Psalm by Éva Láng
From Holocaust Poems for our Time, Introduced & Translated from the Hungarian
by Thomas Ország-Land (January 2011)
ÉVA LÁNG, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor (b. 1926), has unleashed a fury of verse of stunning beauty and intensity. Her relentless output is reminiscent of the chanting of the ancient prophets. The work breaks the embarrassed and almost complete silence that has been the response of the world’s poets to the organized, racist murder of six million Jews in the heart of Europe. And it has been largely ignored by literary editors.
She has been writing all her life, but chosen to publish only during the past 20 years. Her five books have sold out almost at once; but her writing has attracted little notice in the established literary journals of Hungary. Yet her verse is destined, in my view, to take its place in the bookshops and libraries alongside the testimony of that other immortal recorder of the Holocaust, Anne Frank.
Unlike Anne the child who comes to terms with the reality of her routine existence in hiding, Éva the great-grandmother never loses her dismay in the face of the mystery of evil. She displays all the skills of her craft with discipline controlled by passion. Sensuous delight in her choice of words radiates through the rage that fires her poetry. It is this combination of her unceasing innocence and mature lust for life that has enabled the poet to give voice to the numbing horror of the Holocaust.
There are sound reasons for the dearth of good Holocaust poetry, particularly in English. The deed was done outside the English-speaking world. Its perpetrators destroyed the poems as well as their authors. The few survivors were concerned at the time mostly with survival, not poetry. Those who did write and survived to publish wrote mostly in languages other than English. And those who translate such works into English today tend to be academics rather than poets.
The post-Holocaust poets also tend to be silent on the subject quite simply because it is too big. How do you express appropriate disapproval, without sounding absurdly pretentious or obvious, at the premeditated murder of an entire people attempted in a manner quite well researched yet entirely beyond your own modest comprehension?
Éva Láng does not weigh her task in such terms. She mourns her dead and regards her own broken life with an uncomprehending pain appropriate to the very moment of injury. She lacks a thirst for revenge. She recalls with gratitude the acts of generosity and courage to which she owes her life. She relives anew the loss, the hunger, the fear, the humiliation which she once endured, shares her experience and turns it through poetry into the common treasure of humanity.
I met Éva Láng in the course of research for an anthology of the Hungarian Holocaust. I have found a treasury of Holocaust poetry of real literary merit demanding public exposure.
New work is being generated all the time as Holocaust survivors are putting pen to paper in old age to record who did what to whom. Their authors must depart shortly. It would be a pity if they took their literary wealth with them.
There is hope. The confines of Hungary’s command culture have been lifted since the collapse of communist administration – although many marketing professionals of the book trade now genuinely believe that free enterprise has no need for poets. Yet the stubborn poetry loving public does sometimes get the best books.
Small grants go a long way. One of Éva Láng’s books has been produced by a public spirited printer for free.
---Thomas Ország-Land, Budapest
The pillow asleep on a troubled bunk.
Its dreams? Some well-seasoned, fragrant morsels.
The sweetness of puddings and rolls and cakes
makes the soul yearn. For its wage.
Swallow? Swallow what? Only saliva
moistens the tongue, not mutton stew
and bean soup, braised kidneys and greens.
Asleep is the palate. The teeth.
Is that a juicy joint on the boil?
And asparagus soup with golden pasta,
the glow of roast turkey? Does your mouth savour
the flavour, the feel of potatoes?
Herbal honey tea, mint in the air lifts
lightly like lace. Tea brewed with my tears.
It’s bitter. Sugar has never been in
this grim, this rickety tin mug...
Cholent. The smoky taste of stuffed goose-necks
held by the beans, and the best of the legs.
The larder shelves laden, the storage bar sags.
The poultry preserved in their fat.
The pillow asleep, caressed by the dream.
The pot will never release it. Will
the communal kitchen spare me a scrap?
I will stay here, even if starved!
II. A SHOUT
In memoriam Giorgio (Jorge) Perlasca, an Italian Christian
who assumed the mantle of the absent consul of Fascist Spain
in Nazi-occupied Budapest to save more than 5,000 Jewish
lives -- including mine
Well I know the One to thank for
the shafts of light that pierce the darkness.
In the vicious circle of hell
the eye perceives a different world.
The shafts of light that pierce the darkness,
morning born from murderous night.
The eye perceives a different world
when you awake from deadly slumber.
Morning born from murderous night.
Our wounds restored by fresh young sunlight.
When you awake from deadly slumber,
will you enter fresh new worlds?
Our wounds restored by fresh young sunlight
consoling, healing, kissing our hurts?
Will you enter fresh new worlds
if you still trust humanity?
Consoling, healing, kissing? Our hurts
resolved through time? We bear our burden!
If you still trust humanity...
If One questions: who will answer?
Resolved through time? We bear our burden
multiplying in our cells.
If One questions, who will answer
down in this world, and not in heaven?
Multiplying in our cells
the crosses of two millennia.
Down in this world, and not in heaven,
One lives and wipes another’s tears.
The crosses of two millennia...
Our bodies marked out and dragged in shame...
One lives and wipes another’s tears.
One has eased for me my burden.
Our bodies marked out and dragged in shame,
marked by our star and by our faith...
One has eased for me my burden,
the One who saved the lives of thousands.
Marked by our star and by our faith,
thus our fate has been ennobled.
The One who saved the lives of thousands
I shout in his place.
III. WANDERING JEWS
A new Hebrew psalm
We do not reopen our wounds
and do not exhibit our wounds
and do not parade our wounds
and do not embellish our wounds
and do not inflame our wounds
and do not inflame our memories
and do not bewail our memories
and do not lament our memories --
for that would not lighten our burden
and would not heal our wounds
and would not lighten our memories
and would not comfort our souls.
Our altars all crumbled to dust
our psalms were chocked on ash
our altars lost their lustre
our altars, the future, died.
Our temples all collapsed
the arks of covenant broke
our psalms soared high towards heaven
our homes were smashed into earth.
And thus our bones were broken
our consciousness tormented
our memories tormented,
our vertebrates were grinded
as our murderers grew wild
and our altars crumbled to dust
and our psalms, they lost their lustre.
And thus our infants fell silent
and thus our men folk grew lame
as the women were lit like torches
and our ancient prayers fell silent
and all, but all met the flames.
The streets took away our sons
the streets, they chased our daughters
the streets, they stoned our sons
the stones, they guarded our dead
while our infants turned into dust
as our murderers have dispersed,
confessed and gained forgiveness
to kill and confess again
and raise righteous gifts for charity
thus robbing the future, the faithful
whose children have turned into dust,
the dust we still breathe in the air:
and as long as we breathe, demand
an account for every deed.
No, we were not more guilty
nor our daughters more attractive
nor our sons any wiser than others --
no, we were only more wretched.
The hearts of our foes swelled with loathing
when they thought they attacked us for love
as they cast aside their faith
as they cast aside their humanity.
Our lips refrain from cursing.
We know the entire truth
and the slander of two millennia
which has infected the world
which has denied the one God,
the God whom we gave to the world.
They hate us for shunning judgment
and trying to live worthy lives
for having a grip on the world
with some who have still survived,
for showing compassion, not hatred,
for learning to reach into space
for sowing the deserts green and
for navigating the seas.
There is no escaping from us,
no shelter even in heaven,
for we are at home in the universe:
wandering Jews, we’ll live forever.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent based in his native Budapest. His last major work was CHRISTMAS IN AUSCHWITZ: Holocaust Poetry, Translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei (Smokestack, England, 2010).
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