Robust Women by András Mezei

Translated from the Hungarian & Edited by Thomas Ország-Land (November 2013)

THE author of these poems (1930-2008) was a child survivor of the Budapest Ghetto who took part in the recovery and defence of Israel as a teenager, and returned to Hungary eventually to emerge as one of the dominant voices guiding the country’s post-communist reconstruction after the demise of Soviet power. His poetry will take centre place in ceremonies marking Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Year in 2014.


        I.   A CHOICE


When the children were torn from their mothers,

and the ghetto was searched for tiny creatures

left in hiding, and the cries and the screams

were drowned by loudspeakers blaring out lullabies,

and the children were crammed into lorries, a German

soldier turned to one pleading mother,

        How many children have you?

        and she replied, I have three —

then he said, You may take back one of them

and helped her on board the vehicle

to choose one, as three pairs of eyes lit up

and three pairs of arms expectantly opened

towards her: Mother, take me, me, me!

…An eyewitness recalls that she

declined the choice. She left alone.

        How many children have you?

         She informs God: I have three! 



          II.    BLUE EYES


They who ravished the robust women

among my forbears, they our tormentors

still live within me to this day

with the spilled blood of our menfolk.


So many Franks and Slavs and Mongols,

brave blades of the pogroms, lurk in my bones

yet, by the right of the mothers, the Jew

stares back at them from my face.


They've changed my brown eyes into blue,

and made my curly dark hair blond,

that rabble of all Teutonic Europe

who gather and bustle and stir in my cells,


they who have dressed my bones in their skin,

their white skin soft like fancy linen –

But as the rabbis have blessed the fate

of the Jewish people in the offspring,


and brought them up, despite the rapes,

from age to age as Jewish children,

still the murderers have blue eyes

and blue eyed also are the victims.



          III.   ROBBERY, NAKED


You wont be needing these, said he,

and flung my mother’s photograph

among his booty, and my shirt.

I still retained heaped on my blanket

the things I had to bring: a mess-tin,

my boots and socks, warm underclothes,

a bar of shaving-soap – and I had 

that irremovable mark on my finger

in the place of my looted wedding ring.   





Deported women, still they are sitting

in that great timber granary

on their few precious, wretched objects

near Köszeg, to this very day,


where my old mother defecated

as she sat there, and where the straw

stuck to my little sister's poor

urine-infected private parts,


and where my older sister sang

softly, eyes closed, hands on her ears

and squeezing her vagina tight –

still sitting in that great granary.



        V.   HIDING


Inside, a baby crying. Outside, the search,

the trampling boots. The fugitives petrified.

Then someone hands a pillow to the mother.

The babe falls silent, silent. Silent!



        VI.   TESTIMONY


The people stripped off their garments.

They did not weep. They did not shout.

They did not beg for mercy.

A gray-haired woman standing by

the freshly dug hole in the ground

cuddled a baby in her arms – she

sang for it, tickled it, and the child

rejoiced in rings of laughter. 






Her elder son has emigrated

to Palestine. Her daughter Leah

has married in America.

But she, Blanche Schwarcz in the kitchen

with war-time lemon-tea substitute,

some goose-fat treasured in the pot

and brown bread on the table

(she is still busy day by day)

keeps spying through the curtain of

the years down to the dusky portal,

keeps glancing up to the square blue sky

framed by the ventilation shaft,

that small blind window on her final

residence in this world.

She stands outside by the well-wrung mop

that she has placed before her threshold,

she goes on rinsing the long red passageway

to welcome a new arrival.

She would never leave the ghetto

not till her younger son returns

…although she knows he will not.






My daddy's lost children: Eve and little Joe.

My mummy's lost children: Stevie and little Paul.

My daddy's marriage, a legendary love match.

But mummy mourned at every river – I know

she wished to die.


My daddy declared: his parents' graves lay here.

And mummy declared that people should not forsake

their parents' final resting place.

And thus they merged their equal losses, although

at first it was only

beneath the canopy,

for the law took its time to confirm

the death of mummy's husband and daddy's wife.


Mummy wanted no children

after Stevie and little Paul;

but after Eve and little Joe,

my daddy yearned for babies more and more.


That is why I am here. I was named

after daddy's late daughter. I live in their place.

My mourning father was 54 years of age

and my mother was 42

when I was born.     



THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His next Book: The Survivors (Smokestack Press, England, 2014).


IMAGES of András Mezei: Courtesy of Gábor Mezei


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