The Poetry Kit MAGAZINE
Poetry of Survival:
HOW SOME HOLOCAUST CHILDREN LEARNED TO CONQUER DEATH
By THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND in BUDAPEST
When the Danube Ran Red By Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, Syracuse University Press, 2010, Hardcover, 184pp. $17.95, ISBN-10: 0815609809 & 13: 978-0815609803
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. These survival mechanisms were rooted in poetry.
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, often in verse.
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.
She was then devotedly preparing for the promise of a career as a poet and concert pianist. Her ability amidst the battle to absorb herself in the solitary game of reciting poetry and 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):
...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?
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...
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.”
The Radnóti poems today are helping Hungary 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 poetry and music.
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. But unlike Budapest, Stalingrad had been at least emptied of its residents. 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 composed their verse and 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.
Even during the final confrontations, the orgy of anti-Semitic violence continued in the ghetto. 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.
Nearly seven decades after the event, Zsuzsa feels still indebted to countless miracles incorporated in the poems and games ghetto children created 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 wrote and recited their poems and played in an atmosphere of heightened tension approaching the state of collective hysteria endured by their families. The poems and 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 in verse 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 composed and rehearsed new scenes alone in their minds late into the night.
Some children managed to save lives through verse and 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.
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:
Do not cry, little one!
When the Germans come
to grab you...
I will not leave you.
I add below my own recollection of a collective, unconscious endeavour by Jewish children in a tenement not far from Zsuzsa’s apartment block to express and relieve through play their community’s suppressed fear of death:
Beneath a gloomy square of the sky
in the shadow of awesome, looming walls,
a crowd of kids met day after day
to test, to learn in that well of twilight
which ones in the block were destined to die.
Just a few at a time. Our faces were grey
and small, our eyes were clouded with fear.
We hung the Book and a key on a thread –
for we understood the path of death
yet could not make it go away.
We huddled close with lonely dread
in our hearts. The Bible turned around
and with it, the key. They came to rest
at random to point at a ghetto child.
He would be the first among the dead.
The block has grown, the world progressed.
I, the survivor, stand in the sunlight
aware of the cloud in every eye
as fear of the future grips the globe,
rekindling doom in every breast.
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.”
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 Snakeskin and The Penniless Press, both in England, in 2009.