At Last, We Are Certain by András Mezei

Translated from the Hungarian & edited by Thomas Ország-Land (December 2015)

 

1.

Hunger: The Facts

 

The skin turns bluish white.

The nails bend into claws.

The eyelids swell, and liquid

oozes from the tissues

beneath the skin and moistens

the swollen legs or hands

upon the lightest touch.

A coarse and wiry pelt

covers the body all over.

The eyelashes strangely lengthen

while, like a moth that nears the flame,

the victim slowly approaches

the ultimate transformation.

 

The skin turns deathly pale,

the arms, the legs, the torso

are bloated and the brain

becomes soft and dilated.

The heart has shrunk, already

it's smaller than its owner’s fist.

 

The victim’s daily diet

comprised 300 grams of soup

and 60 grams of bread.

 

2.

Snails, Grass & Data

 

The columns shrunk – for the frail ones fell behind  

or sought survival by scooping up some snow

to quench their thirst in the mountains along the route

to Dachau, or briefly stooped to tighten their boots

or pick up a snail or a fistful of grass or rape

to fill their mouths and fool their famished stomachs.

 

They often died in the intermittent fire

provoked by their looting and insubordination,

like mother caught with clover filling her mouth,

and sister with crushed snails in her gaping mouth.

Their corpses were abandoned among the fruit

of the fields: the snails, the grass, the rape, the clover.

 

Some 13,000 civilian captives dispatched

on a 300km march

that took 8 days. Some 1,800 arrived.

 

 

3.

Letter from Nusi

          Derecske, June 6, 1944

 

And now at last we are quite certain

we shall be taken shortly – but where?

Kolozsvár? Várad? Újfalu?

And then the wagons? Where from there?

But you don’t need to fret about us,

outside, the bags are all prepared,

the basket of food, a pot of honey,

a pair of backpacks, the bedding linen –

the cart is waiting by the portal

for grandma’s ride (poor gran’s old feet!)

and mum has sent a card to dad.

No time left. Still, what really matters,

the place is tidied up for winter.

Sanyikám, darling, I take my leave.

And tell our father he’s in my heart.

Whatever our lot, we shall be safe –

God shall provide.

 

 

 

4.

His Own Command

 

He prescribed a frostbite ointment

for the sore foot of the guardsman.

And he still explained on the way

which chemist could supply it that day

under the rules of the early siege

of Budapest, as the soldier limped

along with him towards the place

of execution. The Jewish doctor

obeyed his own command.

 

 

5

A Camp by the Village

 

        I

That day, in the village inn at Balf,

the merrymaking camp commander

staked a litre of wine on the wager:

now, could he raise the courage to kill

a Jew, any Jew, there on the spot?

And while he passed the time of day

over the wine, that day, in the camp,

no-one collapsed in the cold from exhaustion,

barefooted, shirt-sleeved in the snow,

while that litre of wine still lasted

the prisoners all survived that day, and

the calm of the Lord thus entered the camp.

 

 

        II

Day after day, some people left open

the warm, dry carpenter-shop at night,

some did not bolt the stable door,

some heaped the coal on in the wash-house,

some requisitioned Jewish labourers

and let the weak, frost-bitten creatures

rest in the shed, some every day

left scraps of food in secret places,

some passed on messages and hope:

Ernest Wosinski, the manager

of the bath-house at Balf, and his family,

and John Fleck, the innkeeper at Balf,

and Margaret Jáger, and Lágler the baker,

and Rosie Pötl and Martin Pöltl,

and Mrs. István Szabó, a housewife.

 

 

        III

There were ten just souls. But what crimes

weigh down the conscience of the village?

Had but the Lord seized only ten

scoundrels infecting the soul of the people,

Sodom would never have arisen

anywhere in this blessed country.

 

 

6

The Scale

 

Measured under Mengele’s scale,

Peter stretched and strained but hardly

reached the string with the top of his head.

Béla failed and trod on regardless.

Tiny Árpi was led to the gas

still on tiptoes. The tallest among them

had to raise the string of death

over his head to get past the scale

and accompany the frightened

children, beneath the Eternal’s gaze.

 

 

András Mezei (1930-2008) was a major poet of the Hungarian Holocaust. More of his poetry in Thomas Land’s English translation and an assessment of the place of Holocaust poetry in the English literature of our time appear in Too Much Toothache: The Malaise of Modern Poetry by Alan Dent (The Penniless Press, England, 2015).

 

 

Thomas Ország-Land (b. 1938) is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes for New English Review from London and his native Budapest. His last book, also including work by Mezei, was Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust (Smokestack, England, 2014).

 

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