Judit Kováts’s novel is written from the viewpoint of a 19-year-old girl during the Soviet occupation as she is trying to escape Russian soldiers, bombs and forced labour. How is oral history transformed into literature? – An interview with the author.
As a historian and archivist, you made oral history interviews with elderly people who were children or young adults during the war. How did the idea occur to you to transform these interviews into a novel?
In August 2007 my mother became very ill and I knew she didn’t have much time left. Two weeks before she died I was sitting by her bedside. She was unable to communicate by then, and somehow it occurred to me what a pity it was that I knew so little about her childhood and her youth. So I interviewed my aunt about the war, the wild years of Communism and the persecutions. Then I interviewed people older than her, who were between 10 and 25 during the war, and the circle kept expanding, in the geographical sense as well. This novel could have taken place in any Hungarian town or village.
I made interviews with 23 or 25 people altogether. In the beginning I was driven only by curiosity and the desire to record these stories. In the meantime six of my interviewees died, so I started to hurry. As an archivist and a historian I am quite familiar with official sources, and I am well aware of their limitations. What my interviewees told me proved that there existed another history which was different from what we have learnt and what we taught. I think the mass of knowledge about the past that we call history can simply not be objective. Humankind has millions of stories, but in history books, the world is always described in a selective manner which is never exempt from some kind of power interest – political, economic or military. But this official history is not suitable for understanding our personal stories and coming to terms with our own past.
Oral history was only one of the sources I used for writing the novel. I also used official sources, I made research in archives and at the Prosecutor’s Office, and I also used photos taken by the US Air Force about the bombings. It was an enormous work to collect all the data. The documents at the Prosecutor’s Office described how the population behaved at the time of the Russian occupation, how the abandoned buildings were pillaged, even if it involved murder. It also detailed the orders of the Russian military command, and how they had to be served by the local population. The aim of my research was to make the interviews more authentic by corroborating the details, e.g. that it is true that more than a thousand bombs were dropped on one single station, or that as many as eighty victims died during one single bombing incident, etc. I hope I succeeded in writing a novel which is not only exciting but also authentic.
Among all the stories, why did you choose war stories?
I was intrigued by the behaviour of people in such extreme circumstances. And what I found was full of contradictions: the same people who behaved heroically – hiding deserters and Jews, helping their acquaintances escape from forced labour marches – practically these same people pillaged the houses of deported Jew, and sometimes even killed each other while raiding abandoned military storehouses. They emptied the flour sacks to put the stolen goods in them, and robbed dead soldiers of their clothes and boots. I was shocked by these findings, yet how could we judge these situations, looking back from the 21st century?
There is a story in the novel when the Russians are rounding up people for forced labour during the occupation, and Gyurka Koncz’s son is among them. So he goes to the military command to rescue him. They are willing to let him go on condition that Gyurka finds ten people in exchange. He himself has to decide who the ten people should be, and he collects them together with the Russians, going from one house to another. He literally sold those ten people, and all of them died, no one came back. So do we condemn Gyurka Koncz for being responsible for the death of ten people, or do we acquit him as he did it to save his son? These contradictions determined my manner of writing – I tried to write in a reserved, documentarist style, but I also used literary devices. I wanted to have every word in the right place, yet to take care not to make any truth claims. It is a commonplace in Hungary today that we haven’t come to terms with our past yet. This is as true of the Holocaust as of the war, the 1956 Revolution or the change of regime. But we also have to ask what it is we would have to face if there was suddenly a great desire to face our past. What would we claim as ours? If we like something, it belongs to us, whereas if something is not so nice, we reject it as foreign?
The novel begins with the rounding up and deportation of the village Jewry. Was it easy for your interviewees to talk about this?
The protagonist of Denied says that it was all the same for them whether their neighbour was a Jew, a Greek Catholic or a Calvinist. It didn’t make a difference, it was all natural for them. When the Jews were rounded up, they threw in some bread for them through the fence. When the ghetto was created in Nyíregyháza and fifteen thousand people were crammed in three streets, some people brought them kosher food. My protagonist mentions how she would love to see her friend Eta Goldberger again. I think that the kind of anti-Semitism that the Hungarian press and public life is full of today was nonexistent in those small communities.
When the Jews are eventually deported, many of the villagers swoop down on the things they had left behind. Anna Somlyói’s mother brings home some clothes, but her husband says that he would die of shame should he be seen by the villagers in those clothes.
This is the same ambiguity I mentioned before. There were some who said that when people told them to come and see how the Jews were taken answered that they would hate to stand and gaze at their misery. Others rushed to pilfer the homes of the deported Jews. Neither heroism nor vileness depended on whether someone was a Jew or a Christian. Nobody is responsible for the deeds of their ancestors. Neither their glory nor their crimes are our own, our sole responsibility is what we do with the past that we have inherited. Having said that, I think our generation is also unable to admit that yes, there are some crimes in our past.
Anna Somlyói is one of the several thousands of women who were repeatedly raped by the Russians. The text becomes very strong at the point when these brutal mass rapes are described. Was it hard to get women to talk about this in the interviews?
Nobody admitted that she herself was raped. They all said that they themselves had been lucky, then briefly described what happened to others. They simply refused to talk about it. There are no official numbers, we do not know anything for certain, only that there was a mass rape of Hungarian women by Russian soldiers. There is a study about this by Andrea Pető, and I also checked in the archives if abortions were allowed. I have read Alaine Polcz’s One Woman in the War, as well as Anonyma's A Woman in Berlin, but that was basically all that I found, this topic is hardly dealt with in literature. So I tried to imagine the unimaginable. Silence is a very important aspect of rape. As Anna Somlyói says in the novel, “I wished that when it was over and I went back nobody would ask me about it”. And that is how it all ended: in silence.
Anna Somlyói’s life is derailed by her inability to talk about what had happened to her. The theme of silence accompanies all her traumas: her mother is unable to talk about her stillborn child, her grandmother about the loss of her older son, her uncle about violence, etc. The whole novel is about silence, yet the title is Denied. What have these people denied?
Anna Somlyói comes to terms with her rape by repeating over and over again: “it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me”. Silence is a part of the denial of our past and of ourselves. When the initial idyll ends, and the war breaks out, Anna says that the person who lived through all that followed was not her, it was another person. She doesn’t accept her own past – she keeps silent about it, which means that she denies it.
How much did the children and the grandchildren of those concerned knew about these wartime stories, these personal traumas of women?
I think they didn't know anything at all. If the second and the third generation want to come to terms with their past, there is not much for them to rely on. Their grandparents keep silent, because they are unable to speak about their experiences. They have no language for unsanctioned plunder and mass rape. They are not responsible for it, yet they are ashamed of it. So they keep silent. And besides, they were not allowed to talk about it. As Anna says, those who occupied us were hailed as our heroic liberators, and heroes don’t tend to plunder, murder and rape. This whole generation had to keep silent because of the Communist regime, up until the Nineties when, as Anna says, nobody cared any more. So there was continued silence for a whole century. In the meantime a whole generation came of age – a whole lost generation.
Can anything be redeemed through literature?
Yes, I think that through the personal stories literature can close those holes that ‘official’ history had left behind.
(Photo: the bombing of Nyíregyháza. From the National Archives in Washington, DC)
Kováts Judit: Megtagadva
Budapest: Magvető, 2012
Tags: Judit Kováts