Featured: Miklós Radnóti: Letters to My Wife by Thomas Ország-Land

In Europe, Featured, history, literature, poetry, writers on October 31, 2013 at 02:07

Featured: Miklós Radnóti: Letters to My Wife; Translated from the Hungarian & Edited by Thomas Ország-Land


Radnóti & his wife Fifi

THE AUTHOR of these pieces was perhaps the greatest poet of the Holocaust. His work will take centre place in a varied and energetic programme of literary and educational events in 2014 marking Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Year.
This project just announced by the government in Budapest will commemorate the murder of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilian captives including Radnóti – mostly Jews but also Roma, homosexuals and political dissidents – perpetrated by the Hungarian state in collaboration with Nazi Germany. This happened during the final and most intensive phase of the Holocaust at the close of WWII when an Allied victory was already obvious.
The first of the three poems below was written on the eve of Radnóti’s final arrest and deportation to a slave labour camp in occupied Serbia. The poem is quoted by the Hungarian prime minister’s office announcing the Holocaust memorial programme. It is also set in bronze at the site where the poet and 21 of his comrades were murdered by their guards.
And the following two – set out in careful, even handwriting, complete with printers’ instructions – were found on his body in a notebook recovered from their mass grave after the war. Radnóti died displaying a white armband that signified his Jewish birth and official (and totally sincere) conversion to Catholicism.
His poetry has been translated into many languages and taught at many universities. Today, Radnóti is a beloved national figure in Hungary despite the current rise of anti-semitism in his native land. These translations will be included in The Survivors: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time by Thomas Ország-Land, to be published by Smokestack Press in England in 2014.


I lived upon this earth in such an age
when man was so debased he sought to murder
for pleasure, not just to comply with orders,
his faith in falsehoods drove him to corruption,
his life was ruled by raving self-deceptions.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
that idolized the sly police informers,
whose heroes were the killers, spies, the thieves –
and the few who held their peace or only failed
to cheer were loathed like victims of the plague.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
when those who risked protest were wise to hide
and gnaw their fists in self-consuming shame –
the crazed folk grinned about their terrifying
doomed future, wild and drunk on blood and mire.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
when the mother of an infant was a curse,
when pregnant women were glad to abort,
the living envied the corpses in the graves
while on the table foamed their poisoned cup.
I lived upon this earth in such an age
when even the poet fell silent and waited in hope
for an ancient, terrible voice to rise again –
for no-one could utter a fitting curse of such horror
but the scholar of dreadful words, Isaiah the prophet.


Gentle past evenings, you too are ennobled through recollection!
Brilliant table adorned by poets and their young women,
where have you slid in the mud of the memory? where is the night
when the exuberant friends still merrily drank the native
wine of the land from slender glasses that sparkled their glances?

Lines of poetry swam around the glow of the lamps
and bright green adjectives swayed on the foaming crest of the metre
and still the dead were alive, the prisoners home, and the dear
vanished friends wrote verse, those fallen long ago whose hearts
lie under the soil of Spain and Flanders and Ukraine.

Some of them charged forward gritting their teeth in the fire and fought
only because there was nothing they could do to avoid it,
and while their company fitfully slept around them under
the soiled shelter of night, they remembered their rooms of the past,
calm caves and islands, their retreat from this society.

Some of them travelled helpless in sealed cattle trucks to places,
some stood numbly waiting unarmed in freezing minefields,
some also went voluntarily, silent with guns in their hands
for clearly they saw their personal place and role in the fighting –
now the angel of freedom guards their great dreams in the night.

Some… doesn’t matter. Where have the wise, winy evenings vanished?
Swift swarmed the draft-notes and swift multiplied the poetic fragments
as did the wrinkles around the lips and eyes of the wives
with enchanting smiles. The elf-footed girls grew dull
and heavy in loneliness over the silent and endless war years.

Where is the night, the tavern and, under the lime trees, that table?
Where are the living and where are the others trampled in battle?
Still, my heart hears their voices, my hand still holds their handshakes,
thus I quote their works and behold their proportions and stature,
silent prisoner myself in Serbia’s wailing mountains.

Where is the night? Such a night perhaps may never recur, for death
gives always a different perspective to all that has vanished.
They still sit at the table, they hide in the smiles of the women,
and they will sip from our glasses, the friends still unburied and waiting,
lying in distant forests, asleep in foreign pastures.


Mute worlds lie in the depths, their stillness crying
inside my head; I shout: no-one’s replying
in war-dazed, silenced Serbia the distant,
and you are far away. My dreams, persistent,
are woven nightly in your voice, and during
the day it’s in my heart still reassuring –
and thus I keep my silence while, profoundly
detached, the cooling bracken stirs around me.

No longer can I guess when I will see you,
who were once firm and sure as psalms can be – you,
as lovely as the shadow and the light – you,
whom I could seek out mute, deprived of sight – you,
now with this landscape you don’t know entwined – you,
projected to the eyes, but from the mind – you,
once real till to the realm of dreams you fell – you,
observed from my own puberty’s deep well – you,
nagged jealously in my soul for a truthful
pledge that you love me, that upon the youthful
proud peak of life you’ll be my bride; I’m yearning
and then, with sober consciousness returning,
I do remember that you are my wife and
my friend – past three wild frontiers, terrified land.
Will autumn leave me here forgotten, aching?
My memory’s sharper over our lovemaking;

I once believed in miracles, forgetting
their age; above me, bomber squadrons setting
against the sky where I just watched the spark and
the colour of your eyes – the blue then darkened,
the bombs then longed to fall. I live despite them
and I am captive. I have weighed up, item
by painful item, all my hopes still tended –
and will yet find you. For you, I’ve descended,

along the highways, down the soul’s appalling
deep chasms. I shall transmit myself through falling
live flames or crimson coals to conquer the distance,
if need be learn the tree-bark’s tough resistance –
the calm and might of fighting men whose power
in danger springs from cool appraisal shower
upon me, bringing sober strength anew,
and I become as calm as 2 x 2.

Thomas Orszag-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent writing from London and his native Budapest. His reviews and polemics have been published by the London Magazine and The Times Literary Supplement, and his poetry by Ambit and BBC World Service.

© 2013 Thomas Orszag-Land & anagnori


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: