Chapter 16. The Poet of the Camps
‘Behind me two corpses/Before me the world’, declared Miklós Radnóti, in a poem that he composed at the age of twenty-eight. The ‘two corpses’ were those of his mother, who died giving birth to him, and that of his stillborn twin brother of whose existence Radnóti only became aware when he was already in his teens. The significance of the poem’s title, ‘twenty-eight’, lies in the fact that it is both the age at which Radnóti wrote the poem and also the age at which his mother died.
’Your murderer!’ cries Radnóti, perhaps a touch melodramatically, gazing forlornly at a framed photograph of his happy, forever young mother. ’Were the two deaths worth it?’
I can’t help feeling that, for Radnóti, the question was rhetorical. His extravagant expressions of remorse at his mother’s untimely death coexist uneasily with the searing beauty of his language and with the self-absorption that is evident in the final stanza of the poem:
Mother dear, my blood-soaked victim
I have grown into manhood
The sun burns intently, blinding me
Motion to me with your butterfly hands
That you know things have turned out well
That your son is not living his life in vain.
By the time Radnóti came to write these verses he was already an acknowledged, if controversial, poet. Having given up a secure and potentially lucrative career in the textile trade alongside his maternal uncle, who had adopted Radnóti after the death of his father, the young poet devoted himself to his art. In his early twenties, Radnóti helped to found an avant-garde journal, Kortárs, published several volumes of poems and enrolled at the University of Szeged where he studied French and Hungarian literature. Radnóti eventually graduated from the university with a doctorate, which received the highest possible grade from his examiners, as well as a teaching certificate.
Radnóti’s occasionally irreverent verses brought him to the attention of the authorities. In 1931, aged just twenty-two, Radnóti’s home was raided by the police and copies of an anthology containing several of his poems were confiscated. A court in Budapest sentenced the young poet to eight days’ imprisonment for blasphemy and libel. However, the sentence was suspended following the intercession of one of Radnóti’s professors at Szeged University, Sándor Sík. An accomplished poet, a highly respected literary scholar and a priest of the Piarist Order, Sík’s testimony, in which he averred that Radnóti’s poems, though ‘tasteless and revolting’, were in no sense blasphemous, carried considerable weight with the court. One of the poems that led to Radnóti’s prosecution is entitled Arckép or ‘Portrait’. Consisting of just five lines, Arckép, in which Radnóti compares himself to Christ – without even a hint of irony or embarrassment – suggests that he already had had a highly developed sense of self-worth and perhaps even an awareness of his singular destiny. Here is the poem in my own translation:
I am twenty-two years old. This
is how Christ must have looked in autumn
at the same age; he was fair-haired
and hadn’t yet grown a beard;
girls fantasised about him in their dreams.
Although Radnóti managed to avoid imprisonment for blasphemy his second brush with the law, which was wholly unconnected with his art, led inexorably to his death in November 1944. In the intervening years Radnóti married his teenage sweetheart, Fanni Gyarmati, embarked on a tempestuous love affair with an artist, Judit Beck, and pursued his burgeoning literary career. Prolific as well as gifted, Radnóti quickly established a reputation in Hungary and abroad as a poet and literary translator. Many of Radnóti’s poems from this period, like ‘October Afternoon’, are sensuous celebrations of the passing seasons and of romantic love. ‘Fanni is sleeping beside me under the oak’, begins the poem. With the tenderness of a lover, Radnóti describes Fanni as she wakes:
Fanny awakes, her sleepy eyes blue,
her beautiful hands like the hands of a saint in a holy
carefully she brushes off the leaves that have fallen on her
as she slept
before tracing my lips with her hand
her fingers resting a while on my teeth
urging me not to speak.
In the last lines of the poem, Radnóti conjures up an exquisite image of a sudden downpour of rain that persists for several days, ‘pinning November on us like a black ribbon’.
However, it is the poems that Radnóti wrote in the final years of his life for which he will be chiefly remembered. Instead of romantic love or the timeless beauties of nature, new subjects had come to dominate Radnóti’s art as well as his life – the debasement of social and political mores in Hungary and the intensifying vilification and persecution of the country’s Jews. Although Radnóti protested in a letter to the Hungarian-Jewish writer and poet, Aladár Komlós, that he didn’t ‘feel Jewish’, that he hadn’t been ‘raised in the Jewish faith’, and that he regarded himself as ‘just a Hungarian poet’, Radnóti had been born into a secular Jewish family. Before changing his name to ‘Radnóti’, in order to facilitate his acceptance as a Hungarian poet, his family name had been ‘Glatter’.
Radnóti’s clearly defined sense of identity, as a Hungarian poet, as a non-Jew and as a Catholic, were to prove irrelevant. In accordance with anti-Jewish laws, enacted from 1938 onwards, Radnóti couldn’t escape his Jewishness. As someone born to Jewish parents and still nominally affiliated to the ‘Jewish confession’ – Radnóti only converted to the Catholic faith in May 1943 – Radnóti was deemed a Jew under Hungarian law and subject to far-reaching restrictions.
The ‘Law on Assuring a More Balanced Social and Economic Life’, or First Jewish Law, was passed by Hungary’s Parliament on 29 May 1938. The 1938 statute introduced strict limits on the proportion of Jews who could be employed as publishers, editors or journalists as well as on the proportion of Jews permitted to work in the theatre and film industries. Although Radnóti could continue to publish reviews, essays and poems on a freelance basis he was effectively precluded from joining the permanent staff of a journal or newspaper, which would have provided him with a regular salary. Because of Radnóti’s Jewish origins a teaching post was also out of the question, despite his impressive academic qualifications. Radnóti’s modest income consisted of limited financial support from relatives, as well as monies earned from private tutoring and occasional work for publishers. From 1939, with the enactment of the so-called Second Jewish Law, or ‘Law for the Limitation of the Jewish Occupation of Public and Economic Affairs’, Radnóti’s ability to support himself from journalism or teaching was further curtailed.
Despite the psychological and economic impact of Hungary’s Jewish Laws, which treated Jews as alien and unwelcome, Radnóti stubbornly persisted in seeing himself as ’just a Hungarian poet’. In one of Radnóti’s most celebrated later poems, Nem tudhatom, or ‘I cannot know’, completed in January 1944, he gave voice to an exasperated but abiding love for his homeland, a country that had rejected him, consigning Radnóti to pariah status. Here are the opening lines of the poem in my own translation:
I have no way of knowing what this land may mean to others,
But for me this small country, bathed in fire, is my birthplace,
It’s the far-off world of my childhood.
I emerged from this land like a delicate shoot from a tree,
And I hope that, in time, my body will sink back into this earth.
I am at home here.
In an earlier poem, Nyugtalan orán or ‘In a Restless Hour’, which Radnóti completed in January 1939, just months after the passage of the First Jewish Law, he ponders whether, like the ’mute stones’ amongst which he now finds himself, he should embrace silence? ’Tell me,’ he cries, ’what would induce me to write poetry now? Death?’
Fortunately for future generations, Radnóti could not remain silent in the face of the savagery and injustices that he witnessed and experienced at first hand. Rather than opting to remain mute, Radnóti became the doomed yet inspired chronicler of the collapse of humane, civilized values in his homeland and across much of Europe. As Radnóti wrote in a poem entitled Töredék, or ’Fragment’, which he completed in May 1944, just months before he was murdered by his Hungarian guards: ’I lived on this earth at a time/when informing was considered a virtue and the murderer/the traitor and the robber were heroes’.
‘I was conscripted into a labour battalion,’ Simon tells me in fluent Hungarian when we meet at his village home in Ocna Șugatag in Maramureș County, Romania. Simon, whom I had been introduced to at the Jewish Community Centre in Sighet, was born in 1922. He was just eighteen years old when Hungarian troops reoccupied northern Transylvania, including Ocna Șugatag, in 1940. Following ‘mediation’ by Germany and Italy, Romania was forced to cede a large tranche of territory to Hungary, amounting to forty-three thousand square kilometres. The Second Vienna Award, as the settlement came to be known, enabled Hungary to recover a significant portion of the land that had been lost to Romania in the peace settlement following World War One.
‘Things really started to change when the Hungarian troops arrived here!’ says Magda, an ethnic Hungarian who has spent her whole life in Sighet. A spry woman in her eighties, just two years younger than Simon, Magda chain smokes as she prepares lunch for me and for Öcsi, her middle-aged son, in their rambling old home. A widower in his late fifties, Öcsi tells me that he bought the property, located in the historical centre of Sighet, from two elderly Jewish spinsters. The women, who had survived deportation to Auschwitz, had no living relatives. Weary of cleaning and maintaining such a large old house, they’d decided to sell the property and move into a modern apartment in a Ceaușescu-era bloc.
’The Hungarian soldiers immediately set to work to improve the town’s flood defences,’ Magda tells me, as she stirs soup in a large enamel pot. ’The Romanians didn’t do anything in all the years they were here!’
Known as Sziget in Hungarian, which means ‘island’, the town derives its name from the fact that it’s almost enclosed by two rivers, the Tisa and the Iza. For as long as anyone could remember Sighet had been subject to severe flooding.
If Magda, like most of her family and friends, was thrilled by the restoration of Hungarian rule over Northern Transylvania there was unease amongst the territory’s 138,000 Jews who were aware of the growing climate of anti-Semitism in Hungary and of the raft of anti-Jewish legislation that had been adopted in recent years by the authorities in Budapest. In addition to the First and Second Jewish Laws, discussed above, these included measures conscripting able-bodied Jewish men into specially constituted auxiliary labour battalions as an alternative to military service. Jews, who were denied the right to bear arms, were mostly relegated to performing laborious and often hazardous physical tasks. As Auxiliary Labour Servicemen, Jews routinely dug trenches and anti-tank ditches, carried munitions, helped to construct roads and bridges, worked in mines and loaded and unloaded freight trains and trucks.
According to the US historian, Raul Hilberg, approximately 80,000 Jewish men served in Hungary’s auxiliary labour battalions during World War Two. Of these, up to 40,000 died, many of hunger, disease or exhaustion, or as a result of brutal and sadistic treatment by their Hungarian officers and NCOs. László Karsai, a leading historian of the Hungarian Holocaust and a professor at the University of Szeged, notes that auxiliary labour servicemen in one particular unit were fed on black tea without sugar and on flour infested with weevils, while having to toil from dawn till dusk. In another labour batallion noted by Karsai, Labour Batallion 101/5, fourteen men had died from chronic weakness by October 1942. Their deaths were the result of poor food, lack of adequate shelter and incessant beatings. In his detailed account of Hungary’s labour service system, Randolph Braham recounts numerous examples of ill-treatment, including the fate of a unit of labour servicemen stationed in occupied Soviet territory:
Some of the guards amused themselves by hosing down the Jews in winter until they became “ice statues” or by tying them onto tree branches with their hands tied against their backs. These, and many other similarly cruel “amusements,” were normally carried out after the Jews had returned from their work.
German army officers who witnessed the treatment of Hungarian labour servicemen were appalled. They repeatedly warned their Hungarian counterparts that they had to choose between beating the Jews in their charge or using them as an effective workforce.
Unlike all too many of his peers, Simon Leichner was lucky. When I ask him whether his labour service unit, comprising between two hundred and fifty and three hundred Jews, had been given insufficient or inedible food, Simon shakes his head. ‘No, we always had good food, decent food,’ Simon says. ‘We didn’t go hungry or anything like that. Definitely not! We were fed three times a day – in the morning, at lunchtime and in the evening. And there was always a decent amount of bread!’
Even so, life as an auxiliary labour serviceman was far from easy for some of the Jews in Simon’s company, particularly those from Budapest who were unaccustomed to manual labour. ‘There were doctors and other well-off people from Budapest,’ Simon tells me. ‘They weren’t used to the kind of rough work we had to do…They were uriemberek, gentlefolk!’
For six days a week Simon and his company felled logs in the forests, built bunkers and dug holes in the earth for landmines, all in a desperate bid to impede the Soviet Red Army’s advance. However, on Sundays, some of the men from Simon’s company would put on a show. ‘The Hungarian soldiers really appreciated it,’ Simon tells me, smiling. ‘They were good shows!’
‘Was there music?’
‘Some people played instruments, some sang, others danced.’
‘Were people forced to perform?’ I ask. I had a mental image of the musicians who’d been ordered to play in Nazi concentration camps for the entertainment of their fellow inmates and their guards.
‘Not a bit of it!’ says Simon. ‘Our life wasn’t bad at all. It was bad for those who were taken away [to the death camps]!’
‘What about the Hungarian NCOs and officers who commanded your company?’ I ask. ‘Were they violent or abusive?’ In numerous recorded instances, including the examples given above, labour servicemen were subject to the sadistic whims of the Hungarian officers and NCOs who commanded them.
‘No, not really. They were fine.’
‘And clothes, did they issue you with clothes and proper boots?’ By early 1942, as noted by Randolph Braham, ‘practically all of the labour servicemen served in their own civilian clothes and footwear’. Inevitably, these became tattered and worn as a result of prolonged use, particularly in the arduous conditions encountered in the Ukraine. At the same time, many labour servicemen, desperately hungry on account of their meagre and irregular rations, which were not always provided in full, bartered some of their clothing for food.
‘They gave us clothes,’ says Simon, although he doesn’t recall when the garments were distributed. During the brief tenure of Vilmos Nagy, who served as Hungary’s Minister of Defense from late September 1942 until mid-June of the following year, efforts were made to improve the conditions of the labour servicemen out of elementary humanity as well as pragmatism. As Nagy pointed out in a speech in Hungary’s Lower House, on 19 November 1942, ‘if I demand work I must care about the working capacity of these men’.
‘Perhaps some of the clothes we received came from Auschwitz?’ Simon muses. ‘They were thin and of poor quality’.
After the War, Simon met several survivors of the notorious concentration camp who returned to their homes in Sighet and the surrounding villages. Simon learnt from these men, as well as from photographs in newspapers, that the inmates at Auschwitz had been issued with meagre striped uniforms. ‘That’s the type of clothes we were given,’ he says.
On 6 September 1940, Miklós Radnóti was conscripted into an Hungarian auxiliary labour battalion. At the time, Radnóti was thirty-one years of age. Unlike Simon Leichner, who was accustomed to manual labour and to being outdoors in all weathers, Radnóti’s working life had been spent as an editor, poet and literary translator. A medical examination, conducted just weeks after Radnóti was called up, revealed that he was suffering from two hernias. However, army doctors ruled that Radnóti was well enough to stay with his unit, despite the strenuous nature of the work that labour servicemen performed.
Until mid-December 1940, when Radnóti was discharged, he was deployed with his unit in various locations, including territory newly recovered from Romania. The unit’s duties involved dismantling the defensive positions that had been constructed by Romanian troops, including wire fences and metal posts. Whether through bureaucratic indifference or a genuine lack of resources, Radnóti and his fellow labour servicemen were not provided with tools or even gloves and had to work with their bare hands.
In summer 1942, Radnóti was called up again, serving from 1 July until 5 May of the following year. Initially, Radnóti was despatched to a region vacated by Romania. Subsequently, he was sent to an arms factory in northern Hungary and then to a machine workshop in the Ujpest district of the capital. While posted in Budapest, Radnóti was routinely granted permission to sleep at home in the small apartment he shared with Fanni, his wife. However, in contrast to his earlier period of labour service, in 1940, Radnóti was now required to wear a yellow armband at all times that immediately identified him as a Jew.
In March 1943, while Radnóti was waiting at a tram stop in Budapest, a reserve army officer noticed the poet’s yellow armband. He ordered Radnóti to accompany him to the nearby Albrecht barracks. Over the course of several hours a group of jeering Hungarian soldiers beat and humiliated Radnóti, together with two other Jewish labour servicemen. Before Radnóti was released his hair was roughly shorn off, giving him the appearance of a convict. As an additional indignity, Radnóti was forced to pay the barber for his ’services’. Radnóti was severely traumatised by the incident at the Albrecht barracks. He ceased making entries in his diary and only resumed writing poetry after an interval of several months.
Radnóti’s third and final period of service as an auxiliary labour serviceman began on 20 May 1944 and ended with his death in November of that year. During this period, Radnóti worked alongside other Hungarian labour servicemen in various locations, including the infamous copper mine at Bor in present-day Serbia. The mine, which contained huge reserves of copper and other precious metals, was of considerable importance to the German war effort, particularly after Axis troops had been forced to withdraw from Soviet territory.
Radnóti composed his ’Seventh Eclogue’, one of his most beautiful and moving poems, while stationed at Lager Heidenau close to Bor. As the exhausted men around him slept, Radnóti remained awake, crafting verses of extraordinary poignancy and power. Radnóti’s ‘Seventh Eclogue’ takes us right into the night-time barracks with its snoring, ragged servicemen lying asleep on narrow wooden boards. The men long for their distant homes while uneasily aware that they may have been destroyed along with the familiar, civilized world to which they belonged, casualties of a brutal and remorseless war: ’[t]ell me, does that home still exist where they know what a hexameter is?’ Radnóti’s ’Seventh Eclogue’ also allows us to glimpse the petty privations to which the labour servicemen were subjected by their guards:
Without commas, one line touching the other,
I write poems the way I live, in darkness,
blind, crossing the paper like a worm.
Flashlights, books – the guards took everything.
There’s no mail, only fog drifts over the barracks.
The Hungarian servicemen at Bor toiled alongside ’Serbian convicts, Greek and Russian prisoners’ as well as Italians. There were also ultra-Orthodox Jews from Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia and present-day Slovakia, as well as Christians, mostly Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehova’s Witnesses, who had refused to bear arms.
Conditions at Bor were unremittingly harsh. In his history of the Hungarian Holocaust, Randolph Braham records that the servicemen, ’worked under gruelling conditions for about 11 hours a day, receiving 7 dinars and half a pound of bread and a portion of watery soup per day in compensation’. Braham notes that a number of the Hungarian officers and NCOs accompanying the labour servicemen, ‘distinguished themselves by their cruelty’, while some even stole the servicemen’s meagre rations.
One of Radnóti’s final poems, ’Forced march’, was written in September 1944, just days before the poet and many of his comrades were evacuated on foot from Bor as the Soviet Red Army drew closer. ‘Only a fool collapses in a heap on the ground, gets up and trudges on,’ begins the poem. Instead of remaining where he is, the labour serviceman in Radnóti’s poem hurries to rejoin the column of exhausted men. ‘Why?’ someone asks him. ‘Because my wife is waiting for me,’ comes the answer, ‘and a better, more beautiful death’.
A contingent of 2,600 labour servicemen, escorted by Hungarian soldiers, left Bor on foot on 29 September Ambushed by Yugoslav partisans, the Hungarian guards surrendered. The partisans freed the labour servicemen, who were provided with food and shelter by local civilians until arrangements could be made to transport them to Timișoara, in western Romania, pending their eventual repatriation to Hungary.
Radnóti had left Bor several days earlier, on 17 September, with a large group of labour servicemen and an armed Hungarian escort. The column, which was ‘driven mercilessly with little or no food and water’, headed towards Belgrade. Serbian civilians, moved by the servicemen’s plight, tried to offer help. After a lengthy halt in Belgrade the column made its way, in stages, towards Crvenka in northern Serbia. Pausing for three days in the town of Novi Sad, Radnóti and his fellow labour servicemen were given no food by their guards. In their desperation, some of the servicemen resorted to eating straw that they managed to boil on an old stove.
In Crvenka, an SS unit methodically murdered several hundred men from the column. The rest, including Radnóti, ‘whose feet were covered with open wounds’ and who was racked by ‘horrific toothaches [sic]’, were marched to the southern Hungarian town of Mohács. From Mohács, a train took Radnóti and his comrades to Szentkirályszabadja.
Those who saw and spoke to Radnóti at this time, including a labour serviceman who had known the poet in Szeged, later remarked that he appeared weak and listless and that his shoes were completely worn out. On the road leading to Mohács, Radnóti is thought to have parted with his wedding ring, giving it to a labour serviceman who had promised him food. In the event, Radnóti received nothing.
The precise details of Radnóti’s onward journey from Szentkirályszabadja towards the Austrian border remain unknown. Radnóti’s unit almost certainly set out on foot in the first week of November although Radnóti, along with other servicemen too ill or exhausted to walk, may have been transferred to horse-drawn carts requisitioned for the purpose.
According to several accounts, Radnóti was taken to the town of Győr, together with a number of other servicemen in urgent need of medical attention. However, hospitals in Győr, already overwhelmed with sick and wounded patients, refused to admit them. At this point, Cadet Sergeant András Tálas, commander of the Hungarian soldiers escorting Radnóti and his ailing comrades, took the decision to ’dispose’ of the servicemen on the grounds that they could be of no further use. On or about 9 November 1944, at the village of Abda near Győr, twenty-two labour servicemen, including Radnóti, were summarily executed, each with a bullet to the nape of the neck. The bodies were hastily buried in an unmarked grave.
In June 1946, when the communal grave was exhumed, one of the corpses was described as male, with light brown hair and several missing upper front teeth, as well as a crowned lower tooth. The body was identified as: ‘Radnóczi (Radnóti) Miklós poet Budapest, Pozsonyi út 1- 4’ (Ferencz 2017: 20).
Among the personal possessions found with Radnóti was a small yellowed notebook containing his final, agonized verses, including a cycle of four terse poems entitled Razglednicák, a Serbian word meaning ‘postcard’. Razglednicák is both an ironic allusion to the brevity of the poems and to the fact that they were written while Radnóti was far from home and from Fanni, his wife.
Radnóti’s ‘postcards’, which he had no means of posting and which he was forced to conceal from his guards, have little in common with the postcards sent by holidaymakers to friends and loved ones. Consisting of just a few lines each, stripped to their bare poetic essence, Radnóti’s ‘postcards’ convey the futility and brutishness of war as well as the awful fate of Hungary’s labour servicemen.
The very last poem Radnóti composed – the fourth in his Razglednicák cycle – was written on a scrap of paper that he inserted in the notebook (Ferencz 2017: 30). It is dated 31 October 1944 and Radnóti has written ‘Szentkirályszabadja’ next to the date. As related above, Radnóti and his diminished column of labour servicemen, who had seen many of their comrades killed or left to die since leaving Bor the previous month, had paused at Szentkirályszabadja, with their guards, before continuing their journey towards the Austrian border. In the poem, which is all the more powerful because of its starkly unsentimental tone, Radnóti depicts the random murder of a comrade and foresees his own imminent death:
I threw myself down beside him and his body rolled over
already taut like a string about to snap.
Shot in the nape of the neck. ‘That’s how you’ll end up too!’
I whispered to myself. ‘Just lie here quietly,
patience will blossom into death’.
‘Der springt noch auf,’ someone called out above.
My ear was caked with mud and drying blood.
‘I was coming home from work,’ says my mother. ‘At the time, we were still living in Uncle Ármin’s apartment. We had nowhere else to go’.
In Hungary, the War had been over for several months but neither Ármin nor his wife and children had returned to reclaim their apartment on Kresz Géza Street, leaving my mother, uncle and grandmother in sole possession of the two-room flat. According to Ármin’s older brother, Bertalan, Ármin had died of a heart attack, on the outskirts of Budapest, while serving in an auxiliary labour battalion during the latter stages of the War. His wife and teenage children had almost certainly perished during the late autumn or winter of 1944 when bands of Arrow Cross thugs roamed the city, killing Jews and other ’public enemies’ at will.
’I was just about to enter the building when a young woman, one of our neighbours, happened to come out,’ continues my mother. ’“Hurry home!“ she exclaimed when she caught sight of me. “You’re going to have a wonderful surprise!“’
My mother, thinking that her father had returned, raced up the stone steps to her apartment. As related in more detail in Chapter 18, below, teenage Arrow Cross militiamen had hustled Miklós away at gunpoint in early November 1944, along with several other Jewish men who were still living in the building. My mother and her family continued to hope that, despite the passage of so much time, Miklós might still be alive, perhaps interned in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany or Austria. After the War, thousands of Jewish slave labourers, including many from Hungary, had ended up in these camps.
’But it wasn’t Miklós,’ says my mother, with a sigh. ’When I opened the front door to our flat I came face to face with Zoli Füredi!’
My mother’s disappointment at not being reunited with her father was mixed with joy at seeing Zoli, to whom she’d become engaged while in her final year at the Kőszegi Dobó Womens’ Commercial School in Budapest. As recounted in Chapter 15, following a brief and intense courtship, which culminated in the young couple resolving to get married as soon as my mother obtained her school leaving certificate, Zoli had been conscripted into an auxiliary labour battalion. Zoli had been sent far away with his unit and he and my mother had lost touch. In the months since the end of the War there had been no word from Zoli, leading my mother to conclude that he’d either died or that he’d chosen to return to Nové Zámky, a small town in present-day Slovakia. Zoli had spent his childhood in Nové Zámky and his parents had owned a shop in the town.
’We kissed and clung to one another for ages!’ recalls my mother. ’Afterwards, we sat down and Zoli told me what had happened to him.’
Like Miklós Radnóti, Zoli and his labour service unit had been taken to Bor. Physically strong and tough-minded, Zoli had been set to work in the mine. Despite appalling conditions and confrontations with his guards Zoli had survived, while many around him succumbed to disease, malnutrition and exhaustion.
’Zoli took out a crumpled back and white photograph from an inside pocket of his jacket,’ continues my mother. ’It was a photo of me that I’d given to Zoli shortly before he and his unit left Budapest.’
Zoli told my mother that he’d kept the photo with him at Bor and throughout the entire time that he’d served as a labour serviceman. ’The guards tried to take it from him but he refused to let them have it,’ says my mother. ’Zoli said that they gave him a terrible beating because he wouldn’t hand over my photograph.’
Whether this anecdote is entirely true or whether Zoli embellished it to impress my mother, I can’t say. However, Zoli’s story undoubtedly had its intended effect, rekindling my mother’s ardour.
After he was liberated, Zoli’s first impulse had been to go to Nové Zámky to look for his parents. An only child, Zoli clung to the hope that his parents were still alive and that he’d find them living in the little town. However, Zoli had been forced to wait until Soviet forces had completely dislodged German troops and their Hungarian allies from Slovak territory.
’Zoli went to Érsekújvár as soon as he could travel there,’ says my mother, using the Hungarian name for Nové Zámky. ’But he couldn’t find any trace of his parents and he had no idea where else to look for them.’
Although Zoli was unwilling to accept the fact, his parents had almost certainly perished along with most of the Jews of Nové Zámky. In March 1944, German troops had occupied Hungary, a nominal ally, as a result of mounting concern in Berlin that Hungary’s leaders were secretly negotiating a separate armistice with the Allies. In April, after discussions involving high-ranking Hungarian and German officials, including Adolf Eichmann, the Hungarian government issued a decree authorising the confinement of the country’s Jewish population in ghettoes, ostensibly because of economic and security concerns. As related in the previous chapter, Nové Zámky and much of what is now the southern part of Slovakia had been ‘reunited’ with Hungary in late 1938. Jews across the region, who had overwhelmingly identified themselves as Hungarians of the ‘Mosaic’ faith, were uprooted from their homes and forced to abandon most of their possessions.
In late May, Zoli’s parents, together with other Jews living in Nové Zámky, were confined to a newly established ghetto in the centre of the town. In the first week of June, the ghetto’s occupants were transferred to a second and larger ghetto that had been constructed at the town’s Grünfeld brickworks, joining Jews from the surrounding villages. After enduring appalling conditions in the Grünfeld camp, including the lack of sufficient drinking water, 4,843 Jews were herded into goods wagons and sent from Nové Zámky to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 12 and 15 June. Of these, 4,386 died, whether as a result of gassing, malnutrition, disease or other causes. Zoli’s parents were almost certainly amongst the dead.
’After spending some time in Nové Zámky, looking for his parents, Zoli decided to come to Budapest to search for me,’ continues my mother. ’At that point, he didn’t even know if I was alive’.
Reunited once more the young couple soon began to plan a future together. ’We were going to get married and move to Nové Zámky,’ says my mother. ’Zoli told me he wanted to reopen his parents’ shop.’
’What happened?’ I ask. ’Why didn’t the marriage take place?’
My mother pauses. ’For a few months, Zoli commuted between Budapest and Nové Zámky,’ she tells me. ‘He still believed that his parents might be alive.’ On these visits to Nové Zámky, Zoli lodged with a Jewish widow whose husband and child had perished in the Holocaust. Although older than Zoli by ten or twelve years, the widow was said to be attractive.
‘We didn’t argue or anything like that but all of a sudden Zoli stopped coming to see me,’ says my mother. ‘I tried looking for him but he was nowhere to be found in Budapest. In the end, I convinced myself that Zoli had been arrested, that his frequent trips across the border had aroused the suspicions of the Czechoslovak guards. Perhaps they suspected him of involvement in smuggling or in some other illegal activity?’
‘And how did you learn the truth?’
‘Etelka could see the state I was in. I’d been on the verge of getting married when suddenly my fiancé disappears without warning,’ continues my mother. ‘Etelka pleaded with someone she knew, the husband of a relative, to go to Nové Zámky to make inquiries. Feri had grown up in Bratislava. He spoke Slovak and Hungarian fluently.’
‘Was he able to discover anything?’
‘Yes. Feri was told that Zoli and the widow had left Nové Zámky together. With the help of the Bricha, an underground Jewish organisation, they’d set out for Palestine.’
In the aftermath of the War, such clandestine voyages to Palestine were long, uncomfortable and hazardous. Because of the continuing opposition of Great Britain, which governed Palestine until mid-May 1948, Jewish immigrants were often crammed into old and unsuitable vessels for the illicit sea crossing. There was a very real risk of drowning or of being intercepted by British warships and of being hauled off to a detention camp in Cyprus or Germany. However, Zoli and the widow, in common with tens of thousands of Jews who’d lost loved ones in the Holocaust, were overcome by an urge to leave Europe and to rebuild their lives elsewhere. My mother, who was drawn to neither the rigours of life in Palestine nor to the ideological abstractions of Zionism, remained in the city of her birth. She never heard from Zoli again.