The Dead Poet: A True-Life Clash between Lethal Modernism and Classic Art

By Turner, Frederick | The American Enterprise, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

The Dead Poet: A True-Life Clash between Lethal Modernism and Classic Art


Turner, Frederick, The American Enterprise


Zsuzsanna Ozsvath and I have been spending the last few years translating the poetry of Miklos Radnoti, the great Hungarian poet who died in the Holocaust. In her introduction to our translation, Zsuzsi describes his last days:

From 1940-1944, Radnoti was called up three times for slave labor. Worked to exhaustion in minefields, sugar plants, and ammunition factories during his first two call-ups, he was taken to the copper mines of Bor in Yugoslavia during the last. In the middle of September 1944, however, under the pressure of the Russian forces and the Yugoslav partisans, the Germans had to evacuate the Balkans. Radnoti's squad was force-marched back to Hungary, to be transferred from there to German slave-labor camps. But cold weather, exhaustion, hunger, and savage massacres decimated the marching column: out of the 3,600 men moved from Bor, only 800 crossed the Hungarian border. Marched on through western Hungary in November, Radnoti started to lose his strength. His feet covered with wounds, he could walk no longer. It was probably on the eighth of November that the squad arrived at a town near Gyor and spent the night at a brickyard. Next day, three noncommissioned officers of the Hungarian Armed Forces separated Radnoti and 21 other emaciated and exhausted men from the marching column. Borrowing two carts in which they crowded the sick Jews, the guards made two attempts to rid themselves of the group: they took it first to a hospital, then to a school that housed refugees. But neither had room. Then the soldiers took the group to the dam near the town of Abda. The Jews were made to get out and ordered to dig a ditch. When they finished their work, the guards shot them one by one into the ditch, among them one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Radnoti's last volume of poetry, Foamy Sky, was published posthumously in 1946, a volume which did not yet contain the last five poems. Only after Radnoti's body was exhumed were these five poems found, inscribed in the small pocket notebook that he had purchased in Yugoslavia. Two years passed before Foamy Sky was republished, this time complete. Since then, Radnoti's work has been republished many times in Hungary, becoming part of that nation's cultural achievement and receiving ever-growing appreciation.

I have held that notebook, stained by his fluids of decomposition and now yellow with age, in my hands.

Zsuzsi and I have just flown in to Budapest to jointly receive Hungary's highest literary honor, the Milan Fust Prize, for our recently published collection Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti. Zsuzsi is a Holocaust survivor, saved in 1944 from the Nazis in Budapest by her Christian babysitter. Exactly 51 years ago, on December 18th, 1944, Zsuzsi was hiding in an apartment overlooking the Danube, an apartment bought with her mother's last diamond bracelet. Steady shelling was going on, and there were occasional spatters of machine gun fire through the smashed windows of her refuge. The firing was coming from Buda, across the river, where the Russians were preparing to cross and invade the Pest side of the city in the next few days. Zsuzsi remembers that the Danube was dark with blood, and that bright red ice-floes were floating down the river in a midwinter thaw.

"Was the fighting that bitter on the bridges?" I inquire.

"No," Zsuzsi says, "The Hungarian Nazis were shooting thousands of Jewish captives into the river, in a last-gasp effort to get rid of them all before the Russians came."

Zsuzsi, at that time a shy, vivid ten-year-old piano student, did not know that the poet Miklos Radnoti, whose work she would one day translate, had already been dead for a month. Radnoti could have tried to escape and join the partisans, but he believed his captors' story that they were going back to Budapest. Sick with anxiety for his wife, Fanni, who was trapped in Budapest under the bombing, he willingly undertook the death march in order to rejoin her. …

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