04. 26. 2006. 17:03

A woman on the front

Alaine Polcz: A Wartime Memoir

"'Mother, I said they took everyone away, they raped every woman! You said they took away women here, too.’ ’Yes, but only those who were whores. You are not one,’ my mother said. They she threw herself on me and begged, ‘My dear, tell me it is not true!’ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘it is not true. They took me away just to nurse the sick.’"

When it first appeared, this book by Alaine Polcz (original title: Asszony a fronton, also available in English) raised considerable surprise. It is not as though the genre of wartime memoirs, diaries and confessions had been unknown in Hungarian literature. Still, this book of non-fiction, using reality as its raw material, came rather unexpectedly from an author who had been known partly as a thanatologist (a psychologist studying the ways we deal with dying and others' deaths). She was also known was as the wife of Miklós Mészöly, forerunner to the literary aspirations of the latest generation of Hungarian prose writing ("the generation of Peters" – Esterházy, Nádas, Hajnóczy).

A Wartime Memoir
, published in 1991, bore the subtitle "A Chapter from my Life", while the motto positions the narrative as something addressed to a particular person. "War is not easy. Neither is marriage. Still, I will try to tell you how things were, because I must tell you some." (this and all subsequent quotations from the book were translated by Albert Tezla) Anyone reading these lines for the first time could be led to believe that the author is talking to her second husband, Miklós Mészöly. Later, however, we find sentences punctuating the memoir which allow us to conclude that the text is not aimed at Miklós Mészöly, as he is mentioned by name when venues of the war period are revisited. "Miklós and I went back there." It seems as though the author deliberately left the question of direction open, so readers could imagine that the words "I shall try to tell you" were meant personally for them.

The book itself is more than just a recollection of memories from the war years. In the first part, the scene is taken up not so much by the war as the events of the author's first marriage. The first chapter starts on 27 March 1944, the day she first married, and it goes on to talk about the ensuing period. To be sure, it does include facts about various people who were deported from the street where the author and her husband lived, as well as the way the deportations took place. The focus, however, is on the attitude of the Other – whether and how he helps her, how he treats the woman he has chosen to be his life partner. The account is tinted by retrospective knowledge, in the light of which the narrator evaluates gestures and actions.

On 23 August 1944, Romania broke away from the Allies. This Hungarian family living in Kolozsvár (Cluj in Romanian) experienced a short period of happiness, since - as the result of the Second Vienna Decision - some of the territories Hungary had lost after World War I were reunited with this country, including the city of Cluj. Shortly, however, they found themselves in the middle of the war zone. The Germans were there in the city, shelled from the surrounding hilltops by the Romanian army, which had allied itself with the Soviet Union. The obvious escape route led to where the husband's mother lived in Csákvár. She was housekeeper for Count Móric Esterházy's family. Thus, the family set off for Csákvár, but the railway station got a heavy shelling while they were there. What they did not know was that this was the only point of the city under attack at that time. Everyday life in general was characterised by this kind of insecurity and lack of definite information, and it only seemed to get worse as time went by. They reached Csákvár and lived a peaceful life until the end of winter. Then, the front approached. The Germans came, and the family had to escape from the palace to the count's hunting lodge at Mindszentpuszta, in the Vértes mountains. The secretary to the embassy of the papal nuncio also went with them. Since the protagonist was a Calvinist not yet twenty years of age and used to the Transylvanian freedom of religion, the reader is also offered a taste of the religious tensions of the period.

Matters of creed, however, soon become the least important priority. First, the Germans reach Mindszentpuszta and pass on in a relatively peaceful fashion. Then come the Russians and the Romanians, who herd away the inhabitants of the hunting lodge. As secretariat of the papal nuncio, they claim to be extra-territorial and successfully make their way to Csákvár. However, Csákvár was just then intersected by the front.

Violence was at its peak; Russian soldiers were at their most brutal. The author and her companions put up at the parish house in Csákvár. János, the husband, was arrested along with the other men for suspected espionage. From this point on, the key note of the memoir, worry for the other, takes on an increasing role amid the goings on of everyday life. Self-abnegation and the resulting erosion of personality become almost habitual among these circumstances. The parish house is first protected by a Russian soldier, but this is soon waived. After Russian military protection is gone, rape becomes ever more commonplace.

"As for how much time passed and how many of them there were, I do not know. Toward dawn I understood why the back broke. They did the following: they pushed the legs toward the shoulders and threw themselves between them on their knees. If one of them did this too hard, the woman’s spine would snap, not because they wanted it to, but because of the unrestrained force. They shoved the woman into a curl on a point on her spine backward and forward, and they didn’t even notice if it broke."

Then, she was rescued from the parish house by a somewhat more kindly Russian officer and taken to a cellar which functioned as an air raid shelter. People slept like herrings with a disused door serving as a bed, but the soldiers followed her even there and from time to time took her away. There was hardly any food; scabies and lice were commonplace; there was constant shelling; the Russians regularly herded the women away either to be raped or to dig trenches. Shelling in and out of the shelter was an everyday event, since the Russians were fighting the Germans overhead. They were caught in the middle of the front line, which oscillated back and forth in the area of Bicske and Lovasberény for months. Eventually, she managed to rescue her mother-in-law from the cellar; and she, too, found a family that would put her up. They finally set off for Budapest, shortly before the place was evacuated.

Once back with her own family, who saw the war from their own Budapest perspective, it seemed an almost impossible notion to tell them all that had happened at the front line. During a dinner of tongue and tomato sauce – which, with its forks, knives, and real plates, seemed amazingly civilised for one just back from the brink of starvation – the author tells her relatives that where she came from, all the women were taken away and raped, including her. She tells them she had to go, because they were beaten. She adds that she had lice and all sorts of parasites, they all did.

"My mother called me aside after dinner and said, ’My dear girl, don’t tell such nasty stories, people might believe them!’ I looked at her. ‘Mother, it is the truth.’ She began crying and put her arms around me. Then I said, ‘Mother, I said they took everyone away, they raped every woman! You said they took away women here, too.’ ’Yes, but only those who were whores. You are not one,’ my mother said. They she threw herself on me and begged, ‘My dear, tell me it is not true!’ ‘All right,’ I said, ‘it is not true. They took me away just to nurse the sick.’"

Eventually, the family returned to Cluj. Extremely gradually, the author recovered from the illnesses she had contracted during the war (effusive pleurisy, peritonitis and gonorrhoea). In rapid succession she hears from her husband, becomes certain that he has been unfaithful to her during the war, and Transylvania is given over to Romania. All the events of 1945 – how she found her husband and helped him escape to Cluj, how they then fled back to Budapest, how she eventually left him, how she found her second husband Miklós Mészöly, how she lay in bed sick for three years, how she eventually returned to life – are all left to one tight, compressed paragraph in the epilogue. The last real paragraph of the book, just before the epilogue, is about the loss of Transylvania: the homeland. This way it crowns the process whereby individual will is lost in the hope of love; the loved one is lost because of the war; personal autonomy is lost in the front line; faith in love is lost after returning home. Yet, despite all this, there survives the capacity to marvel at human experience, at the ability to survive almost anything and to get over almost anything, sooner or later, provided there exists the will to go on.

Gabriella Györe

Translated by Orsolya Frank

Alaine Polcz: A Wartime Memoir. Hungary 1944–45
Translated by Albert Tezla
Budapest: Corvina, 1998
also published as
One Woman in the War. Hungary 1944–1945
Budapest – New York: CEU Press, 2002

Tags: Alaine Polcz: A Wartime Memoir