The last poems of Miklos Radnoti were found by chance in the communal grave of twenty-two Hungarian prisoners executed because they were Jewish. They are treasured as some of the most flawless additions to their country’s rich poetic heritage. And they have gone some way towards teaching tolerance to new generations of Hungarians in the treatment of their racial, religious and ethnic minorities.
Radnoti was probably the greatest among the mature writers of the period to witness and record the Holocaust. Anne Frank was a child; Primo Levi and Paul Celan were very young men eventually compelled to turn to literature in order to comprehend and digest the brutality of their experience, for which they had been totally unprepared. Unlike many others, Radnoti had plenty of opportunities to escape forced labour and death at the hands of the Nazis. He was at the height of his literary powers when he chose to enter the storm, notebook in hand, deliberately seeking to transform the horror into poetry, as he put it, ‘for reminders to future ages’. His last poems transcend the limits of race and tribe in a universal appeal to humanity.
There is little to say about the poet which is not better conveyed by the work. He was born in Budapest and educated at Szeged University. He was prevented from pursuing an academic career because of his racial origin as well as humanism. He was obliged to make a meagre living by producing what are recognised today as brilliant translations from classical Greek and Latin as well as English, Greek and German poetry. Some of his poems were seized and others not allowed to be published, while the rest attracted little attention. Most of Radnoti’s contemporaries never heard of him.
Today, his poetry and legend mean many things to many people. To me, they are a flame of hope against racial and religious bigotry. For Radnoti’s dogged refusal to tolerate hostile discrimination against any minority has triumphed in the end.
A la Recherche
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 draftnotes 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.