Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust

a review by Zsuzsanna Ozsvath (September 2014)


Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust, edited and translated by Thomas Ország-Land
Smokestack Books, Middlesbrough, TS5 6WA, UK. 
Cover image: Budapest, January 1945 (courtesy, Krisztian Ungváry)



This collection of Hungarian Holocaust poems not only testifies to the suffering of the Jewish people during the Shoah, but also reminds us of the irrational compulsion of Western culture to condemn the Jews for every conceivable wicked act in the world. The importance of this compulsion cannot be overlooked. For two millennia, the Jews have been described as the murderers of God and as the Devil himself, drinking the blood of innocent Christian children. In the Middle Ages, the myth expanded, and Jews were accused of sorcery and heresy as well as spreading the Black Plague and other infectious diseases—ideas that have survived the passage of time. Even modernism played a significant role in the creation of new myths concerning the Jews. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of philosophers, politicians, artists, and influential individuals believed that Jewish manipulation was responsible for the development of socialism and communism in the world; at the same time, others attributed the creation and establishment of capitalism to the Jews. Lacking logic, such contradictory ideas did nothing to dislodge these beliefs. What is important is the vitality of this ancient, yet ever-renewable myth: the evil of the Jews.

After Hungary lost in the first World War and its Communist government was defeated by counter-revolutionaries in 1919, Admiral Horthy became commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, and in 1920, regent of Hungary. Unleashing the “White Terror,” his army was responsible for a new era of torture and killings. The Jews were accused of war-mongering, foul play, treason, and murder. Thousands of them were imprisoned and killed, together with so-called leftists, peasants, and intellectuals. And then, in 1924, anti-Jewish laws were promulgated against them (the first in Europe): only 4 percent of Jews were allowed to enroll in the country’s universities. Nor were Jews permitted to work for academic or public institutions. But while for two millennia anti-Semitism had relied on an international approach, in the twentieth century, we must note the “national” development of this movement.

Thomas Ország-Land’s small book expresses the innermost feelings and aesthetic vision of the poets who wrote about the Holocaust—including their awareness of violent death—and shows the “Hungarian face” of the Shoah. This is important, because in every country involved in the Holocaust, a particular attack on Jewish life and being was carried out in ways that characterized the culture in which the individual poets lived and described “what was happening.” With special concern, great poetic talent, and aesthetic interest, Ország-Land has listened. He has seen, heard, and conceived the particular visions, sounds, feelings, and artistic expressions of these Hungarian poems, recreating them in English. Moreover, having lived through the Holocaust as a child, and remaining in its shadow throughout his life, he has collected, translated, and edited the poems in this volume with 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.

This volume of Hungarian Holocaust poetry is of great importance for our culture; not just because a new volume of excellent poetry is always important, but because these poems introduce us to the specific feelings and artistic responses of Hungarian poets reacting to the Shoah. To know about the circumstances that influenced these reactions, we must ask the question: How was the Holocaust perceived in Hungary after World War II? The answer to this question is clear and immediate: awareness of the loss of 500,000 Jews in Hungary and the country’s catastrophic cooperation with Nazi Germany was suppressed in the postwar media. Moreover, after 1949, any discussion of the Shoah was banned in the country—not only from everyday parlance, but also from newspapers, books, and journals. In fact, speaking or writing about the Holocaust was not acceptable, nor was it imaginable that this event would inspire the artistic productions of poets, painters, writers, or musicians. This policy originated in the anti-Semitic reactions of Stalin and the Communist Party, and it was cultivated everywhere in the Soviet bloc after 1949. Although there had always been a few poets who wrote about the camps, such material usually remained unpublished; or if published, it appeared in insignificant publications and was quickly forgotten. Usually, if work on this topic appeared anywhere, it was silenced. Not even political change in the Soviet Union made a difference. The policy stayed in place until 1989. After the collapse of the Communist dictatorship, however, slowly and with some regularity, a few courageous poets and writers, plagued by the past, started to write about the Shoah in Hungary. In addition, more and more international literature on the topic was translated and sold in the country’s bookstores.

Soon after the collapse of Communist Hungary, however, the pendulum swung back. New pressures for denial emerged. In fact, today, twenty-five years later, the Orbán government still refuses to acknowledge Hungary’s bloody past in the Holocaust. The official view is that the country was a victim of Nazi Germany.

But those who experienced or were closely touched by the Holocaust could be silenced no longer. Despite political pressure, denial of the atrocities and mass killings, and life-long fear of how to go on living with this experience, the survivors’ memory of the Shoah persisted. How else could it be? No man, woman, or child could forget or suppress such hunger, such thirst, such humiliation, such fear, such pain, and such a threat! Invading the consciousness of everyone who was “there” and everyone who knew what had happened “there,” the pain and torture of the camps and ghettos could not be obliterated. And despite the fact that the literature of the Holocaust was neither approved by nor accepted in the countries overshadowed by Communism or, more recently, by rightist political movements, those who experienced the Holocaust or those who studied its catastrophic impact have continued to write about it.

Ország-Land has undertaken a major aesthetic and moral task. He has assembled a book of poems written over the years by survivors, who used lyrical expression and aesthetic structure to convey the unbearable and unforgettable pain and humiliation suffered by the murdered ones before their death, and suffered by the survivors during their ordeal. He has collected, selected, and translated from Hungarian into English fifty-two poems dealing with these events. The poems go back in time as far as Jen? Heltai (1871–1957) and end with the work of Eszter Forrai (1938–), who is still writing poetry in France.

As Ország-Land says, while several poets in this volume, such as Heltai, Karinthy, Faludy, and Radnóti, are highly successful figures in Hungarian literature, they certainly are not known in their country for the role the Holocaust played in their lives. In fact, their work—if politically involved—has always been seen and understood by the public as belonging to the genre of anti-war protest (p. 12), poems against violence rather than poems by desperate, humiliated Jews, wanting to communicate their horrific experience. 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 belief in the magical power of poetry was simply unshakable:

. . . Slanders hurt . . . but your song Is true

 It will outlive any lie

Drink up your poison if you must,

but sing until you die. (20)

Karinthy sees no possibility 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.

Like Karinthy, the great poet Radnóti believed that war itself created the death of culture and the failure of our moral tradition; it was war that caused the collapse of humanity. He knew that at the end, he would be killed. Still, he could not admit that this would happen because he was a Jew; rather, he insisted, it would occur because he was a human being. In fact, he believed that precisely because he “knows the truth” and would never kill, he would be murdered at the end, describing himself as “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 views of the world or because he would never kill. He was killed because he was a Jew. In his last poem, when he mournfully states that he will be shot when he can no longer walk, the Hungarian original carries a sentence in German, reporting what a German soldier says after shooting him once: Der springt noch auf (translated by Ország-Land as: “He’ll get away yet”), indicating beyond a doubt that the German would shoot again to prevent the Jew from escaping. But the men on the death march on which Radnóti was taken did not talk German to one another; they were ordinary Hungarian soldiers. On the other hand, Ern? Szép, who was a well-known writer, poet, and playwright in Hungary, demonstrates his outrage:

Resist, resist such wickedness

 Insist: Their truth odious!

 And have the strength to ridicule

the preachers of such lunacy.

Most poets in this collection, however, are somewhat younger and have found new ways of living with the tension of surviving the Holocaust and being Jewish in Hungary. For example, one heartbreaking poem is Eva Lang’s about suffering from 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.

And her “Wandering Jew” 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.

And as always, Hanna Szenes’ “Spark” 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 saw the impossibility of searching for responsibility and “forgiveness”:

. . . What’s the use of retribution
over swiftly passing time?
Can you exercise forgiveness
if all deny the crime?

Also, Ország-Land, himself an outstanding poet, with several poems in the volume, shows his pain and outrage in the tense lyrics of “Meetings,” addressing Kurt Waldheim, who became in 1985, the fourth secretary of the United Nations and the ninth president of Austria. Waldheim was a high-ranked officer of the Wehrmacht during WW II. His high position and possible actions during WW II aroused enormous public outrage. The poem addressed to Waldheim’s memory resounds like a song of war or a 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.

Thomas Ország-Land has collected in this small volume Hungarian poems written in reaction to the Holocaust. This compilation is of great significance: the poems together reveal the shattering visions and expressions of a significant number of Hungarian poets in reaction to unprecedented mass destruction. Ország-Land also presents the poems in a language that allows the English-speaking reader into the feelings and lives of those who were severely threatened by the Nazi terror. His work was timely, as some of these poets are still with us: they have lived to see how their work has changed the world. This recently published collection of Holocaust poetry offers us new understanding and insight into the Holocaust.



Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsvath 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 ShadeEight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry, co-authored with Frederick Turner (Syracuse University Press: 2014).



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