Miklós Radnóti: The Witness

From Holocaust Poetry for Our Time, translated from the Hungarian and edited
by Thomas Ország-Land (April 2011)

Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944), poet & translator, was perhaps the greatest poet of the Holocaust. These pieces were found on his body in a mass grave of Hungarian prisoners executed because they were also Jewish.

I. Letter To My Wife
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.

II. Picture Postcards

The roar of cannon rolls from Bulgaria dense and broad,
resounds upon the mountain crest, then hesitates and ceases;
the maned sky runs above; but recoils the neighing road;
and men and beasts are tangled, and wagon, thought and load.
You’re deep and constant in me despite this turbulence
and glowing in my conscience, forever still, intense
and silent like an angel when wondering he sees
destruction, or like beetles entombed in dying trees.
Nine kilometres from here, look, the haystacks
and homes consumed in blaze,
the peasants smoke in silence by the meadow
and huddle in a daze.
But here, the shepherdess leaves in the water
light ripples in her wake
and gently dipping down, her curly flock drinks
the clouds up in the lake.
The oxen slaver red saliva. People
pass urine mixed with blood. My squadron stands
disorganized in filthy bunches. Death
blows overhead its cold, infernal breath.
I tumble near his body. It turns over
already taut as string about to break.
Shot through the nape. You too will end up like that,
I mutter to myself. Lie calm. Be patient.
The flower of death unfolds in fear. I wait.
Blood mixed with dirt grows clotted on my ear.
I hear a soldier quip: He’ll get away yet.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His DEATHMARCH, Holocaust poetry translated from the Hungarian of Miklós Radnóti, has been published by The Penniless Press and Snakeskin in England.


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