Portrait of a Survivor
by Thomas Ország-Land (June 2011)
András Mezei’s Holocaust Poetry is Meant for Our Time
SEVEN DECADES after the Second World War, humanity must still confront, resolve and make peace with the past and learn to live with the ability of each community in every generation to commit mass racist murder. András Mezei (1930-2008), a major Jewish-Hungarian poet, has left behind a healing, retrospective exploration of the Holocaust for our time.
(Photograph of András Mezei, courtesy Gábor Mezei)
His voices of the past address us with urgency and directness, speaking of terror, folly, greed, cruelty and absurdity. Mezei's poetry makes them sound like our own voices. His first full collection of Holocaust poetry has been published in my translation as Christmas in Auschwitz (Smokestack Press/England, 2010, 74pp., £7:96p, ISBN 978-0-9560341-9-9).
Mezei survived the National Socialists’ attempt at the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Europe as a child in the Budapest Ghetto where some 17,000 souls perished around him from hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits.
Unlike the other great poets of the Holocaust, like Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Miklós Radnóti, Mezei refused to come to terms with death. Indeed, his work is a celebration of the unconquerable spirit of his people. And unlike Anne Frank, he had the time to give voice to the concerns of the victims while he was at the height of his literary powers. This is how he sums up the experience of the survivor:
As most female corpses still
hide their features behind their shawls,
as their intertwined torsos and limbs
teach us about resurrection,
as one infant’s small remains
reach to snuggle a woman’s remains,
as that speechless jawbone still
nestles a baby’s skull,
as the flesh decomposes, yet
these bones are bleached by the sunlight,
as that fallen mother’s hand
recalls its endless, weightless chores --
thus the Eternal considers all
mass murders, each by each.
I first met him shortly after the Second World War. We were both recovering from the trauma of the Hungarian Holocaust in a camp for Jewish children at Békéscsaba run by a Socialist-Zionist movement then called Dror Habonim. It was also preparing us for emigration to what was to become the state of Israel, mostly on board ships like the famous Exodus running the British blockade.
Mezei went. He found employment as a semi-skilled labourer, but returned to Hungary after a year and a half because he thought he stood a better chance of attracting a girlfriend in the land of his birth. Eventually he read literature in Hungary and became a poet, novelist and polemicist. Like many Holocaust survivors of his generation, he embraced enthusiastically the ideal of Communism in the hope of building a just society free of racial, religious and class prejudice. His first serious doubts arose over the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against Soviet power.
Unusually for a Hungarian writer, his work has been published in several languages including Hebrew. He was a literary journalist most of his life.
After the collapse of Communist rule just two decades ago, Mezei founded Budapest City Press as well as Central European Time, a literary-political journal that forged a leading role in the debate and reconstruction of post-Soviet Hungary. He established a club that served as an informal meeting place for writers, academics, politicians and businessmen. He used it to gain great influence in shaping Hungary’s trade relations, specifically in the privatization of state assets and in the cultivation of commerce with other formerly Soviet-administered countries. Some high officials were appointed on his advice. He appeared impervious to high-pitched criticism by his literary rivals behind his back that a poet ought not to soil his soul by the world of money and power.
I met him again early during the transition to democracy, when he commissioned me to translate his Holocaust poetry into English, I joined the editorial board of his journal and we became close friends. For me, our collaboration was part of a wider project, an anthology of the Hungarian Holocaust in English translation.
Mezei’s father, a jobbing fiddler usually engaged to play in taverns and fairgrounds, perished at Auschwitz. Mezei’s poetry draws on the culture of destitute, itinerant provincial Jews carving out a precarious existence in the rapidly industrializing, complex society of inter-war Hungary.
But the voices of the Holocaust speaking through Mezei's verse transcend the limits of class and nationality as well as the geographical frontiers of Nazi-occupied Europe. He called these pieces ‘fact poems’ as they are based mostly on his personal experiences, together with professional interviews with survivors, fragments of contemporary correspondence, medical and administrative records and post-war criminal proceedings.
His work lacks a thirst for vengeance. Consider his gentle portrayal of the passive bystanders:
Blessed be those whom I passed on the street,
those who beheld on my chest
the yellow Star of David,
those who were saddened by the sight,
those who walked on with heavy heart
burdened by shame; and blessed be also
those who chose to avert their faces
closed with fixed and frozen looks.
Mezei, who won a beauty contest as a boy with golden curly locks, became short and fat in his old age with a shock of white hair beneath a wide-brimmed hat. I think he often deliberately acted out the anti-Semite’s stereotype of the ghetto-Jew.
He was deeply religious, passionate and cantankerous, shrewd and naive, generous with his love and famously mean with his money. But he published a long list of worthwhile books at a perpetual commercial loss unfailingly recouped from Jewish funding agencies, the post-Communist Hungarian political elite and a bewilderingly complex web of private enterprises.
His experience of the war clearly shaped his life. The expression “Holocaust” (Greek for burnt offering) or “Shoah” (Hebrew for disaster) or “Pharrajimos” (Roma for dissolution) conveys very inadequately the impact of a nearly successful attempted annihilation of an entire culture.
The final and most destructive phase of the process began with the military occupation of Hungary by Hitler’s Germany in March 1944, at a time when Allied victory in the Second World War was already obvious. Less than three years earlier, an ultra-Nationalist government of Hungary – a minor, semi-feudal, East European backwater – had declared war on the incredulous governments of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union in return for territorial concessions promised by Nazi Germany and at its neighbours’ expense. Its ill-equipped armies were routed, its independence lost first to Germany and then to the Soviets.
Despite mounting repression and hysteria whipped up by the country’s relentless setbacks on the battlefield, the largely assimilated Jewish-Hungarian population had lived in relative safety until the German invasion. The mass racist murder by industrial means of the Jews and Roma as well as the homosexual and the politically dissident minorities was introduced under direct German rule.
The ensuing Hungarian Holocaust culminated in the destruction of some 600,000 civilian lives, including perhaps 70% of the entire pre-war Jewish-Hungarian population and up to 50,000 Roma. Mezei describes the aftermath:
Clothing, canvas, rent and ransacked,
billow with the scent of death.
The needle nose of a woodland fox
patrols the damp, deserted camp.
The well integrated provincial Jewish populations and the other minorities singled out for annihilation were humiliated, robbed, massed into ghettos and other assembly points and transported in inhuman conditions to extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and slave-camps such as Mauthausen-Gusen in Austria.
Due to diplomatic pressures, the deportations were formally halted before the capital could be completely emptied of the target populations. Tens of thousands of people in Budapest were crammed into specially designated tenements under armed control. Many others sought survival in hiding. Both groups were exposed to persecution by the law enforcement and paramilitary agencies, persistent aerial bombing by the Allies and the eventual three-month Soviet siege of the city, whose ferocity is widely compared to that of Stalingrad. Mezei witnessed the consequent epidemic of casual murder:
She carefully unlaced her grandmother’s boots,
then kicked off her own. Before the pair: the river.
Behind them: Jason, the neighbours’ son from the square
lit by the frozen snow – and his machinegun.
Jason, discharging his first-ever magazine.
Jason, standing stunned as the tumbling bodies
are whisked away and gone with the turbulent current.
…Had he done that? Was there so little to life?
In addition, tens of thousands of Jews were exposed to otherwise unnecessary perils of war, engaged in forced labour under Hungarian command or leased to Germany to work the copper mines of neighbouring occupied Serbia. Hungary was the only power during the war to assign to the battlefield its own citizens – Jews – as slave labourers. Some 48,000 were deployed with the Hungarian invasion force to the Eastern front alone, clad in light civilian clothes in the bitter East European winter, to build fortifications on starvation rations. Many were murdered by their own commanders.
All this is still little known to the Hungarian public, who were spared during the decades of the subsequent Soviet subjugation from the pain of confronting the country’s shameful past. This explains the vulnerability of this region to neo-Nazi agitation at a time of economic insecurity. A new generation of historians is trying to change this. But Holocaust poetry remains an irritant in Hungary.
Some of the country’s great Holocaust poets are largely ignored at home, although they are becoming known abroad. And those who cannot be ignored are often misrepresented. Generations of Hungarian school children have been required to recite Miklós Radnóti’s poetry by heart, but they have been taught that he was writing about the general horrors of war rather than a specific genocide. They are still told that the poet had met a ‘tragic death’–not that it was racist murder committed with the approval or at least the connivance of the Hungarian majority.
Yet Mezei’s poetry is part of a process of healing. He writes:
CHRISTMAS IN AUSCHWITZ
Holding that child will cost your life,
young woman… a slave of the camp warned Mary
on the ramp, before the selection. Today
that advice resounds a thousandfold.
When Mengele sent off Mary
and the Child towards the left,
the Saviour was even born
in the Carpenter's empty arms.
Mezei started publishing Holocaust poetry only in old age. So now do some others, albeit very cautiously. Apart from one brave and inadequate recent attempt, I am not aware of a single anthology of Hungarian Holocaust poetry published in all the decades since the war. My own sources of original material are mostly small-circulation one-off collections, early Second World War publications, unpublished manuscripts and mass-circulation books whose contents are deliberately misinterpreted in lengthy analyses by literary/academic hacks.
I began translating poetry as a young man in the hope of learning from my betters. I saw myself as a fine-art student in a public gallery copying the work of a great master in order to learn his techniques by re-creating the same composition on a different canvass.
But there is now a very urgent, very different dimension. I believe that the poets of the Hungarian Holocaust like György Faludy, Eszter Forrai, Ágnes Gergely, Éva Láng, Magda Székely, Ernö Szép and many others including Mezei can now take their place in the European literary tradition. Their poetry may perhaps help the post-Holocaust generations – the descendants of the perpetrators, and of their victims, and of the passive bystanders – to face our dreadful inheritance together and learn to live in harmony.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe.
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