02. 04. 2010. 15:18

Somehow just slipped in

An interview with Ladislaus Löb

Ladislaus Löb, Hungarian-born professor of German Studies in England and translator of Béla Zsolt's Nine Suitcases, described in a book his way from Hungary through Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland in 1944. György Vári talks to the author about Nine Suitcases, the disappearance of family history and the debate around his rescuer, Rezso Kasztner.

 Although you worked as a 'full-time’ German scholar, you have not only written this book (Rezso Kasztner: The Daring Rescue of Hungarian Jews. Pimlico, 2009), an odd mix of memoir and documentary, but are also an English translator of Hungarian literature. Béla Zsolt’s novel Nine Suitcases and Krisztián Ungváry’s historical monograph The Siege of Budapest were both published in your translation. Despite the large gap in time between you and Zsolt, there are a number of analogies between his book and the story you tell: the ghetto in Transylvania, Budapest, Kasztner’s train or Bergen-Belsen.

My father had spoken to me from time to time about Nine Suitcases ever since I was a young child. It is a novel, but also a documentary. My family must have had the book – I don’t know when I first read it; then it disappeared from my view. When I retired from the university as a German scholar, I wanted to do something different. Some time in the 1980’s, when Nine Suitcases was published in German, I thought to myself, why not have it published in English? I got hold of a Hungarian copy – with great difficulty, as this was not at all easy at that time. Then I approached 35 publishing houses with my idea, of which 15 responded. I sent them a sample chapter and waited for their offers. But, sadly, there were no offers at all. One, however, contacted me and said that the book was important to them – this was Jonathan Cape, a member of the Random House group. After my translation appeared, it was also translated into a number of other languages, luckily from the Hungarian original. The work itself was a great pleasure – I found the text so well-written that translation went without any difficulty – it more or less wrote itself.
The decisive factor was not the parallel in experiences, even though in the camp where the passengers of Kasztner’s train first arrived and where we spent five months I saw Béla Zsolt smoking every day. He smoked 60-80 cigarettes a day, or would have liked to, but he could not get hold of that many – he even used to sell his food for cigarettes. He was a very conspicuous figure – I admired him as a great man. He said to my father that when we get back to Hungary he would become Prime Minister. He planned to appoint my father to be Minister of Finance in his government, as I say in my book. He had fans in the camp, too – they surrounded him. He was someone you just had to take seriously. This is what I remember noting as a young child, this is as much personal experience as I had of Béla Zsolt.
A very memorable part of Nine Suitcases is where Zsolt describes how politics was his primary, almost exclusive passion, even more intense than the love of women, mostly meaning his merciless and almost manic opposition to István Bethlen. The book figures this man, who was thinking about becoming a Prime Minister even during the time of Kasztner’s rescue venture, the mentality and the political, social historical situation which generated him, a great deal of knowledge about Hungary and all of the missing historical information – how can you account for and bridge over all of this in a translation?

I am not sure I managed to bridge over it adequately – Prime Minister Bethlen, for example, only receives a brief footnote in the book, saying when he was born, who he was, what he did. The English version has no more than 20 or 30 footnotes. The entire body of notes ought to have been expanded and it would have been important to write a rather more extensive Introduction.

After your retirement you translated some Hungarian fiction and historical works, before that you were a literary historian of a different language and culture. Don’t you think it would be a self-evident synthesis if from now on you became a historian of Hungarian literature? Have you not thought of studying other memoirs of the holocaust from the direct aftermath of the war, such as The Smell of Humans by Erno Szép?

When I look back over the past few decades I regret that I put such an effort into becoming a good German scholar in England when in fact I can read Hungarian. I missed what was a very special and very obvious opportunity brought straight from home. My father died in ’81, and since that time I have had practically no one to speak Hungarian with. I was 11 when I left the country on Kasztner’s train. I never really read much Hungarian literature and now there is not much time left. My father was not an intellectual – he had finished grammar school, but then he had to make a living to support his family in Transylvania. He must have somehow singled out Zsolt nevertheless, because when the text was published in instalments we were not in the country any more, yet he must have made a special effort, because he got hold of each part.

At the beginning of your book you offer a brief review of the history of Hungarian Jews. In this you quote Professor Randolph L. Braham who refers to the period before 1919 as the ’golden age’ of Hungarian Jews but does this in inverted commas. And the chapter in his book discussing the period bears the title ‘The prelude to destruction’. How does all of this come into contact with the history of your family – when did you arrive in the area of Hungary as was, and what sort of life stories or carriers did your people experience?

My father’s father was a peddler – he had come from further East, we don’t know where. My father’s mother had come from Medgyes which is part of Romania today. She was widowed quite early, my father did petty trading across the borders to support not only his family but even the children of his brother who had died early. My mother’s father had come from Bosnia and is rumoured to have had a secret, illegal alcohol brewery. Lots of people must have had the same experience, that when it is too late they realize they should have made an effort to find out about their own family history and ask around the people who could talk about it. I wasn’t interested back then.

Your book is also a testimony to Rudolf Kasztner whose role was much debated and who was accused of collaboration and came to a tragic death. However, anyone could easily claim that you are biased, since you owe both your own life and that of your father to Rudolf Kasztner. Are you not worried that this might reduce the value of your testimony?

Partly there is no such thing as objectivity, and partly yes, there is no doubt that I am biased. But I did my best to enlist outside sources as well, to substantiate my claims. Many of the people who speak for or against Kasztner in this matter do not think for a moment that they might be in the wrong. Both the demonizing and the apologetic voices often lack self-doubt. I tried to avoid this trap. Kasztner himself also wrote an account or report about his trials – this was published in Germany. I discovered it in a second-hand bookshop in Heidelberg when I was there for professional reasons. I bought it for a few Pfennigs and put it aside. Later I met Egon Mayer who was not even born at the time of Bergen-Belsen. He spotted me as Zsolt’s translator and proposed that we publish Kasztner’s report in English. But the marketing people of my publisher saw no business perspective in this, only, perhaps, in my memoir. Egon was already very ill at this time, he was dying at 59. When he heard about all of this he was glad that someone would write down what had happened. But, to return to the question – I tried to handle the report critically. You cannot take things at face value and this includes my own memories – I was 11 years old, and many decades have gone by since. I have also spoken to many people and am always glad when they recall something the same way as I do. There were many like this, too.

What do you make of the accusations that Kasztner was ‘selective’? That he saved famous, well-known or influential people and many of his Zionist comrades, while in fact every human life is equally valuable and you ought not to be selective at times like this.

Even if there is truth to this accusation, let us not forget that the mix of the people on the trains was even more complex than this, partly because Kasztner was not the only one to be selective. There were not only ‘prominent’ people travelling on the train, even if we can list a number of prominent people. There were not many of Kasztner’s relatives on the train, he did not admit close family members. There were Polish orphans, young Halutsim who may have been Zionists but were not really prominent. And there was I, the typical example of people who somehow just slipped into this group. We really were nobody. My father, even if he was not what they called him, a Luftmensch, lived off whatever was close at hand, whatever he could buy and sell. He was a keen-eyed, clever man, this is how we could be there on the train. The rabbi Teitelbaum, one of the famous people on the train, was among the Hasidim of Satmar and particularly hated the Zionists – which goes to show that there was no selecting on ideological grounds, either.

György Vári

Tags: An interview with Ladislaus Löb, Ladislaub Löb