Miklós Radnóti: Bearer of Poetic Witness
Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944) was arguably the greatest poet of the Holocaust. He stands out among the other great figures of the Holocaust literature of his generation because he dedicated his life — his talent, discipline, loves and learning, and even his fate in the Holocaust — to the craft of writing poetry.
Unlike many others, Radnóti had plenty of opportunities to escape forced labor and death at the hands of the Nazis. He was at the height of his literary powers when he chose to enter the storm, notebook in hand, deliberately seeking to transform the horror into poetry, as he put it, “for reminders to future ages.” His last few poems transcend the limits of race and tribe in a universal appeal to humanity.
These poems, his most moving, were found on his body in a mass grave of 22 Hungarian prisoners who were executed at the close of the Second World War because they were Jewish. The poems are to be published shortly by the poetry webzine Snakeskin in “Deathmarch,” a collection marking the centenary of Radnóti’s birth.
Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent based in Budapest.
From my window I see a hillside,
it cannot see me at all;
I’m still, verse trickles from my pen
but nothing matters in hiding;
I see, though cannot grasp this solemn,
old-fashioned grace: as ever,
the moon emerges onto the sky and
the cherry tree bursts into blossom.
THE SEVENTH ECLOGUE
Evening approaches the barracks, and the ferocious oak fence
braided with barbed wire, look, dissolves in the twilight.
Slowly the eye thus abandons the bounds of our captivity
and only the mind, the mind is aware of the wire’s tension.
Even fantasy finds no other path towards freedom.
Look, my beloved, dream, that lovely liberator,
releases our aching bodies. The captives set out for home.
Clad in rags and snoring, with shaven heads, the prisoners
fly from Serbia’s blinded peaks to their fugitive homelands.
Fugitive homeland! Oh — is there still such a place?
still unharmed by bombs? as on the day we enlisted?
And will the groaning men to my right and my left return safely?
And is there a home where hexameters are appreciated?
Dimly groping line after line without punctuation,
here I write this poem as I live in the twilight,
inching, like a bleary-eyed caterpillar, my way on the paper;
everything, torches and books, all has been seized by the Lager
guard, our mail has stopped and the barracks are muffled by fog.
Riddled with insects and rumours, Frenchmen, Poles, loud Italians,
separatist Serbs and dreamy Jews live here in the mountains —
fevered, a dismembered body, we lead a single existence,
waiting for news, a sweet word from a woman, and decency, freedom,
guessing the end still obscured by the darkness, dreaming of miracles.
Lying on boards, I am a captive beast among vermin,
the fleas renew their siege but the flies have at last retired.
Evening has come; my captivity, behold, is curtailed
by a day and so is my life. The camp is asleep. The moonshine
lights up the land and highlights the taut barbed wire fence,
it draws the shadow of armed prison guards, seen through the window,
walking, projected on walls, as they spy the night’s early noises.
Swish go the dreams, behold my beloved, the camp is asleep,
the odd man who wakes with a snort turns about in his little space
and resumes his sleep at once, with a glowing face. Alone
I sit up awake with the lingering taste of a cigarette butt
in my mouth instead of your kiss, and I get no merciful sleep,
for neither can I live nor die without you, my love, any longer.
— Mikós Radnóti