The fierce estuary of memory

The door many hoped had closed forever behind Holocaust poetry is once again open and hot to the touch.

Thomas Orszag-Land, a child survivor, now 76, has had long and diverse relationships with many of the poets, living and dead, whose works appear in ‘Survivors’. (photo credit: COURTESY SMOKESTACK BOOKS)
Thomas Orszag-Land, a child survivor, now 76, has had long and diverse relationships with many of the poets, living and dead, whose works appear in ‘Survivors’.
I hold a solitary vigil over this forsaken garden of bones. The skulls have called my name.
It is my lot to guard them.
Magda Szekely Thomas Orszag-Land, the editor of “Survivors” and one of its 18 contributors, writes in his introduction that all of the poets selected “either foresaw or survived the Holocaust.” A small handful are still alive and living in Hungary, whose Jewish population of roughly 100,000 is the largest of any East European country. It is also, given the recent revival of anti-Semitic nationalism, the most menaced.
Jobbik, now Hungary’s third largest political party, replenishes the night soil of Jew hatred that sets the poems in this book in motion. Mihaly Zoltan Orosz, the mayor of Erpatak, a town in eastern Hungary, had a gallows built during Israel’s Protective Edge campaign in Gaza, and hung in effigy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres, saying, “The leadership of Israel is at the service of the Antichrist.”
He gives teeth to Land’s warning that the Holocaust itself “is vociferously being denied by a resurgent wave of new Nazis who would like to repeat it.”
The new Nazis have given the poems in this volume new life, forcing them to be read in a new way. The door many hoped had closed forever behind such poems is once again open and hot to the touch.
Jenő Heltai’s “Ars Poetica” is painfully timely: Do not wait till you’re invited.
Poet, claim your place on the rostrum. Warn the neighbors of the threat they face.
Share your heart with their cold world.
Share each fear, each scar.
Shed your armour, shed your clothes: show all that you are.
Do not wait until you’re silenced never to sing again.
Never, ever, hold your tongue.
Bellow out your pain.
The poet András Mezei, who lived till 2008, extends his Holocaust sensibility to America’s 9/11 tragedy. It is somewhat of a surprise to come across “The Wound of Manhattan: A Prayer for Peace” in an anthology that seldom veers from the lacerating subject at hand.
Mezei begins his poem in a voice that comes to you out of the Book of Lamentations: Oh—the ashes! Dissolved in them, in the ruins Of our Twin Towers of Babel But quickly his tone turns bitterly ironic: Mourning Manhattan, daughter of America: squat down on your stiletto heels in the ashes, their tender, soft, rich dust, and summon a jeweler to fashion the ashes into bracelets and rings to advertise your magnetic wealth and might Inevitably, he returns in his poem to un-extinguishable memory: Yesterday, the killers dug up the sacred bones of our dead and boiled them up for soap.
Today, our own society harvests the blackened scraps of our corpses for industrial use… God of the Jews! And Jesus! And Allah! Whoever! …they can tolerate this as long as we will.
Land first met Mezei after the war, when the two found themselves in Békéscsaba, the Habonim (Jewish youth movement) run camp for Hungarian child survivors.
(The Hungarian Holocaust resulted in the slaughter of 600,000 Jews.) He paid homage to his late colleague in a 2011 article in The Forward. “Unlike the 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.”
This, in its entirety, is his poem “Keepsakes”: I praise my father’s compass. He chose to disperse us to save us the pain of witnessing each other’s fate.
That’s how I come to treasure forever these gifts from my late mother and sister and baby brother: empty reels, their keepsakes from different camps.
Radnóti (1909-1944), of course, is the most prestigious of the poets to appear in this volume.
And existentially, one of the most conflicted.
He converted to Catholicism in 1943.
A point in history when Jewish conversion was all but useless as life-buying currency.
The anthology’s single paragraph biography of Radnóti relates, “He fell victim to a mass murder of Jews at the close of WW II, staged by a unit of the regular Hungarian Army, while displaying a white armband signifying his well-documented, sincere conversion to Catholicism.”
Though lauded here and elsewhere as “perhaps the greatest among the Holocaust poets,” one feels repulsed by the image of Radnóti trying to save his skin while so many of his fellow Jews were losing theirs.
Yet there can be no denying the declarative force of his poems, eight of which are included here, some more fluent in translation than others. This is from Radnóti’s “The Seventh Eclogue”: Clad in rags and snoring, with shaven heads, the prisoners fly from Serbia’s blinded peaks to their fugitive homelands.
Fugitive homeland! Oh-is there still such a place? Still unharmed by bombs? As on the day we enlisted? And will the groaning men to my right and my left return safely? And is there a home where hexameters are appreciated? Dimly groping line after line without punctuation, here I write this poem as I live in the twilight, inching like a bleary-eyed caterpillar, my way on the paper-everything, torches and books, all has been seized by the Lager guard, our mail has stopped and the barracks are muffled by fog.
“Eclogue” was one of the poems found in a notebook in Radnóti’s overcoat when his body and those of the 21 other Jewish prisoners from a labor camp in Eastern Serbia were exhumed after the war. They had been shot during a forced march near the village of Abda, in northern Hungary in November 1944, when the approach of Tito’s Partisans forced the Nazis to abandon the camp.
Among the poems was the prophetic “Postcard 4”, not part of the Land anthology.
I toppled beside him-his body already taut, tight as a string just before it snaps, shot in the back of the head.
“This is how you’ll end too; just lie quietly here.”
Land, a child survivor, now 76, has had long and diverse relationships with many of the poets, living and dead, whose works appear here. Eszter Forrai and Vera Szöllős, child survivors like himself, are friends to this day.
Their conversations, he writes, range from poetry to politics to husbands and wives. He also knew Mezei from an early age.
“We probably never agreed on anything.
But I could never have written the poems of his that I translated from the Hungarian.”
Of György Faludy (1910-2006), his mentor and close friend, a Nobel Prize nominee and Pulitzer Prize winner, he states simply, “I owe him the world.”
These lines are from Faludy’s ‘The Germans’ Mercenaries’: We recognize no father, mother, we cut down every apple tree and poison every well we find and serve every master who pays us well.
“Survivors” is worth its place on the bookshelf of any collector of Holocaust literature, of anyone who values poetry as the fierce estuary of memory.