01. 05. 2010. 11:30

How the murderer of a poet became a hero

Life and literature

The commander of the death-squad personally responsible for the murder of Miklós Radnóti – perhaps the greatest poet of the Holocaust well known in English translation – escaped retribution for the deed. His remains rest in official burial grounds reserved for the heroes of the Hungarian Republic.

This has been established by Tamás Csapody, a noted jurist and sociologist. His revelations, published prominently by the country’s leading literary and political journals, coincide with the centenary of the poet’s birth in 2009.
Radnóti was shot at the age of 35 shortly before the end of the Second World War, a victim of the National Socialists’ attempt at the “ethnic cleansing” of Europe. He was condemned with a group of Jewish Hungarian prisoners because of their inability to keep up with a westward “death march”. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave.
But his best poems contained in a notebook were recovered after the war when the bodies were exhumed. They are treasured today as some of the most flawless modern additions to Hungary’s poetic heritage.
The circumstances of the massacre are even worse than the many myths current about the event. It was carried out by the Royal Hungarian Army, not some “foreign” ethnic Germans blamed by the literary establishment during the Communist era. And two members of the five-man death squad positively identified in secret inquiries after the war were allowed to go free. The reason: they had by then joined the ruling Communist Party.
Radnóti would have been a great poet even if the Holocaust had not happened. When it did, he deployed with devastating effect his mastery of refined classical metre to the description of chaos and brutality.
Other writers of the Holocaust – Anne Frank, Imre Kertész, Éva Láng, András Mezei, Elie Wiesel among them – were children at the time. Paul Celan and Primo Levi were very young men eventually compelled by their grief and outrage to protest in poetry against the inhumanity of their experience for which they had been totally unprepared.
Radnóti does not protest. He records with compassion.
Unlike many others, he had plenty of opportunities to escape forced labour 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 poems transcend the limits of race and tribe in a universal appeal to humanity.
Read in chronological order, his poems follow the author “along the highways, down the soul’s appalling deep chasms” to his clearly anticipated death. These intensely autobiographical pieces describe a writer stripped of all the security and comfort of civilized existence and caught up in history’s insane march towards collective destruction, who yet maintains his stubborn personal dignity and fierce concern for the future.
Radnóti went on publicly fighting back until the end. According to the legend that has grown up around his figure – which I have checked against reality in interviews with survivors of the same camps and the eventual “death march” – the notebook containing his final and most moving poems and found in the end on his body had been going around from hand to hand, giving encouragement to fellow prisoners.
A facsimile edition of the notebook, containing the work in careful, even handwriting and complete with printers’ instructions, was published in Hungary in 1971. Popular demand necessitated an immediate second printing. Many further editions have followed.
His poetry has been translated into more than 30 languages. Radnóti is probably the most-translated Hungarian poet, especially into English (see bibliography below).
However, Radnóti’s Hungarian readers have fared badly at the hands of their own literary establishment. In common with the opinion shapers of the rest of formerly Soviet-dominated Europe, most of Hungary’s teachers and editors have not even begun to digest the shameful role their country played during the war. Under strict orders, “the establishment in the Communist era deliberately fed to the public a distorted image of the war,” writes historian János Gyurgyák in his landmark study, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon (The Jewish Question in Hungary, Osiris Press, Budapest, 2002).
It depicted the occupying Germans and certain of their prominent Hungarian allies as the perpetrators of all horrors, Gyurgyák goes on. This falsified the truth and, what is even more important, sought to relieve society of its moral burden without any attempt at confronting the past.
Yet the spirit of Radnóti’s poetry has miraculously survived and won the affection of the nation. Radnóti today is perhaps the best loved by the Hungarian public among all its poets of the recent past. His lines are quoted at public meetings. Hence indeed the prolonged furore over the revelations of the circumstances of his murder.
Despite public interest, his murder has been hitherto shrouded by misinformation. But unknown to the public, the facts were reliably established shortly after the war by confidential inquiries conducted under the authority of the interior ministry here in order to forestall any hitch to the smooth administration of the Communist order. The archives of the ministry at last exposed to researchers are belatedly rewriting history.
We now understand that the state inquiries had been ordered to enable the regime to respond with authority to any conclusions turned up by persistent private investigations conducted by historians Ábel Koszegi and Gábor Tolnai. The two were following in the footsteps of András Dienes, a deceased colleague, whose own extensive manuscript on Radnóti’s murder had disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1962.
The archives now provide the core of Csapody’s evidence, corroborated by the records of slave labour camps in Serbia where Radnóti and some 6,000 other Hungarian Jews were deployed in the war, about half of whom perished. Csapody matched his findings with testimonials by survivors and material in the archives of Yad Vashem (Israel), Belgrade, Berlin and Budapest.
Csapody is a widely published, highly respected intellectual and author of Civil forgatókönyvek (Civil Scenarios, Századvég Publishers, Budapest, 2002), a collection of essays on principal aspects of the Hungarian transition process. He has also published several specialist papers during recent years on his research into Radnóti’s murder and the Serbian slave camps near Bor.
But the issue has burst into the public domain only in 2009 through the publication of major articles by him in the authoritative Népszabadság newspaper and the literary journal Élet és Irodalom. These articles have been reprinted by many other newspapers, and the subject taken up by many other writers.
The truth of the murder is of considerable public interest because of the affection in which Radnóti is held by poetry readers and also because the revelations coincide with an upsurge of neo-Nazism that upsets a lot of people.
Csapody writes that the Bor camps were supervised by the Germans but administered by the Hungarians with senseless brutality. They were vacated late in 1944 as part of the German retreat, its inmates despatched westwards in an infamous “death march”.
The frightened, exhausted and starved captives were driven at a forced pace across wild mountain terrain under the blows of their armed escorts who were themselves being harassed by the Serbian partisans. People were being murdered at no provocation.
Those who had the strength supported their limping fellows. The condition of the prisoners was such that their guard allowed them to march through civilian settlements only by night for fear of outraging the residents.
In a rare gesture of humanity, Radnóti and 21 others who could not keep the pace were put on horse-drawn wagons under the command of Sergeant András Tálas. He was ordered to take them to hospital. He tried to do that, but no hospital would take them in.
He might have decided then to abandon them in the prevailing chaos with probable impunity. He chose to murder them instead. The post-war records of the interior ministry include witness testimonials stating that Tálas drew his handgun and led the massacre. Radnóti perished wearing a white armband signifying his conversion to Christianity.
All the perpetrators escaped punishment for this. But Tálas was recognized after the war in a tavern by a former Bor inmate. He was subsequently tried and executed in 1947 for other war crimes. His body was buried in parcel No. 298 at Rákoskeresztúr cemetery in Budapest, together with other war criminals.
But in the heady days of regime change after the eventual collapse of Soviet administration here, a simplistic public honours committee mistakenly assumed that all people executed by the Communists had sacrificed their lives for freedom. The burial grounds of shame thus became a resting-place reserved for the “martyrs” of the nation.
Today, Tálas’ grave is furnished with all the trappings of honour the living can lavish on the dead. His name has been at last removed from the list of “heroes” borne by a commemorative marble plaque. But the grounds still regularly receive ceremonial visits made by state dignitaries and schoolchildren. Csapody and many other lovers of Radnóti’s poetry believe that at least this should cease until another, better advised honours committee thinks its way out of the memorial mess.
No one argues that the confusion has been cleared up by the removal of Tálas’ name. According to incomplete and often unreliable records, the human remains in parcel No. 298 include those of 51 people condemned for war crimes. But their status is uncertain because the notoriously unprofessional, Communist-controlled, post-war tribunals that tried them often handed down hasty and harsh sentences driven by political rather than judicial considerations in the tradition of the Moscow show trials.
The issue thus reflects the confusion of values in Hungary’s current, painful transition from a humiliated subject state to a robust democracy – one hopefully capable of confronting its past as well as the challenge of the present.

Radnóti in English
Clouded Sky. Harper and Row, New York, 1972 (Trans. Stephen Polgár – Stephen Berg – S. J. Marks).
The Witness: Selected Poems by Miklós Radnóti. Tern Press, Market Drayton, England, 1977 & 33 Poems, a revised and expanded bilingual edition, Maecenas Press, Budapest, 1992 (Trans. Thomas Ország-Land).
Forced March: Selected Poems. Carcanet, Manchester, 1979 & a revised and expanded edition of the same title, Enitharmon Press, 2003 (Trans. Clive Wilmer – George Gömöri).
The Complete Poetry. Ann Arbor, Ardis, Michigan, 1980 (Ed. & Trans. Emery George).
Under Gemini: A Prose Memoir and Selected Poetry. Corvina, Budapest, 1985 (Trans. Kenneth McRobbie – Rita McRobbie – Jascha Kessler; Intro. Marianna D. Birnbaum).
Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992 (Frederick Turner – Zsuzsanna Osváth).
Miklós Radnóti: A Biography of His Poetry. Veröffentlichungen des Finnisch Ugrischen Seminars an der Universität München, München, 1983 (Marianna D. Birnbaum).
The Poetry of Miklós Radnóti: A Comparative Study. Karz-Kohl, New York, 1986 (Emery George).
The Life and Poetry of Miklós Radnóti: Essays. Columbia University Press, New York, 1999 (George Gömöri & Clive Wilmer).
In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Life and Times of Miklós Radnóti. Indiana University Press, Bloomington–Indianapolis, 2000 (Zsuzsanna Osváth).
(This list is based on a bibliography compiled by the Hungarian journal Irodalmi Jelen in May 2009. There are several additional little known and still unpublished collections and individual poetry translations as well as monographs by noteworthy writers and scholars including Nicholas Bielby, George Jónás, Thomas Kabdebo, Iain MacLeod, Adam Makkai, Neville Masterman, Ottilie Mulzet, George Szirtes, John Wain and Peter Zollman.)

Thomas Ország-Land

Tags: Miklós Radnóti