Irving Howe wrote that after reading Italian writer Primo Levi, he wanted “to start having a conversation with him.” Bela Zsolt’s memoir of his time spent as a member of a Hungarian labor brigade in the Ukraine and later in the Nagyvarad Ghetto near the Romanian border during World War II gave me the same feeling. I felt that I knew Zsolt — and he would have fit in well at a meeting of Dissent, the social democratic journal founded by Howe. Here is an unsparing memoir of a leftist journalist and politician, Jewish by birth but largely assimilated and without any religious sentiment — “my parents had inherited Christmas from their parents as a folk custom” — that exposes a despairing intellectual in a world where all touchstones have failed him. Zsolt didn’t edit his own memoir, but his sensibility comes through as powerful and unyielding.
The author of 10 novels and four plays, Zsolt was a mainstay of Budapest’s café society when World War II broke out. Although he was interned briefly in Bergen-Belsen in 1944 (a fact revealed by translator Ladislaus Lob, who was interned there with him when Lob was 11 years old), those experiences are not included. In fact, the uniqueness of this memoir is in the absence of the concentration camp, along with the presence of universalistic ethos, both of which make Zsolt more concerned with the overall failure of humanity than with the particular fate of the Jewish people.
Zsolt and his wife, Agnes, were in Paris when the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross Party took charge in Hungary, but his wife insisted on going home. As Zsolt sardonically recalls, she was determined to travel with her nine suitcases, because of her “bourgeois” tendencies. The only train to accommodate them sped them right into the belly of fascist Hungary. But as he later reveals, it was her wish to be with her parents in Nagyvarad, and with her 13-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage, that propelled her to the ghetto. (His in-laws and stepdaughter were later transported from Nagyvarod to Auschwitz, where they perished.)
Zsolt’s writing feels amazingly contemporary — think Sarajevo, Rwanda, Sudan — as he tries to comprehend his own situation while clinging to some notion of a world in which humanity’s fate is intertwined. He is as relentless in judging himself as in judging others. Even inside the ghetto, knowing that the transports to the death camps had begun, he considers that “in China people may be reading eight-line notices about how we are being gassed, but can I therefore except the mandarins… to turn restlessly… even when refugees told me personally that Slovak Jews and anti-fascists — my next-door neighbors in my early youth… were being taken to Poland to be gassed, did I enjoy my fatted chicken, bought on the wartime black market… for any less? And the day [Nobel Peace Prize-winning German journalist] Ossietzky died in an internment camp, didn’t I order the waiter to search heaven and earth for some pure coffee, because coffee made with chicory wasn’t good enough for a dog?”
Though Zsolt was rounded up as a Jew, he likely could just have been taken as a leftist. A leader in the social democratic movement that was futilely organizing in Europe to counter the continent’s fascists, he seems especially pained by thoughts of the working class’s betrayal. He describes, with Tolstoyan affection, how, when he was part of a Ukranian work brigade, along with other Hungarian Jews and leftists, a Russian peasant came to his rescue by challenging a German soldier: “Please don’t throw this sick man out of my kitchen. He isn’t a deserter, and you can see he’s on his last legs. I’m a good Christian and so is my wife. I’ve nothing to do with these Jews, but I don’t want to be in trouble with God.”
Zsolt and his wife are rescued from the ghetto by a family friend — Lili Szabo, a daughter of a leader of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party, who managed to come from Budapest equipped with false identities for them. On the train ride back from the countryside to occupied Budapest, where he and his wife joined the underground, Zsolt remembers fantasizing about waking the policeman nearby to ask: “Have you gone mad? Didn’t I join your ranks, the ranks of the poor, as soon as I was old enough to think… it hurt indescribably that it was precisely these peasants and other brash small-timers with blood on their hands who had finished us off: people for whom I had fought a thousand times more in the course of my life than for the unfortunate Jews… how much I had written on their behalf… all my beliefs had become ridiculous….”
Yet Zsolt didn’t give up on his political beliefs. He joined the communist government briefly after the war, but broke with the communists over workers’ rights and democracy. While this memoir was published in weekly newspaper installments in 1946, the communists suppressed it for 40 years — the revelations of antisemitism in Soviet Russia were objectionable to them — and this English translation is new. Zsolt died in 1949, his body worn out from a combination of his war travails and his bohemian lifestyle. His wife committed suicide in 1948 after publishing her murdered daughter’s diary.
Jo-Ann Mort, co-author of “Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?”(Cornell University Press, 2003), is a member of Dissent magazine’s editorial board.
Nine Suitcases: A Memoir
By Bela Zsolt
Schocken Books, 336 pages, $25.