Their love was not an idyll without tensions as the textbooks would have it, yet that is precisely what made it an indissoluble bond, still alive today. Fanni Gyarmati, who was 100 last year, is still living in the apartment that the couple used to share.
Miklós Radnóti was 17 years old in 1926 when he met 14-year-old Fanni Gyarmati. They took extra lessons in mathematics with the same tutors, a married couple. The young Radnóti exchanged his pencil for hers so that he would have a pretext to talk to the strikingly erudite girl with chestnut and blonde hair, whom friends called Fifi. In order to impress her, Miklós lied that he was 18 years old, and soon after he wrote his first love poem to her.
Yet fate almost separated them. At the insistence of his guardian, Miklós went to a textile college in Czechoslovakia where he met a German typist girl, Tini. The young Radnóti wrote love poems to both of them in turns. His first real relationship was with Tini, yet it was to Fifi, who had stayed behind in Budapest, that he showed his poems, even those written to the German girl.
Within a year Miklós was back from Czechoslovakia, and he soon forgot Tini. From then on, Fifi and Miklós were inseparable. In the winter of 1931 they took a walk in the City Park where they sat down on a snow-covered bench. It was Fifi who broke the silence: ‘Miklós! I want to marry you.’ They had to wait, however. Radnóti’s guardian and Fanni’s parents agreed that he could marry the girl only after he had obtained a degree. He only graduated in 1935, so they waited. Neither had any doubts that they wanted to live their life together. They both regarded each other as equal partners from the beginning, and neither of them wanted to appropriate the other. This deep trust was not shaken even by the fact that Radnóti was not always faithful to his wife.
After six years of marriage, in 1941 Radnóti fell in love with his wife’s friend, the painter Judit Beck. The married woman and the poet first met in a bookbinder’s shop in the beginning of 1941, and in May they already had a relationship. Miklós did not keep anything secret from his wife, and Fifi did not break up her friendship with Judit. They met several times, and Judit even painted a large portrait of his wife for her lover. Fifi followed the relationship of her husband and her friend with understanding and patience, but with a lot of suffering. She wrote in her diary: ‘If it pleases Miklós, so let him be pleased.’ Judit’s name came up more and more frequently in Radnóti’s diary: ‘11 June 1941. Judit! Judit! – 12 June 1941. Fanni has gone to Istenhegy [God’s Hill – a hill on the Buda side]. I am nervous, I am walking up and down, escaping, going out to lunch, and when nothing helps, I write the third cclogue. 13 June 1941, Friday: thirteenth of the month and Friday. Horrible! We got entangled in adult things.’ Besides “The Third Eclogue”, the poet wrote several other poems to Judit. A letter has been preserved in which he asks her for a date: ‘Thursday morning I’ll be going down to Ilkovits’s and I’ll be waiting for you there. You can write me if you are coming or not. Fif would never open it, we are allowed to meet after all… I love you, M.’
The relationship ended in the beginning of 1942. In February 1942, Radnóti uses the past tense when he writes about Judit in a letter written to his wife from his second labour service: ‘I adore you, and you do not even allow me to love you. Of course, I understand you, I know what you think. But you are wrong! You are mistaken about the “J affair” as well. Yes, that’s how it is… that’s how it was rather… But not what you think! I love you! It is you that I love! And everything but you is just a game! I am sending you a poem Sweetheart. I am curious to know what you think about it. I wrote it whenever I could steal a few minutes, with utter chaos around me. This is in a way an apology for the third eclogue.’ And this is what Fanni wrote about the apologetic poem, “Late October Hexameters”, in her diary: ‘Mik sent me a poem. It is beautiful. He did manage to do it after all, and what a poem! How far these here are from him! These gentlemen working here in security. And him there! To think that he has to abort so many things! In that animal-like existence, in haste, and yet he could write it.’ Love flared up between them again, and Judit remained around the couple as a friend. She made a food parcel for the poet, and took it to him personally to Szentendre (where Radnóti was sent to labour service) with her new boyfriend, the actor Tamás Major. When Fanni was asked if she was afraid that the affair with Judit would ruin their marriage, she answered that ‘between the two of us, there are the poems’.
In his last few years Radnóti wrote all his poems to his wife, and he always showed them first to her. In August 1944, he wrote to her the following words on his last postcard, sent from Bor (a mining town in Serbia, where the poet was held captive and where he would eventually be killed on a death march): ‘I wrote in my last card that I would be very much with you on our wedding anniversary, and it was indeed so, and thank you Sweetheart for the nine years we spent together. … I miss you very much my Sweet and Only One.’ Fanni never saw her husband again. When the poet, shot dead at the age of 35, was exhumed after the war, she didn’t want to see his corpse.
Their love was not an idyll without tensions as the textbooks would have it, yet that is precisely what made it an indissoluble bond, still alive today. Fanni Gyarmati, who was 100 years old last year, is still living in the apartment that the couple used to share in Pozsonyi Street. And the nameplate, put up 75 years ago, is still there on the door: Dr Miklós Radnóti.