Words May Salve the Holocaust Wounds that Refuse to Heal
An interview with Thomas Ország-Land (February 2015)
The wounds inflicted by the Holocaust are still refusing to heal.
Commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 70 years ago on January 27, the Catalan cultural magazine El funàmbul (The Tightrope Walker) has devoted its current issue to Holocaust literature. The journal features an interview conducted by David Cuscó i Escudero, its editor, with Thomas Ország-Land, a Jewish-Hungarian poet, translator and foreign correspondent, on his attempt to look beyond the Holocaust.
David: We are about to publish some of your Holocaust poetry in Catalan translation. We are also very interested in your English translations of outstanding Hungarian Holocaust poetry. Did you write them because you thought that the Holocaust could be fathomed only through literature since the basic facts of that crime were so huge and its premises so horrible that they could be described comprehensibly only in fiction? That would be just the opposite of Theodor Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – although he later qualified that, after reading Paul Celan's poetry.
Thomas: Adorno looked at Auschwitz and despaired. But humanity must look to its future, and cannot afford to despair. I recently attended a meeting of Holocaust survivors, old people who looked evil in the face in their youth, somehow survived and dedicated their lives to warning the world against attempting such madness ever again. They agitate, they write, they lecture, especially to the young.
But they see that the very occurrence of the Holocaust is vociferously being denied by people who would like to repeat it. These aging witnesses know that they will be silenced soon by illness and death. They fear that, when they are gone, no-one will be left to defend the world against such renewed barbarity.
I do not fear that. I believe that, as Odysseus will sail the seven seas of imagination in Homer’s hexameters for the rest of history, so the passionate warnings of the Holocaust survivors will resound through the ages in the voices of the poets of our own time.
David: In your poem “Caution“, a child summons humanity from Auschwitz. He reminds me of Hurbinek, that unforgettable child in Primo Levi’s “The Truce” who mumbles instead of talking. Despite the pain conveyed by your poem, I sense a spark of optimism here, in the dignity of the child's response to his own suffering... Is there, to you, room for optimism after the Holocaust?
Thomas: Probably the most important thought in that poem is “hold up your head... while you’ve got it.” It radiates optimism even beyond death. I did not invent that. I found it in a surviving poetic fragment from a slave-labour camp. I’ve just managed to identify its author as Jaroslav Ježek (not the composer of that name), to whom the poem is now dedicated.
Primo Levi and Paul Celan both committed suicide after the Holocaust, perhaps because they saw no room left for decency, let alone optimism, after Auschwitz. Both turned to poetry to shout out their astounded grief and rage at their incomprehensible humiliation and abuse at the hands of the Nazis, for which they had been totally unprepared. But the subsequent generations are not unprepared. They are all survivors, and their enduring capacity for love and decency originates from within.
David: Does your personal experience of the Holocaust justify such optimism?
Thomas: My own Holocaust culminated in the three-month Soviet siege of Nazi-occupied Budapest, one of the bloodiest city sieges Europe has ever endured. I was a Jewish child hiding from both the Nazis and the Allied bombers. I had just turned six when the Nazis smashed my idyllic childhood, the very age when a child must confront the wider world, beyond the protective circle of parents and family, and learn to manage it without assistance. That is the mother of all adventures.
The world as perceived by a child then is unpredictable and dangerous even at the best of times. Challenges may appear from any direction and the child must learn how to dodge them.
To me, the shouting Nazis staging their brutal raids on civilian shelters hunting for Jews in hiding, like me, appeared as dumb, cruel, homicidal monsters pretty low on my scale of threats, after the continuous aerial bombardment, the ubiquitous disease-carrying vermin and the contaminated drinking-water supply that got me in the end. All this has made me more optimistic than most people I know because I have come to expect myself to survive a crisis, and happier too as I still cannot believe my luck of being alive.
David: In your poem “The Name” you even speak in the name of Eichmann's son. It is a daring poem, very brave and impressive, which seems to share the controversial concept of the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt introduced after Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. Was this poem influenced by her?
Thomas: Eichmann had a surviving nephew in Austria, who chose to hold on to that infamous surname. My poem enlarges on some of his attitudes that do not directly address Arendt’s thesis. That had arisen from her shocked realization during the 1961 Jerusalem trial, which she covered for “The New Yorker” magazine, that ordinary, sane people can be oblivious to their personal culpability for dreadful deeds if they commit them under a higher authority. That is a very uncomfortable notion. Some people even responded by calling Arendt a “Nazi whore.”
A decade later, by the time I covered for “The Nation” magazine of New York the Düsseldorf trial of Franz Stangl, commander of the Trebnlinka and Sobitor extermination camps, her proposition had become widely accepted. Stangl even tried to defend his innocence by maintaining that he had “merely” followed orders.
He earned a life sentence – and managed to do just one great service to humanity that he had so enormously abused. In an exhaustive prison interview with Gitta Sereney, an extraordinary Austrian/English investigative reporter, Stangl admitted hours before his final, fatal heart attack his personal responsibility and remorse for mass murder.
The principle that we are all individually responsible for our actions, even in the face of unreasonable orders, even on the battlefield, is now enshrined in international law and increasingly also in the constantly evolving human conscience. That is the hope of the world.
David: Imre Kertész, the Jewish-Hungarian Nobel Laureate, often reminds his audiences that he has survived both the Nazi and the Soviet dictatorships and that his experience has absolutely shaped his work and vision of life. To what extent do you think that the same events have shaped your poetry and life?
Thomas: All humanity has survived those two dictatorships, and a lot more, irrevocably shaping all of us. There were Hitler and Stalin and also Mao and Franco and even Idi Amin. The world is not the same that it had been before Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
Technological advancement has now enabled the religious/political elite of any state to attempt genocide, and some openly fantasize about it. We are even destroying nature, of which we are part. My own experience tells me that humanity’s one chance today lies in total dedication to survival, untrammelled by the grief, the guilt, the resentments of the past.
We must literally talk and cry them out of our system. Poetry is a great vehicle of post-crisis reconciliation. Modern Germany has managed that, to a great extent, and built a resilient and decent society. That is why Kertész recently spent several years in Berlin, of all places. Much of formerly Soviet-dominated Europe has not even begun to do that. Which is why I have returned to Budapest from the West, in the hope of encouraging that process.
David: Do you prefer writing in English or your native Hungarian?
Can one write poetry in a second language?
Thomas: There are precedents of writers producing sound work in their adopted languages. In poetry, every word should sound so fresh, anyway, as though its author had only just used it for the very first time.
I have lived by freelance writing (as well as a scholarship and occasional casual labour in the early years) since the age of 16. I stopped writing in Hungarian at 18 when I left the country after the doomed 1956 revolution against Soviet rule, in which I had participated. In the last 50 years, I have only written love letters in Hungarian, and only because their recipient does not understand English.
David: Apart from your own writing, you have translated much poetry into English. Why? Do you believe that the translator of poetry must be a poet?
Thomas: I started translating poetry as a young man seeking to learn from my betters. I saw myself as a fine-art student in a public gallery copying the works of great painters in order to master their techniques by re-creating their compositions. Eventually it gave me huge pleasure to dig the literary remains of deceased friends out of their premature graves and give them new life in English – a language accessible to all the world.
Dead masters make good teachers. But, on reflection, I believe that translators must be poets in their own right and preferably equal to the authors of the poems that they translate.
David: Some of the Hungarian Holocaust poets whom you have introduced to English literature have now been taught by British and American universities in your translation for years. One of them, Miklós Radnóti, has gained a robust international reputation (see “Deathmarch,” the last edition, published by The Penniless Press and Snakeskin, both in England, in 2009). What makes Radnóti so special? Was he well known at home before the Holocaust?
Thomas: He was hardly known anywhere before his murder at the age of 34. His last poems describing his experiences in a slave-labour camp and a “deathmarch” were found on his body in a mass grave after the war. The poems recording the chaos and brutality of the Holocaust in magnificent classical metre have made him a beloved national figure in Hungary, despite the current upsurge of anti-Semitism prevailing in that poor country.
David: Radnóti acknowledged his Jewish origins but rejected what he termed his “race and blood and roots,” much like Franz Kafka. Why do you think he did that? And did the Holocaust make Radnóti and others like him more aware of their Jewishness?
Thomas: Hungary was among the first in the modern world to emancipate its Jewish population in the 19th century. Many Jews responded in an enthusiastic wave of assimilation. This was part of a Central European trend that in previous generations embraced such quintessentially Jewish pre-Holocaust masters as Kafka, an alienated Jew, and Heine, a Christian convert.
Radnóti also converted to Catholicism. He was shot wearing a white armband identifying him as a Jewish-born Christian. There is nothing in his surviving poetry to suggest that his clearly anticipated fate had shaken his sincere religious conviction.
But a retrospective view of the Holocaust has given the survivors food for thought. Some have recovered and defended the land of Israel.
Some have re-built Budapest as a vibrant Jewish cultural capital. Some have sought safety by burying their racial/cultural identity even deeper.
A foulmouthed, racist Hungarian politician in his 30s recently learned that he is a Jew – a fact hitherto kept from him by his loving family of Holocaust survivors. He was of course booted out from his party. He went to share his astonishment and grief with a leading Hungarian Hasidic rabbi of the same age. The rebbe and the rabble-rouser had lots in common. For the rabbi too had discovered his own, similarly concealed Jewish identity only at the age of 12...
David: András Mezei, another poet you have introduced to the West (see “Christmas in Auschwitz“, Smokestack Books, England, 2010), is still little known in my country. Please describe him.
Thomas: Mezei, who died aged 78 in 2008, is as important a poet as Radnóti, but very different. I first met him in a post-war camp run by a Socialist-Zionist movement then called Dror Habonim for Jewish children recovering from the trauma of the Holocaust. We were also being prepared for emigration to Israel on board rickety ships like the famous “Exodus” running the British blockade.
Mezei went, but eventually returned to become one of the most prominent poets and literary journalists of the country. He put his faith into building a just society free of racial, religious and class prejudice, under the Communist banner. We found ourselves in the opposite camps of the 1956 revolution.
I met him again after the collapse of Communism when he became an influential publisher. He commissioned me to translate his Holocaust poetry, I joined the editorial board of his literary/political journal and we became close friends. The poems are based on his personal experiences and subsequent interviews as well as medical records and post-war testimonies. They combine the startling immediacy of an injury just inflicted with the controlled passion and attempted detachment of the professional observer.
David: We have heard about your latest collection (“Survivors: Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocaust - Smokestack, 2014). How is it different from the thousands of other books on this topic published everywhere as the world struggles to look beyond the Holocaust?
Thomas: This book is about life, not death. “Caution” is included in it and also “The Name“. It is an anthology including György Faludy, my teacher most of my life and my close friend towards the end of his, an outstanding 20th century poet equal to his beloved Lorca, Mandelstam and Yeats. And there are such other masters as Em?d, Forrai, Gergely, Heltai, Karinthy, Láng, Székely and Szép, who are yet to claim their rightful place in the bookshops, lecture halls and libraries of the West.
Their poetry may perhaps help the post-Holocaust generations – the descendents of the perpetrators, and of their victims, and of the passive bystanders – to face our dreadful joint inheritance together and learn to heal the wounds of the past.
Thomas Ország-Land (b. 1938) is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and his native Budapest. His poetry appears in current, forthcoming or very recent issues of Acumen, Ambit, The Hungarian Quarterly, The Jewish Quarterly, The London Magazine and Stand.
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