Voices of Horror

András Mezei’s Holocaust poetry is for our time.

March 28, 2011 17:35
András Mezei Hungarian poet

Mezei Hungarian poet 521. (photo credit: Courtesy Gabor Mezei)

AUSCHWITZ IS A MUSEUM. THE SMOKE HAS now dispersed, and each subsequent generation must make peace with the past and resolve to live with our ability to commit mass murder. András Mezei (1930-2008), a major Jewish-Hungarian poet, has left behind a retrospective exploration of the Holocaust. His voices of the past address us with an urgency and directness unheard within museum walls. There are many such voices speaking to us of terror, folly, greed, cruelty and absurdity. Mezei’s poetry makes them sound like our own voices. His testimony was published in England last year in my translation as “Christmas in Auschwitz,” published by Smokestack Press.

Mezei survived the Nazis’ 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 murderous whims of uniformed bandits.

Unlike other great poets of the Holocaust, such as 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 luxury of 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 in a single couplet:


How many nights must pass before
I need not wake up anymore?

I first met him shortly after World War II. We were both recovering from the trauma of the Hungarian Holocaust in a camp for Jewish children at Békéscsaba, Hungary, 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 via ships running the British blockade, like the famous “Exodus.”

Mezei went to pre-state Israel. (I was seven or eight at the time, and wanted to go there also, but my mother thought otherwise.) He found employment as a semi-skilled laborer, but returned to Hungary after a year and a half because he thought he stood a better chance of attracting a girlfriend there. Eventually he studied literature at university and became a poet, novelist, literary journalist, 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.

After the collapse of Communist rule just two decades ago, Mezei founded Belvárosi Kiadó (Budapest City Press) and the “Central European Time,” the 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 economic and diplomatic officials were appointed on his advice. He appeared impervious to criticism by his literary rivals behind his back that a poet ought not to soil his soul by contact with 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 analyses and post-war criminal proceedings.

His work lacks any thirst for vengeance. Consider his gentle portrayal of the passive bystanders:


The people they’ve lived with in the village
are being herded in front of closed portals,
still and silent each. The fences
would conceal all sight, all feelings,
except for the tea-rose, the violet and weed
leaping through to reach out towards them.

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, their commercial losses 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 an Allied victory was already certain. Less than three years earlier, the ultra-Nationalist rulers of Hungary – still a minor, semi-feudal East European backwater despite the cultural and economic progress generated largely by its recently emancipated Jewish population – had declared war on the incredulous governments of Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. It did so in return for territorial gains at its neighbors’ expense that had been promised by the Nazis. 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 slaughter of homosexuals and the politically dissident minorities, was introduced only under direct German rule.

The ensuing Hungarian Holocaust culminated in the destruction of some half a million civilian lives, including perhaps 70 percent of the entire pre-war Jewish-Hungarian population of about 700,000 souls, and up to 50,000 Roma. 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 Allied and other diplomatic pressures, the deportations were formally halted before the capital Budapest could be completely emptied of the target populations. Tens of thousands of people there were crammed into specially designated tenements under armed control. Many others sought survival in hiding. Both groups were exposed to persecution by law enforcement and paramilitary agencies, persistent aerial bombing by the Allies and the eventual three-month Soviet siege of Budapest, whose ferocity is widely compared to that of Stalingrad. Mezei describes 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, including being engaged in forced labor under Hungarian command or working the copper mines of occupied Serbia for the German war effort. Hungary was the only state during the war to assign to the battlefield its own citizens – Jews – as slave laborers. Some 48,000 were deployed with the Hungarian forces on 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 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. (Unusually for a Hungarian writer, Mezei’s work has been published in several languages, including Hebrew.) 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:


Suddenly I speak in my mother’s voice.
Suddenly I speak in my father’s voice.
Suddenly I hear my people speak
in my voice

Mezei started publishing Holocaust poetry only in his old age. Some others are now following his example, albeit very cautiously. Apart from one brave and inadequate recent attempt, I am not aware of a single anthology of Hungarian Holocaust poetry published since the war. My own sources of original material are mostly obscure one-off collections, early WWII 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 canvas.

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.

And Mezei’s intended audience was everybody, not just Jews. This is evidenced by the title poem, a pair of quatrains, which has wider resonance despite the fact that by Mezei’s definition (and mine), it is about four Jews and a murderer.


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.

  • Thomas Orszag-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe.

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