Triumph over nightmare

A moving story of how game-playing helped a Jewish child survive the Holocaust in Hungary.

Zsuzsanna Ozsvath 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Zsuzsanna Ozsvath)
Zsuzsanna Ozsvath 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Zsuzsanna Ozsvath)
Many child survivors of the Holocaust owed their lives to the deadly serious business of games played collectively or alone, that enabled them to adjust to dangerous situations, sometimes even to control them, and to relieve tension in relative safety.
In a moving memoir reminiscent of Anne Frank’s diary, Prof. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, the Leah and Paul Lewis chair of Holocaust Studies and Professor of literature and the History of Ideas at the University of Texas at Dallas, describes the role played by games in her own childhood victory over death in the face of war and prolonged, organized mass murder in Hungary. Her experience of the life-preserving games of Jewish children during the Holocaust in Budapest is very close to my own.
Ozsváth’s writing and lectures have won her a string of distinguished honors including an American Fulbright and a top Hungarian Academy of Sciences award. Her new memoir is a profoundly moving work of literary as well as academic merit. If you read just one of the thousands of personal Holocaust histories published nowadays by the thinning, final generation of Jewish survivors, perhaps this one should be it.
For the 12-year-old Ozsváth, nicknamed Zsuzsa, the Holocaust ended with the 1944/45 battle for Budapest, one of the longest and most savage city sieges in European history. She was then devotedly preparing for a hoped-for career as a concert pianist. Her ability, amidst the battle, to absorb herself in the solitary game of playing the piano in the absence of an instrument may have saved her life.
A dozen years later, she left Hungary illegally, taking with her just one valuable possession: a collection of verse by Miklós Radnóti, enslaved and murdered by fellow Hungarians because of his Jewish birth (“Hungary’s Holocaust Poet,” The Jerusalem Report, September 29, 2009). Her excellent English translation of that book, composed in collaboration with the American poet Frederick Turner, has greatly contributed to Radnóti’s worldwide reputation today as perhaps the greatest of Holocaust poets.
Here is the Ozsváth/Turner translation of a poem which Radnóti wrote as an imaginary dialogue with the Prophet Nahum, describing the total war engulfing Nazi-occupied Europe. It is taken from the 1992 Princeton University Press collection “Foamy Sky.”
Poet: the swift nations
slay one another, the human soul
stands as naked as Nineveh.
Then to what purpose the exhortations,
the hellish green clouds of
the locusts, what purpose? when
humans are baser than animals!
Here and elsewhere they smash on the
walls the innocent infants,
steeples are torches, homesteads flower
as furnaces, households
roast in their embers, in smoke the
factories rise up and vanish.
Streets full of people on fire go
galloping, sink with a rumble,
hugely embedded the bomb-burst
shatters masses asunder;
shrunken as cow pats on fields in the
summer, the dead are lying
piled in the plazas and squares of their
cities; and as it was written
all that you prophesied now is fulfilled.
But say, what brought you
back to the earth from the primal dust
Wrath: that forever
orphaned the children of men must
serve in the hosts of the blasphemous,
shaped but not natured like men
– and that I might see the unclean
citadel’s fall and unto these latter days
speak and bear witness...
Judging by her prose, I thought she was a poet in her own right, almost certainly a Holocaust poet and probably a good one. But she told me in an e-mail interview, “My friends keep asking: Where are the Ozsváth poems? My answer is that there are none. The poems have made such a din reverberating in my head all my life that I could not put them to paper. But that is well. I’ve got the translations.”
The title of the book refers to a scene, witnessed by the child Zsuzsa, enacted nightly along the banks of the River Danube throughout the siege, when the Hungarian Nazis executed groups of Jewish captives, men women and children, bound together by ropes to prevent their survival.
“Nobody screamed,” she recalls, “nobody cried. You could hear nothing but the shots and the splash of the bodies falling into the red foam [of] the river, which flowed red like blood.”
Her book describes a tragedy that Hungary is still struggling to comprehend.
This country of fewer than 10 million souls was responsible for the humiliation and murder of some 600,000 of its Jewish citizens during the final phases of World War II , most of them brutally robbed of their few possessions before their delivery to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Ozsváth and many other Jews crammed into the vermin-infested ghetto tenements of Budapest or hiding elsewhere in the capital escaped deportation. But they still had to face the constant threat of mass murder and worse – there was worse – meted out by the armed thugs of the Hungarian Arrow-Cross/Nyilas party, role models for the neo-Nazi rabble on the rise today throughout Eastern Europe.
Her greatest secret fear was enforced separation from her beloved parents. That came to pass as the invading Soviets smashed through the combined German and Hungarian defenses. But even then, she managed to keep calm, alone in hiding, sustained by games.
The ferocity of the three-month siege, including vicious hand-to-hand fighting under constant Allied aerial bombardment, is compared by historians to the earlier battle for Stalingrad. But unlike Budapest, Stalingrad had been at least emptied of its residents. The siege of Budapest raged over the heads of 800,000 civilian witnesses, mostly women and children. The death toll approached 160,000.
While the children played their games to delay death, many combatants on both sides reserved their final bullets for themselves for fear of being captured alive. And even during the final confrontations, the orgy of anti-Semitic violence continued in the ghetto. Ozsváth, I, and all the others I know who in any way took part in the siege of Budapest have never overcome, or even attempted to overcome, the experience.
Nearly seven decades after the event, Ozsváth feels still indebted to countless miracles incorporated in the games ghetto children played to distance themselves from the face of death. They usually took the shape of a human face.
There was Erzsébet (Erzsi) Fajó, Ozsváth’s gentile playmate, friend and nanny who risked all for the survival of her employers, who in turn eventually adopted her. Her name today is preserved in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem.
There was the family’s kindly, gray-mustached postman who turned up unexpectedly to seek out Ozsváth in the ghetto when she was separated from her parents after witnessing her first massacre staged by the Arrow-Cross. He must have been aware of the peril he risked as he delivered to the tearful child messages of hope from her mother.
The imagination of the temporarily unsupervised children flared as they played in an atmosphere of heightened tension approaching the state of collective hysteria endured by their families. The games gave the children “space,” the author recalls, “that allowed us to leave behind the world of the adults as well as the ghetto house and with it the Germans, our fear of separation and the threat of death.”
The children acted out well-known dramas or invented new ones, reflecting the cultural pursuits of their community. “Good morning, Ophelia,” the ghetto children no longer allowed to attend school greeted each other in the morning, or “Good morning, Tristan,” or “Good morning, Rigoletto!”
Picking up the game, she relates, the person so addressed would try to meet the challenge by answering the call and stepping into the chosen theatrical role. The children sometimes changed the script to suit the prevailing mood or circumstance. They played feverishly together throughout the day and rehearsed new scenes alone in their minds late into the night.
Some children managed to save their lives by defusing potentially lethal situations through play, notes Professor George Eisen, executive director and associate vice-president at Nazareth College of Rochester, New York and himself a survivor of the siege of Budapest. His pioneering, interdisciplinary 1988 study of the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe, “Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows,” cites instances of children’s games staged to divert the attention of guards from forbidden activities punishable by death, such as smuggling food or participating in educational activities.
He poignantly quotes a five-year-old girl engaged in serious conversation with her doll: “Don’t cry, little one. When the Germans come to grab you, I will not leave you...”
I add below my own recollection of a collective, unconscious endeavor by Jewish children in a tenement not far from Ozsváth’s apartment block to express and relieve through play their community’s suppressed fear of death:
Ghetto Game
Beneath a gloomy square of the sky
in the shadow of awesome, looming
a crowd of kids met day after day
to test, to learn in that well of twilight
which ones in the block were destined
to die.
Just a few at a time. Our faces were
and small, our eyes were clouded with
We hung the Book and a key on a
for we understood the path of death
yet could not make it go away.
We huddled close with lonely dread
in our hearts.
The Bible turned around
and with it, the key. They came to rest
at random to point at a ghetto child.
He would be the first among the dead.
The block has grown, the world progressed.
I, the survivor, stand in the sunlight
aware of the cloud in every eye
as fear of the future grips the globe,
rekindling doom in every breast.
The most moving story of a survival game by a Jewish child that I know is in Ozsváth’s book. It describes the triumph of a terrified, starving girl over a nightmare endured during three days and nights at the height of the siege when she was confined to a cupboard in an abandoned, sprawling apartment exposed to heavy machine-gun fire and intermittent bombing.
“I decided,” she recalls, “to practice the piano in my head... and started to imagine I was playing Beethoven’s F minor sonata, op. 3, from the first measure to the last. Some passages went very well, some not at all. While my right hand’s fingers were really singing in the second part, my left hand’s fingers were too slow playing the triplets in the fourth part.
“I need to practice this more, I thought. But I did not go back to work on those passages; rather I started to play the second sonata in A major; and again, I thought through every single note. In the meantime, the bombing started anew...and [I] recited poetry, and prayed and prayed and prayed.”
Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent. ´Deathmarch,´ the fourth edition of his translation from the Hungarian of Holocaust poetry by Miklós Radnóti, was published by The Penniless Press and Snakeskin, both in England, in 2009.