02. 06. 2013. 16:28

Surviving Voronezh: in the footsteps of Örkény

"I don't get to the Opera as often as I'd like. I'm too busy crawling on my belly, wiping out my fellow men", István Örkény wrote from the Russian front in World War II. His play "Voronezh" commemorates the fatal offensive against the Hungarian Army, launched seventy years ago.

After the failure of the Blitzkrieg in 1941, the Germans demanded of their allies to send troops to the eastern front. The Hungarian Second Army (one of the three field armies of the Kingdom of Hungary) of about 200,000 Hungarian soldiers and 50,000 Jewish forced labourers faced an impossible task, both because of the overwhelming number of the Russians and the lack of sufficient equipment, in a freezing Russian winter of minus 30-35 temperatures. The army was annihilated in the Voronezh-Kharkov offensive launched by the Russians in January 1943. Only about 30 to 40,000 returned to Hungary; most Hungarian families still mourn the loss of at least one of their relatives. Writer István Örkény (1912–1979) was among the survivers.

Of Jewish origin, Örkény was sent to the Russian front in a forced labour unit. He was captured and detained in a POW camp in Krasnoyarsk. It was there that he wrote the play Voronezh, an homage to the Hungarian Second Army. Örkény himself said that he survived this hell in order to tell the story of these Hungarian soldiers. There are hardly any literary mementoes to this traumatic event, due the paucity of survivors, and that even those who survived preferred not to talk about it. Voronezh, however, is not a documentary drama, but a satirical, grotesque piece. After all, it was written by the greatest Hungarian master of the grotesque, the author of One Minute Stories.

The play narrates one day in the life of a group of Hungarian soldiers during the Don offensive. They all act as if they were soldiers, but they actually try to preserve their life as civilians – peasants and workers, teachers and clerks, husbands and fathers. Many of them revel in military bureaucracy, while some of the officers take war seriously, and enjoy their power. Voronezh is also the love story of a Hungarian soldier and a Soviet schoolteacher.

When Örkény returned from the war, he showed the play to director Zoltán Várkonyi, who intended to stage it, but eventually it was made into a television play as late as in 1970, directed by Ottó Ádám.

Örkény also wrote a novel entitled Lágerek népe (People of the Camps) about his wartime experiences.

In January this year a Hungarian delegation, including Örkény's wife, dramaturge Zsuzsa Radnóti, visited the scene of Örkény's tribulations in Russia. They also met the publisher and the translator of Voronezh, published last summer in Russian. The play was a great success – as translator Tatyana Voronkina told the Hungarian guests, Örkény is now regarded as one of the celebrities of Voronezh.

It was like time travel, Örkény's wife said on her return. "It is shocking that he survived, and that we all profited so much from this: life, me, the world and literature", she added. She also visited the military cemetary where the remains of tens of thousands of soldiers are preserved. This visit was a kind of mission, she said, the beginning of a dialogue of emotions and memories between the two nations. "Their memory of Voronezh is just as terrible as ours", Radnóti said.

Tags: István Örkény