Sometime in early 1946, about one year after the Red Army liberated Hungary, local officials in the western Hungarian town of Abda unearthed a mass grave filled with the decomposing corpses of 22 Jewish slave laborers. Among the bodies lay the 35-year-old Hungarian-Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti, executed in November 1944 by a bullet to the neck from a soldier in the Nazi-allied Hungarian armed forces. In the poet’s breast pocket, the officials found an identity card and a small, bloodstained Serbian exercise book in whose margins Radnóti had scrawled “Forced March,” alongside a dozen or so other poems of equally astonishing lyricism and power.
Radnóti’s life was bracketed with tragedy — his twin brother was stillborn and his mother died moments later. His father and stepmother (who posed as his real mother) managed to keep this truth from Radnóti until his father’s death, when the poet was just 12. Two months later an uncle finally told him about his stepmother’s true identity and his biological mother’s death. Radnóti never recovered.
Guilt over surviving his birth appears constantly in Radnóti’s work, perhaps nowhere more bitterly than in “Twenty-Eight Years,” an autobiographical birthday poem: “Monster I was in my nativity/ twin-bearing mother — and your murderer!” Raised by distant aunts and uncles in an increasingly fraught and antisemitic Budapest, the lonely adolescent found twin refuges in poetry and Fanni Gyarmati, his future wife. He fell in love with Fanni when he was 17, and she served as his muse throughout his life, most hauntingly in the buried notebook: “You whose calm is as the weight and sureness of a psalm,” he wrote of her.
As an adult, Radnóti supported himself largely through skillful, pioneering translations of old masters like Virgil and modern poets like Guillaume Apollinaire (he was the first to translate the French surrealist into Hungarian). Radnóti’s wide-ranging translations helped shape his affinity for both classical forms and modernism while also sustaining him emotionally. “In weighted down years of my life they have consoled me, tormented and protected me even against myself — these Greek, Latin, French, English and German poems,” he wrote to a friend in the late 1930s. Translating further connected him to the international literary community of writers like Paul Eluard, Federico García Lorca and Bertolt Brecht, with whom he shared both political concerns and a belief in experimentation.
Between 1940 and 1944, Radnóti served three different times as a slave laborer. The last call-up took him to Bor, Yugoslavia, where he worked hauling rocks from June to September 1944, until the Germans were forced to retreat and Radnóti began his fateful march. After nearly two months of trudging and starving through the Balkans and western Hungary, he could walk no further and the Hungarian forces separated Radnóti and 21 other men who were unable to continue. The Hungarian soldiers tried taking them to a hospital and then to a school that housed refugees, but neither place would take Jews. The men then were ordered to dig a ditch beside a dam in Abda and were shot.
Soon after the discovery of the notebook, Radnóti’s verse became much more widely known and he is now a central figure in the 20th-century Hungarian poetry canon. In her remarkable biography of the poet, Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, his English translator, recalls herself as a 14-year-old girl fleeing Hungary shortly after the failed 1956 uprising. She had to leave the country without her parents or any family, but she carried her cherished collection of Radnóti’s poems in her pocket as a token of remembrance. Like his hero Lorca, who occupies a similar place in the hearts of his countrymen, Radnóti’s work was greatly amplified by his shocking murder. In one of the last lines in the bloodstained notebook, he unknowingly prophesied his poetry rising from the dead: “If all I have is magic, I’ll come back,” he wrote.
Dan Kaufman is a musician and writer living in Brooklyn. He leads the experimental cabaret group Barbez, and is currently working on a musical portrait of Paul Celan for John Zorn’s Tzadik label.