Games of Survival

How Some Holocaust Children Learned To Conquer Death
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by Thomas Ország-Land (January 2012)

 

Many child survivors of the Holocaust owed their lives to the deadly serious business of games played collectively or alone, that enabled them to adjust to dangerous situations, sometimes even to control them, and to relieve tension in relative safety. This is an area still demanding substantial academic research.
 
In a moving memoir reminiscent of Anne Frank’s diary, Professor Zsuzsanna Ozsváth of the University of Texas describes the role played by games in her own, childhood victory over death in the climax of war and in the face of prolonged, organized racist mass murder in Hungary. Her experience of the life-preserving games of Jewish children during the Holocaust in Budapest is very close to my own. Other accounts are turning up elsewhere.
 
If you read just one of the thousands of personal Holocaust memoirs published nowadays by the thinning, final generation of Jewish survivors, perhaps this one – When the Danube Ran Red by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, Syracuse University Press, 2010, Hardcover, 184pp. $17.95, ISBN-10: 0815609809 & 13: 978-0815609803 – should be it.
 
The book includes an insightful introduction by David Patterson, the holder of the Bornblum Chair of Excellence in Judaic Studies at Memphis University. He explains the dramatically high death rate of children in the target populations of the Holocaust by the stated purpose of the Nazis to deny the Jewish people a future. For 12-year old Ozsváth nicknamed Zsuzsa, the Holocaust ended with the 1944/45 battle for Budapest, one of the longest and most savage city sieges in European history.
 
She was then devotedly preparing for the promise of a career as a concert pianist. Her ability amidst the battle to absorb herself in the solitary game of playing the piano in the absence of an instrument may have saved her life. A dozen years later, she left Hungary illegally, taking with her just one valuable possession: a collection of verse by Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944), enslaved and murdered by fellow Hungarians because of his Jewish birth despite his well documented, sincere conversion to Catholicism.
 
Her excellent English translation of that book, composed in collaboration with the American poet Frederick Turner, has greatly contributed to Radnóti’s worldwide reputation today as perhaps the greatest among the Holocaust poets. In an imaginary dialogue with the Prophet Nahum, Radnóti describes the total war engulfing Nazi-occupied Europe (in the Ozsváth/Turner translation published in Foamy Sky, Princeton University Press, 1992 & Corvnia/Budapest, 2002):
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POET:
 
                                                     ...now the swift nations
slay one another, the human soul stands as naked as Niniveh.
Then to what purpose the exhortations, the hellish green clouds of
the locusts, what purpose? when humans are baser than animals!
Here and elsewhere they smash on the walls the innocent infants,
steeples are torches, homesteads flower as furnaces, households
roast in their embers, in smoke the factories rise up and vanish.
Streets full of people on fire go galloping, sink with a rumble,
hugely embedded the bomb-burst shatters masses asunder;
shrunken as cowpats on fields in the summer, the dead are lying
piled in the plazas and squares of their cities; and as it was written
all that you prophesied now is fulfilled. But say, what brought you
back to the earth from the primal dustcloud?
 
 

PROPHET:
 
                                                                             Wrath: that forever
orphaned the children of men must serve in the hosts of the blasphemous,
shaped but not natured like men – and that I might see the unclean
citadel’s fall and unto these latter days speak and bear witness...
 
 

Judging by her prose, I thought Zsuzsa was a poet in her own right, almost certainly a Holocaust poet and probably a good one. But she told me, “My friends keep asking: Where are the Ozsváth poems? My answer is that there is none. The poems have made such a din reverberating in my head all my life that I could not put them to paper. But that is well. I’ve got the translations.“
 
Today she is the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies and professor of literature and history of ideas at Texas University in Dallas. Her writing and lectures have won her a string of distinguished honours including an American Fulbright and a top Hungarian Academy of Sciences award. Her new memoir is a profoundly moving work of literary as well as academic merit.
 
The title of the book refers to a scene witnessed by Zsuzsa the child, enacted nightly along the banks of the River Danube throughout the siege, when the Hungarian Nazis executed groups of Jewish captives, men women and children, bound by ropes in pairs to prevent survival. The idea was that if one had by chance escaped death by shooting, the survivor might still be dragged down by the weight of the attached corpse.
 
“Nobody screamed,” she recalls, “nobody cried. You could hear nothing but the shots and the splash of the bodies falling into the red foam (of) the river, which flowed... like blood.”
 
Hungary is still struggling to comprehend the tragedy. This country of fewer than 10m souls was responsible for the humiliation and murder of some 600,000 of its Jewish citizens during the final phases of the Second World war, most of them brutally delivered for petty financial gain to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Zsuzsa and many other Jews crammed into the vermin-infested ghetto tenements of Budapest or hiding elsewhere in the capital escaped deportation.
 
But they had to live with the constant threat of mass murder and worse – there was worse – meted out by the armed thugs of the Hungarian Arrow-Cross/Nyilas party, the role models of the neo-Nazi rabble on the rise today throughout Eastern Europe.

Her greatest secret fear was enforced separation from her beloved parents. That came to pass as the invading Soviets smashed through the combined German and Hungarian defences. But even then, she managed to keep her calm, alone in hiding, sustained by games.
 
The ferocity of the three-month siege, including vicious hand-to-hand fighting under constant Allied aerial bombardment, is compared by historians to the earlier battle for Stalingrad. The siege of Budapest raged over the heads of 800,000 civilian witnesses, mostly women and children. The death toll approached 160,000. While the children played their games to delay death, many combatants on both sides reserved their last bullets for themselves for fear of being captured alive by their savage opponents.

When the Danube Ran Red
By Zsuzsanna Ozsváth
with a Foreword by David Patterson
Syracuse University Press, 2010
Hardcover, 184pp. $17.95
ISBN-10: 0815609809
ISBN-13: 978-0815609803
 

 Even during the final confrontations, the orgy of antisemitic violence continued in the ghetto. (See The Siege of Budapest, Corvina/Budapest, 1998, subsequently reissued in excellent translations in Britain by I. B. Tauris, in the the United States by Yale University Press, in and Germany by F. A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung, the very first book by a young scholar immediately welcomed as a formidable success by both The Times Literary Supplement in London and The New York Review of Books.) Zsuzsa, I, and all the others I know who in any way participated in the siege of Budapest have never overcome, or even attempted to overcome the experience.
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Nearly seven decades after the event, Zsuzsa feels still indebted to countless miracles incorporated in the games ghetto children played to distance themselves from the face of death. These usually took the shape of a human face.
 
There was Erzsébet (Erzsi) Fajó, Zsuzsa’s gentile playmate, friend and nanny who risked all for the survival of her employers who in turn eventually adopted her. Her name today is preserved by an olive tree planted in her memory in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
 
There was the family’s kindly, grey-moustached postman who turned up unexpectedly to seek out Zsuzsa in the ghetto when she was separated from her parents after witnessing her first massacre staged by the Arrow-Cross. He must have been aware of the peril he risked as he delivered to the tearful child messages of hope from her mother.
 
And there was a uniformed member of a Nazi raiding party dragging away the Jews, whose hastily whispered advice saved the entire family. Was he an angel? Or a decent cop? Or a member of the armed Zionist resistance that regularly infiltrated the ranks of the killers to save their victims?
 
The imagination of the temporarily unsupervised children flared as they played in an atmosphere of heightened tension approaching the state of collective hysteria endured by their families. The games gave the children “space,” the author recalls, “that allowed us to leave behind the world of the adults as well as the ghetto house and with it the Germans, our fear of separation and the threat of death.”
 
They acted out well-known dramas or invented new ones, reflecting the cultural pursuits of their community. “Good morning, Ophelia,” the ghetto children no longer allowed to attend school greeted each other in the morning, or “Good morning, Tristian,” or “Good morning, Rigoletto!”
 
Picking up the game, she relates, the person so addressed would try to meet the challenge by answering the call and stepping into the chosen theatrical role. The children sometimes changed the script to suit the prevailing mood or circumstance. They played feverishly together throughout the day and rehearsed new scenes alone in their minds late into the night.
 
Some children managed to save lives through play by diffusing potentially lethal situations, adds Professor George Eisen, executive director and associate vice-president at Nazareth College of Rochester, New York. His pioneering, interdisciplinary study of the ghettoes and concentration camps of Europe (Children & Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows, Massachusetts University Press, 1988 & Corvina/Budapest 1990) cites instances of children’s games staged to divert the attention of guards from forbidden activities punishable by death such as smuggling food or participating in educational activities.
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Eisen is also a Jewish survivor of the Hungarian Holocaust and the siege of Budapest. He poignantly quotes a five-year old girl engaged in serious conversation with her doll: “Don't cry, little one. When the Germans come to grab you, I will not leave you...“
 
In fact, people of all ages played games for life but, despite the relatively high proportion of child victims, the adults were often less successful. I add below a recollection in verse, rendered in my translation, by the Jewish-Hungarian poet György Timár (1929-2003) of a complex of games played in the an air raid shelter of a tenement not far from Zsuzsa’s own apartment block:
 
 

GAMES IN THE CELLAR
(From the Calendar of Horror, Jan. 5, 1944)
 
 

The spirit fights back by playing even as bullets threaten.
Love as well as mildew bloom in the air raid shelter.
 
Two awkward gestures. A fleeting kiss: dry but defiant.
Love, those about to die salute thee in their desire.
 
In the evening, the killers smash in the outer gate.
But we have Mr. Knöpfler, a former bubbly salesman.
 
He’s bouncing forward, beaming: “Boys, how much for a postponement?
For just 10 days of delay? I say, 10,000 in gold...”
 
Just 10 days till liberation... We’re calculating if
life will pass today this exam in salesmanship.
 
“That will do! Shut your face... 10,000 then! Pay up sharply!
And don’t you worry – you will yet make a pretty corpse!”
 
The textile dealer grumbles: Why does he have to toss in,
after the golden chains, his last, expensive sovereigns?

 
Let’s play while we can. Let each one play an appropriate game.
I swear on eternal love. Mr. Knöpfler negotiates.
 
The cannon thunder. Smoke blacks out the firmament.
Knöpfler is smart. He reserves 5,000 until the end.
 
(But they marched him to the river and executed him later,
abandoning his corpse by the quayside, on the 10th day.)
 
 
The most moving record of a Holocaust survival game that I know is in Zsuzsa’s book. It describes the triumph of a terrified, starving girl over a nightmare endured during three days and nights at the height of the siege when she was confined to a cupboard in an abandoned, sprawling apartment by the river, exposed to heavy machinegun fire and intermittent bombing.
 
She recalls: “I decided to practice the piano in my head... and started to imagine I was playing Beethoven’s f-minor sonata, op. 3, from the first measure to the last. Some passages went very well, some not at all. While my right hand’s fingers were really singing in the second part, my left hand’s fingers were too slow playing the triplets in the fourth part.
 
“I need to practice this more, I thought. But I did not go back to work on those passages; rather I started to play the second sonata in A major; and again, I thought through every single note. In the meantime, the bombing started anew... and (I) recited poetry, and prayed and prayed and prayed.”
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THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent. DEATHMARCH, the fourth edition of his translation from the Hungarian of Holocaust poetry by Miklós Radnóti, was published by The Penniless Press and Snakeskin, both in England, in 2009.

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