A Hungarian Poet of the Holocaust and His Murderer

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

A Hungarian Poet of the Holocaust and His Murderer


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


THE COMMANDER of the death-squad personally responsible for the murder of Miklos Radnoti--perhaps the greatest poet of the Holocaust well known in English translation--escaped retribution for the deed. His remains rest in official burial grounds reserved for the heroes of the Hungarian republic.

This has been established by Tamas Csapody, a noted jurist and sociologist. His revelations, published prominently by the country's leading literary and political journals, coincide with the centenary of the poet's birth. They are of particular interest in the context of widening current anti-semitism sweeping Eastern Europe.

Radnoti experienced much tragedy in his life: his mother and twin brother died at his birth. He was shot at the age of 35 shortly before the end of the Second World War, a victim of the National Socialists' attempt at the 'ethnic cleansing' of Europe (see Contemporary Review, July 1993, pp. 28-30). He was condemned with a group Jewish-Hungarian prisoners because of their inability to keep up with a Westward 'deathmarch'. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave.

But his best poems contained in a notebook were recovered after the war when the bodies were exhumed. They are treasured today as some of the most flawless modern additions to Hungary's poetic heritage.

The circumstances of the massacre are even worse than the many myths current about the event. It was earned out by the Hungarian Army, not some 'foreign' ethnic Germans hitherto blamed by the literary establishment. And two members of the five-man death squad positively identified in secret inquiries after the war were allowed to go free. The reason: they had by then joined the ruling Communist Party.

Radnoti would have been a great poet even if the Holocaust had not happened. When it did, he deployed with devastating effect his mastery of refined classical metre to the description of chaos and brutality.

His 'commitment to truth and form was--quite literally--ultimate', writes the English poet Clive Wilmer and his Hungarian advisor and language informant George Gomori whose lifelong partnership has produced a remarkably accurate Radnoti translation.

The other great writers of the Holocaust--Anne Frank, Imre Kertesz, Eva Lang, Andras Mezei, Elie Wiesel among them--were children at the time. Paul Celan and Primo Levi were very young men eventually compelled by their grief and outrage to protest in poetry against the inhumanity of their experience for which they had been totally unprepared.

Radnoti, an adult in his thirties, does not protest. He records with compassion throughout his poetry.

Unlike many others, he had plenty of opportunities to escape forced labour and death at the hands of the Nazis. He was at the height of his literary powers when he chose to enter the storm, notebook in hand, deliberately seeking to transform the horror into poetry, as he put it, 'for reminders to future ages'. His last poems transcend the limits of race and tribe in a universal appeal to humanity.

Radnoti had been caught up in his generation's zeal for assimilation into Hungarian culture. He was born Glatter but changed his surname after Radnot, the settlement where his grandfather had been a tavern keeper. He even converted to Catholicism, although his subsequent poetry remained full of references to the Torah, the five Books of Moses comprising the basic tenets of Judaism.

Born in Budapest and educated at Szeged University, he was prevented from pursuing an academic career because of his racial origin and Leftist leanings. He was obliged to make a meagre living by producing what are recognized today as brilliant translations from classical Greek and Latin as well as English, French and German poetry. Some of his original poems were seized and others not allowed to be published at all. Most of Radnoti's contemporaries had never heard of him at the time.

Read in chronological order, the poems follow the author 'along the highways, down the soul's appalling deep chasms' to his clearly anticipated death. …

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