Jews and other ‘undesirable’ radicals had been called up for military service, and were sent to the Eastern Front as ‘auxiliary forces’; but in fact, they were used for forced labour in inhuman conditions, digging trenches for the regular troops, or assisting them in the maintenance of the supply routes to and from the front line. Regular troops were ill-equipped for the inclement Russian winter; ‘auxiliary forces’ were even less well cared for, and as a result they died by the thousand of epidemics, starvation, or simply exposure.

By the autumn of 1944 Hungarian Jews were already in ghettoes, or on their way to concentration camps in Germany. Most of them perished there*Estimates about the number of Hungarian Jews perishing in German concentration camps vary between a conservative 200,000 and a maximum of 600,000. The wide discrepancy in the estimates may be partly accounted for by the territorial readjustment of Hungary between 1938-41. Hungary in 1938 had a territory of 93,000 square km. with a population of nearly 9 millions. By 1941 its territory had almost doubled to 170,000 square km., with a population of about 15 millions. Estimates sometimes include the Jewry of territories returned to Hungary, sometimes not. The official estimate of the total loss given by both the Hungarian government and the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971) amounts to about 400,000. except those from the capital, whose transport to Germany was delayed as long as possible, and most of whom consequently survived the holocaust, for their ‘final procession’ was prevented by the collapse of the German war machine early in 1945. These victims of the persecution included many writers and other intellectuals. Their fate epitomizes the worst aspect of human intolerance, for these writers represented a wide spectrum of the Hungarian intellectual scene, from Catholic to Communist, their only crime being their Jewish origins. ‘Victims of persecution’ is not a literary term, and its use in a history of literature aims only to draw attention to the fact that literary terms are sometimes inadequate in describing the impact of the outside world on literature.

Of poets who fell victim to the persecution of Hungarian Jewry, György Sárközi (1899-1945) should be mentioned first. Although an ailing man, he was conscripted for forced labour and died of privation in a concentration camp. Discovered by Nyugat when very young, his somewhat late first volume, The Struggle of Angels (1926), revealed a promising talent, with its refined poems about his cult of beauty, his subdued suffering, and his beseeching faith, written mostly in traditional forms, but not entirely free from the impact of expressionism. First he associated himself with neo-Catholics, but later he found aim and purpose with the népi writers. During his search for ideals he fell silent as a poet, and experimented with prose. As a prominent figure in the népi movement (he became the editor of Response and of the controversial series of books The Discovery of Hungary), Sárközi’s attention turned to social problems, particularly that of the peasantry, and this preoccupation was reflected in his later poems (Believe in Miracles! 1941). While his early poetry lacked artistic or individual revolt, his last period, abruptly ended, possessed an air of resignation usually achieved only after youthful ebullience. He consciously accepted his fate, and expressed his foreboding thoughts without any air of pretentious martyrdom (‘November’, ‘Real Death’, ‘Holy Man on the Road’, and particularly ‘Raindrops’).

Death is the key motif in the poetry of Miklós Radnóti (1909-44), whose very birth took place in the shadow of death: his mother died giving birth to him and his twin brother, who was stillborn. Moreover, he lost his father when he was scarcely an adolescent. These experiences provided him with anxieties enough for a lifetime. His poetry, both early and later, is characterized by poise, control of language, and precision of expression. His verse often has the abstract quality of music; the impression made by the sounds lingers in the memory. He is often in a dreamy, introspective mood, as if half asleep, with only his hesitant pen tracing his mood.

In his first volumes (Pagan Greetings, 1930; The Song of New Shepherds, 1931; and Rising Wind, Szeged, 1933) Radnóti set out to capture exuberant moods through a moderate cult of urbane paganism and gentle eroticism (exclamation marks are frequently used to underline his attitude); yet his solitude, his close relationship with death come to the surface of his verse whenever his mood becomes pensive. He speaks of ‘ripening for death’ in a series of images (e.g. an apple, when ripened, falls off in ‘A variation on Sadness’, 1929), or writes of worms, featuring as symbols of death, destroyers of the body (e.g. ‘24 April 1932’). The reader cannot help thinking that young Radnóti is yearning for death – and his omnipresent thoughts of death reach their climax in his ‘lager verse’, when the relevance of his own message is proved by external events.

While at Szeged University, Radnóti joined the ‘Art College of Szeged Youth’, a radical group of talented young intellectuals whose political orientation had definite socialist leanings, and whose interest in the peasantry had objectives similar to those of the village explorers. His involvement with this movement provided him with lifelong friendships, and with a more militant poetic attitude. After graduation, in spite of his brilliant dissertation (The Artistic Development of Margit Kaffka, Szeged, 1934), he never obtained a teaching appointment; he earned his livelihood as a private tutor and by producing excellent translations from classical Greek and Latin as well as from English, French, and German poetry. In the second period of his development he published New Moon (Szeged, 1935), and Keep Walking, You Who Are Condemned to Death! (1936). Rhymes and strict traditional forms, which he now employed exclusively did not impose any limitations on the growing emotional intensity of his poetry. The narrow range of his themes – death, the cause of excruciating fears, and idyllic love, the natural refuge from and antidote to death, together with a militant defiance – indicate only his single-minded preoccupation with his own predicament.

It is the volume Steep Road (1938) which shows Radnóti in full armour. Together with his Clouded Sky, published posthumously in 1946, these two volumes contain his ‘Eclogues I-VIII’,*‘Eclogue V’ exists in a fragment only, and ‘Eclogue VI’ is generally considered lost, although scholars argue that a fragment, dated 19 May 1944, may contain a substantial part of it. which powerfully sum up his poetic message. Radnóti translated Virgil’s ‘Eclogue IX’ in 1938, the year he wrote his ‘Eclogue I’. The sequential numbering of the titles suggests that they ought to be considered as a series to which the key is supplied by a quotation from Virgil containing the phrase Fas versum atque nefas;*Virgil: Georgic I, ii: 505. this forms the basic idea of Radnóti’s ‘Eclogues’, for he sets out to explore the situation of the individual and the poet in a world in which ‘right and wrong have changed places’.

The eclogue is a pastoral dialogue set in a bucolic landscape, and is written in hexameters. This form fitted Radnóti’s gentle, idyllic style, and it enabled him to achieve self-expression; together with Razglednicas (dicussed below), the ‘Eclogues’ mark the peak of his poetic achievement. ‘Eclogue I’ strikes the tone of the series. In the dialogue between the The Pastor and The Poet, Radnóti, having referred to the death of Attila József, and Lorca in the Spanish Civil War, describes his inner urge to testify as a witness to whatever this inhuman age may bring:

Yet, I write, and I live in the midst of this insane world like
that oak there: it knows that it is to be cut down,
and although it is marked with a white cross,
indicating that tomorrow the area will be cleared
by the woodcutter – while expecting him, it puts forth a new leaf.

‘Eclogue II’, written after the breach of the non-aggression pact with Yugoslavia in April 1941, is a dialogue between The Pilot and The Poet, in which Radnóti writes an apology for the man who may prevent him writing it: ‘Will you write about me?’ – asks The Pilot; ‘If I’m left alive. And if there’s still anyone to write to’ – answers The Poet. In ‘Eclogue III’ Radnóti abandons the form of dialogue, and beseeches the Muse to fortify his spirit to withstand the personal danger which is approaching him step by step. He clings to happy memories of tranquil scenes, and of love, a constant feature from now on in his poetry. ‘Eclogue IV’ was written after Radnóti had already served terms of forced labour; it was only the general outcry of his influential intellectual friends that secured his release. This eclogue shows him hardened in his attitude of protest; he felt that it was more important that his works registering his protest should survive than that he himself should:

The ripe fruit hangs a while, then falls. You’ll lie
At peace in the deep and memory-packed soil.
But till then, let the smoke of your rage climb the sky.
Write on the air! That’s something they can’t spoil!*Translated by John Wain.

Early in 1944 the death-wish motif becomes strong in his poetry. Occasionally he wishes death would relieve him of his responsibility to record the growing horrors. Yet his desire – not to vanish without leaving a trace – is kept alive by the memory of those who lost their lives in the labour camps of the Ukraine, the subject of ‘Eclogue V’. When in May 1944 he is called up again, he knows that this is his last encounter in a losing battle with death. He is strangely composed, and accepts the situation with the dignity of a martyr who goes to the stake because he has no alternative but to join the ranks of those who perished before him. ‘Eclogue VII’ is a document of this last stage:

Without commas, one line touching the other
I write poems the way I live, in darkness,
blind, crossing the paper like a worm.
Flashlights, books – the guards took everything.
There’s no mail, only fog drifts over the barracks.*Translated by Steven Polgár.

The fact that his most treasured possessions have been confiscated by the guards does not deter him from writing; he keeps on recording the collective suffering of the internees in gently rolling hexameters, calmly and without bitterness. He is strengthened by memories, since the imagination cannot be held captive, and it always returns home for comfort. Gentleness gives place to defiance and Biblical wrath in ‘Eclogue VIII’, written a few days before the camp was dismantled prior to the final forced march to Germany. In a dialogue with the prophet Nahum, the poet refers again to the vital role of the witness: ‘I know your ancient fury; your writings have been preserved.’*Translated by Clive Wilmer. His introversion has disappeared through the common suffering, and as Nahum spoke against Nineveh now Radnóti fulminates against his oppressors.

In the eclogues there are constant references to his wife, the Fanny of his earlier poems. Although they are apart, she is the source of his strength; his deep attachment brought forth some of the best love poems in the language: ‘Hesitant Ode’ (1943), or ‘Letter to My Wife’ (1944). The other main theme of his last poems is nostalgia for the peaceful world left behind; he embroiders on the minor details of his stays in Paris (‘Paris’, 1943) or declares his loyalty to his native country which has rejected him: ‘I would not know …’ (1944). Nostalgia envelops even ‘old-fashioned suffering’ in ‘Old Prisons’ (1944):

Oh, the peace of old prisons, beautiful
old-fashioned suffering, death,
poetic death, sublime and heroic picture,
rhyming speech that people listen to –
how far your are …*Translated by Steven Polgár.

The last major poem, conceived in nostalgic mood, ‘A la recherche …’, radiates a serenity and happiness derived from the satisfaction of seeing his life complete, drawing to the end he had envisaged. The long column of inmates of the forced labour camp set out on 17 September towards its destiny; as the Russian army closed in on the Germans in the Balkans, the concentration camps in Yugoslavia were evacuated, and their personnel sent to Germany in a forced march. Radnóti entrusted copies of his poems to friends; he knew now that his life did not matter, but the records had to be preserved. Radnóti marched as far as Abda, a small village near Győr, in Hungary, where he was executed on or about 9 November, together with dozens of other internees who were unable to walk on. The mass grave was exhumed after the war, and in the pocket of Radnóti’s trench coat a notebook was found containing his last, hitherto unknown poems. Of these, the Razglednicas,*Postcards (in Serbian). four in number, are of special interest. They are short masterpieces, describing incidents in the death march. Radnóti wrote similar poems earlier; there is a series of ‘Cartes Postales’ (1937) written during his stay in Paris. In spite of the complete contrast between these short sets of poems, they strangely express a sense of continuity, as does his imagery of death in both his early and later verse.

‘Razglednica IV’ was written a few days before his death:

I fell next to him. His body rolled over.
It was tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head – ’This is how
you’ll end.’ ‘Just lie quietly,’ I said to myself.
Patience flowers into death now.
‘Der springt noch auf*‘This one might get away yet’. I heard above me.
Dark filthy blood was drying on my ear.*Translated by Steven Polgár.

It would be futile to speculate whether any of his poems have been lost (as the reference in ‘Eclogue VII’ seems to suggest) since his poetry is complete as it is, and he has fulfilled what Horace referred to in the lines: ‘Exegi monumentum aere perennius’.*Horace: Odes, III. 30.

Of the prose writers who fell victim to persecution, Károly Pap (1897-1945) represented an uncompromisingly Jewish outlook and loyalty, the originality of which startled his critics. Son of an orthodox rabbi, Pap, having revolted against his family, exposed the sham of Jewish emancipation and assimilation and advocated the acceptance of minority status. His short stories, first published in Nyugat, reveal his profound experience of Jewish identity. He is hardly interested in the superficial issue of the conflict between Jewish middle-class and Gentile gentry; he is a moralist and a mystic, whose chief concern is the excruciating dilemma of Jewish existence. Often inspired by the Talmud, his apocryphal stories are permeated by the beliefs of ancient Jewry. His style is plain without unwanted ornamentation, yet powerful, and not affected by the looseness of colloquial speech; its overall effect has a strangely poetic quality (You Delivered Us From Death, 1932). Of his novels, The Eighth Station of the Cross (1933) is allegorical, a painter’s struggle to create a portrait of Christ. Azarel (1937) is autobiographical: in Gyuri Azarel’s struggle to find certainty, his grandfather’s orthodox piety is as inadequate for him as is his father’s neophyte hypocrisy. The intolerant atmosphere of the early 1940s turned Pap’s attention to the theme of Exodus, as witnessed by his unpublished drama Moses (1942), with the message that a prophet must represent his people even if their wish contradicts his own belief. The last news of Pap came from Lager Buchenwald in November 1944.

Andor Endre Gelléri (1906-45) came from a lower-middle-class background, and was brought up in financial insecurity in a largely working-class district of Budapest, Óbuda. These were decisive factors in his attitude to life and literature. Although he started writing at a surprisingly early age, and by his early twenties was an established author of the Nyugat, his inner uncertainty, verging on inferiority complex, prevented him from believing in his own talents. In addition, Gelléri himself had first-hand experience of insecurity; he had a series of odd jobs and long spells of unemployment in his youth. The world of his short stories is peopled with unemployed workers, slum dwellers, tramps, beggars, people living in squalor and dire poverty, or dreamy white-collar workers in the badly-lit offices of seedy firms, people who had long given up their ideal of a decent livelihood. Gelléri wanted to describe the lives of these characters with realism and a rational approach, yet his short stories are nearly always conceived on a creative impulse, and often possess an elusively mystic quality or a note of irrationalism (e.g. ‘Adam and Eve’ 1934), which distinguishes them from similar works by his contemporaries. He frequently uses the first person singular in his narrative; his characters speak in lower-middle-class Budapest slang. His vocabulary is rich in evocative adjectives; nature is often personified in descriptions of scenery. The stories contain elements of the grostesque, and situations to which no solution seems possible. He died of typhoid fever in a military hospital after having been released by the US Army from Lager Mauthausen. His unfinished autobiography (The Story of One Man’s Self-Respect, 1957) is a document of how a largely hostile world encroaches on his sensitivity.

Antal Szerb (1901-45) is chiefly remember for his widely-read History of Hungarian Literature (Kolozsvár, 1934). This History was something of a novelty, mainly on account of its style, for Szerb wore his scholarship lightly. The basic concept of the History is based on the sociological approach; in Szerb’s view Hungarian literature has always been dominated by one particular class at any given time, the clergy, the aristocracy, the lesser nobility, and the middle-class in turn, a concept which has at least a grain of truth. Szerb is irreverent in his treatment of both his subject and the accepted views of scholars whenever possible; he uses his wit and learning to discredit national idiosyncrasies, or to ridicule the ‘sacred cows’ of Hungarian literature. Armed with a knowledge of Freud which helped him in his analysis of hidden motives, inspired by the method of the Geistesgeschichte School, of which he was an ardent follower in his intellectually formative years, Szerb examined the main features of Hungarian literature in its European context, drew the background with a few bold strokes, and painted the portraits of writers with the sure hand of an artist.

Szerb was anything but a dry scholar, not only on account of his sophisticated intellect and his wide knowledge of the chief currents of European thought, but also because of his considerable creative talent. He started his career with poetry, and also wrote fiction. Of his novels, The Pendragon Legend (1934) combines good entertainment with a knowledge of the occult and Celtic myths; Traveller and Moonlight (1937), the irony and futility of scholarship with the search for one’s true identity. His last major work was A History of World Literature (1941), in which his enthusiasm for the values of European civilization found an outlet in an age when this civilization seemed to be disintegrating. Szerb died of starvation and privation in a forced labour camp in Western Hungary.

Another talented essayist, Gábor Halász (1901-45), died in the same camp, and of the same causes. By profession a librarian, Halász wrote reviews first in East and later in Nyugat. Szerb’s ‘intellectual frivolity’ was the exact opposite of his approach; Halász’s essays were inspired by lofty principles, and his style was careful, precise, and consequently somewhat dry, yet always fascinating and thought-provoking. Most of his essays on both Hungarian and foreign literature were published posthumously; nevertheless, the only volume (In Search of Reason, 1938) to be published in his lifetime established him as a leading critic and essayist, a verdict approved by posterity.

Finally, György Bálint (1906-43), the Marxist critic whose death in the Ukraine was remembered in Radnóti’s ‘Eclogue V’, was a prolific author who made his living by journalism. Bálint was noted for his militant moral indignation and for a sharp critical acumen. He published no major single work – his only attempt, a diary of his travels in Spain, was banned by the authorities. Nevertheless, many of his assorted minor pieces were published in collections (e.g. In Praise of Animals, 1938; or Farewell to Reason, 1940) during his lifetime. His significance is, however, understandably overestimated by Marxist scholarship.