Survival in Sodom by Magda Székely

translated from the Hungarian and edited by Thomas Ország-Land (March 2014)

The author of the following pieces is hardly known abroad, yet she is one of the greatest among the Holocaust writers. Magda Székely (1936-2007),  poet, translator, literary editor, was a shy and very private person with relatively little published output. More of her work will appear in Survivors, an anthology of Hungarian Holocaust poetry in Thomas Ország-Land’s English translation, to be released by Smokestack Books (England) in June.






Saving the Sodomites


I hold a solitary vigil

over this forsaken garden

of bones. The skulls have called my name.

It is my lot to guard them.


The Lord once called a prophet’s name.

He answered, and the ossified,

dead flesh began to grow again.

Behold, the hecatombs revived.


I do not possess the power

to grow live flesh upon dead bone.

This time, though, I call the questions.

No-one answers. I’m alone.



What’s the use of retribution

over swiftly passing time?

Can you exercise forgiveness

if all deny the crime?


The fragile stalk of trust can feed

from just thin air. I’ll never tire

to seek ten righteous Sodomites

…to save this city from the fire.




The Sentence


I can’t relent, for I am alive in the place

of those who can’t forgive or change with time:

the slain… awaiting justice as obstinately

as stones are weighing down the earth.


But spring is bright. I eat, and I have grown.

My living flesh would reach towards the living.

I’d like to train my life around mundane

events like plants around a garden post –


yet must remain as resolutely faithful

and strain as unflinching as the dead are dead.

I must remain, like stones upon the earth,

unshaken in our righteousness.


Earth slowly heals the void left by their lives.

Their moaning spaces fill with new arrivals.

Their footprints disappear. My own survival

alone remains the last indictment.







A human being consuming

a hearty lunch, or observing

in comfort from the kerbside

the neighbours’ shrunken faces

during their faltering march,

isolated, deserted,

herded in hatred towards

the killing fields by the Danube –




how could such a person tell

upon what appalling shores,

and over what gaping abyss

I guard against missing a step

and what tenacious powers

tie me still to this place,

and what is the weight I must

carry in isolation?


I’m holding such human beings,

in truth, alone in my arms,

and if no-one prevents my fall

and if my strength should fail

and the final crumb of compassion

should at last be lost…

if no-one comes to my aid,

the abyss will swallow us all.



THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His poetry appears in current, forthcoming or very recent issues of Acumen, Ambit, The London Magazine, The Jewish Quarterly and Stand.


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