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Miklós Radnóti: Witness to Horror, Champion of Empathy

Miklós Radnóti [1909-1944], a Hungarian Jew and a fierce anti-fascist, is perhaps the greatest of the Holocaust poets. He was born in Budapest in 1909. In 1930, at the tender age of 21, he published his first collection of poems, Pogány köszönto (Pagan Salute). His next book, Újmódi pásztorok éneke (Modern Shepherd's Song) was confiscated on grounds of "indecency," earning him a light jail sentence. In 1931 he spent two months in Paris, where he visited the "Exposition coloniale" and began translating African poems and folk tales into Hungarian. In 1934 he obtained his Ph.D. in Hungarian literature. The following year he married Fanni (Fifi) Gyarmati; they settled in Budapest. His book Járkálj csa, halálraítélt! (Walk On, Condemned!) won the prestigious Baumgarten Prize in 1937. Also in 1937 he wrote his Cartes Postales (Postcards from France), which were poetic precurors to his darker images of war, Razglednicas (Picture Postcards). During World War II, Radnóti published translations of Virgil, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Eluard, Apollinare and Blaise Cendras in Orpheus nyomában. From 1940 on, he was forced to serve on forced labor battalions, at times arming and disarming explosives on the Ukrainian front. In 1944 he was deported to a compulsory labor camp near Bor, Yugoslavia. As the Nazis retreated from the approaching Russian army, the Bor concentration camp was evacuated and its internees were led on a forced march through Yugoslavia and Hungary. During what became his death march, Radnóti recorded poetic images of what he saw and experienced. After writing his fourth and final "Postcard," Radnóti was badly beaten by a soldier annoyed by his scribblings. Soon thereafter, the weakened poet was shot to death, on November 9, 1944, along with 21 other prisoners who unable to walk. Their mass grave was exhumed after the war and Radnóti's poems were found on his body by his wife, inscribed in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. Radnóti's posthumous collection, Tajtékos ég (Clouded Sky, or Foaming Sky) contains odes to his wife, letters, poetic fragments and his final Postcards. Unlike his murderers, Miklós Radnóti never lost his humanity, and his empathy continues to live on and shine through his work.

Postcard 1
written August 30, 1944

Out of Bulgaria, the great wild roar of the artillery thunders,
resounds on the mountain ridges, rebounds, then ebbs into silence
while here men, beasts, wagons and imagination all steadily increase;
the road whinnies and bucks, neighing; the maned sky gallops;
and you are eternally with me, love, constant amid all the chaos,
glowing within my conscience — incandescent, intense.
Somewhere within me, dear, you abide forever —
still, motionless, mute, like an angel stunned to silence by death
or a beetle inhabiting the heart of a rotting tree.

translated by Michael R. Burch

Postcard 2
written October 6, 1944 near Crvenka, Serbia

A few miles away they're incinerating
the haystacks and the houses,
while squatting here on the fringe of this pleasant meadow,
the shell-shocked peasants quietly smoke their pipes.
Now, here, stepping into this still pond, the little shepherd girl
sets the silver water a-ripple
while, leaning over to drink, her flocculent sheep
seem to swim like drifting clouds.

translated by Michael R. Burch

Postcard 3
written October 24, 1944 near Mohács, Hungary

The oxen dribble bloody spittle;
the men pass blood in their piss.
Our stinking regiment halts, a horde of perspiring savages,
adding our aroma to death's repulsive stench.

translated by Michael R. Burch

Postcard 4
his final poem, written October 31, 1944 near Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary

I toppled beside him — his body already taut,
tight as a string just before it snaps,
shot in the back of the head.
"This is how you’ll end too; just lie quietly here,"
I whispered to myself, patience blossoming from dread.
"Der springt noch auf," the voice above me said
but I could only dimly hear
through the filthy blood slowly sealing my ear.

translated by Michael R. Burch

Translator's notes:

P. G. R. Nair said of the poem above: "This is the greatest holocaust poem I have ever read. It has the moonglow of a poem made halfway to Hades." It was found in a notebook still on his body when his corpse was exhumed.

"Der springt noch auf" might mean something like "That one is still twitching" or perhaps "jumping." But if the "voice above" was not that of one the German soldiers, the reference to spring might have connotations of the resurrection, and perhaps mean something like "that one will yet rise again" or "wait till the one blossoms." A possible interpretation might be that it was Radnóti's poems that would "rise again," since they were later found on his corpse in a mass grave, and were actually physically resurrected. Did Radnóti hear a "voice from above" or have a premonition that he would be resurrected and/or continue to live through his poems? Of course that is highly speculative, but it is interesting that his poetry continues to live and thrive when his murderers lie dead and long forgotten.

For many years now I have been editing, publishing and translating Holocaust poetry. In my opinion Miklós Radnóti is the greatest of the Holocaust poets. But this truly great poet became a victim of ethic cleansing, genocide and war. Unfortunately, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war still continue to this day. If you are a student, teacher, educator, peace activist or just someone who cares and wants to help, please consider doing everything you can to help end such atrocities forever. Doing all you can will help make the world a safer, happier place for people of all races and creeds.

It seems the fourth and final Postcard poem above was the last poem written by Miklós Radnóti. Here are some additional biographic notes, provided by two of his translators, Peter Czipott and John Ridland: "In a small cross-ruled notebook, procured during his labor in Bor, Serbia, he continued to write poems. As the Allies approached the mine where he was interned, he and his brigade were led on a forced march toward northwest Hungary. Laborers who straggled—from illness, injury or exhaustion—were shot by the roadside and buried in mass graves. Number 4 of the "Razglednicak" poems was written on October 31, the day that Radnóti's friend, the violinist Miklós Lovsi, suffered that fate. It is the last poem Radnóti wrote. On November 9, 1944, near the village of Abda, he too was shot on the roadside by guards who were anxious to reach their camp by nightfall. Buried in a mass grave, his body was exhumed over a year later, and the coroner's report mentions finding the "Bor Notebook" in the back pocket of his trousers. Radnóti had made fair copies of all but five poems while in Bor, and those had been smuggled out by a survivor. When his widow Fanni received the notebook, most of the poems had been rendered illegible, saturated by the liquids of decaying flesh. However, the only poems not smuggled out—the four Razglednicas and one other—happened to be the only ones still decipherable in their entirety in the notebook. In late summer 1937, Radnóti had made his second visit to France, accompanied by Fanni. Although this was a year before Kristallnacht, Hitler's move into Czechoslovakia, and the first discriminatory "Jewish Law" in Hungary, there was plenty of "terrible news" in the papers, as mentioned in "Place de Notre Dame": the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, and of course the increasing threats from Hitler's Germany. Nevertheless, most of these poems, at least on the surface, are innocent snapshots that justify their French title, referring to picture postcards such as tourists mail home. Radnóti was likely alluding ironically to this earlier set with his final four poems, which have the Serbian word for postcard—in a Hungarian plural form—as their title. Reading the two sets together darkens the tones of the five earlier poems, and makes the later four all the more poignant."

As Camille Martin wrote, "These last poems, written under the pressure of the most degrading and desperate circumstances imaginable, unfurl visions of delicate pastoral beauty next to images of extreme degradation and wild, filthy despair. They give voice to the last vestiges of hope, as Radnóti fantasizes being home once more with his beloved Fanny, as well as to the grim premonition of his own fate. This impossibly stark contrast blossoms into paradox: Radnóti’s poetry embraces humanity and inhumanity with an urgent desire to bear witness to both. Yet even at the moment when he is most certain of his imminent death, he never abandons the condensed and intricate language of his poetry. And pushed to the limits of human endurance and sanity, he never loses his capacity for empathy."

And so will I wonder...?

I lived, but then in living I was feeble in life and
always knew that they would bury me here in the end,
that year piles upon year, clod on clod, stone on stone,
that the body swells and in the cool, maggot-
infested darkness, the naked bone will shiver.
That above, scuttling time is rummaging through my poems
and that I will sink deeper into the ground.
All this I knew. But tell me, the work—did that live on?

—Smajd igy tűnődöm...?, translated by Gina Gönczi

Lines from "Maybe"

... But don't leave me, delicate mind!
    Don't let me go crazy.
Sweet wounded reason, don't
    leave me now.

Don't leave me. Let me die, without fear,
    a clean, lovely death,
like Empedocles, who smiled as he fell
    into the crater.

—translated by Steven Polgár, Stephen Berg and S. J. Marks

Peace, Dread

I went out, closed the street door, and the clock struck ten,
on shining wheels the baker rustled by and hummed,
a plane droned in the sky, the sun shone, it struck ten,
I thought of my dead aunt and in a flash it seemed
all the unliving I had loved were flying overhead,
with hosts of silent dead the sky was darkened then
and suddenly across the wall a shadow fell.
Silence. The morning world stood still. The clock struck ten,
over the street peace floated: cold dread was its spell.

—translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner

Lines from "I cannot know"

... For we are guilty too, as other peoples are,
knowing full-well when and how and why we've sinned so far,
but workers live here too, and poets, without sin
and tiny babies in whom intellect will flourish;
it shines in them and they guard it, hiding in dark cellars
until the finger of peace once again marks our nation,
and with fresh voices they will answer our muffled words.

Cover us with your big wings, vigil-keeping evening cloud.

—from Nem tudhatom, translated by Gina Gönczi

Razglednicas (Picture Postcards)


The oxen drool saliva mixed with blood.
Each one of us is urinating blood.
The squad stands about in knots, stinking, mad.
Death, hideous, is blowing overhead.


I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,
tight already as a snapping string.
Shot in the neck. "And that's how you'll end too,"
I whisper to myself; "lie still; no moving.
Now patience flowers in death." Then I could hear
"Der springt noch auf," above, and very near.
Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.

—translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner

Foamy sky

The moon sways on a foamy sky,
I am amazed that I live.
An overzealous death searches this age
and those it discovers are all so very pale.

At times the year looks around and shrieks,
looks around and then fades away.
What an autumn cowers behind me again
and what a winter, made dull by pain.

The forest bled and in the spinning
time blood flowed from every hour.
Large and looming numbers were
scribbled by the wind onto the snow.

I lived to see that and this,
the air feels heavy to me.
A war sound-filled silence hugs me
as before my nativity.

I stop here at the foot of a tree,
its crown swaying angrily.
A branch reaches down — to grab my neck?
I'm not a coward, nor am I weak,

just tired. I listen. And the frightened
branch explores my hair.
To forget would be best, but I have
never forgotten anything yet.

Foam pours over the moon and the poison
draws a dark green line on the horizon.

I roll myself a cigarette
slowly, carefully. I live.

—Tajtékos ég, translated by Gina Gönczi

Lines from "Eclogue VII"

Without commas, one line touching the other
I write poems the way I live, in darkness,
blind, crossing the paper like a worm.
Flashlights, books — the guards took everything.
There's no mail, only fog drifts over the barracks.

—translated by Steven Polgár

For a copy of Steep Road

I'm a poet and nobody needs me,
not even if I mutter wordlessly:
u-u-u- no matter, for instead of me,
prying devils will sing relentlessly.

And believe me, believe you me,
the cautious suspicion is justified.
I'm a poet who's fit for the stake's fire
because to the truth he's testified.

One, who knows that the snow is white,
the blood is red, as is the poppy,
and the poppy's furry stalk is green.

One, whom they will kill in the end,
because he himself has never killed.

—A Meredek Út egyik példányára, translated by Gina Gönczi

Forced March

He's foolish who, once down, resumes his weary beat,
A moving mass of cramps on restless human feet,
Who rises from the ground as if on borrowed wings,
Untempted by the mire to which he dare not cling,
Who, when you ask him why, flings back at you a word
Of how the thought of love makes dying less absurd.
Poor deluded fool, the man's a simpleton,
About his home by now only the scorched winds run,
His broken walls lie flat, his orchard yields no fruit,
His familiar nights go clad in terror's rumpled suit.
Oh could I but believe that such dreams had a base
Other than in my heart, some native resting place;
If only once again I heard the quiet hum
Of bees on the verandah, the jar of orchard plums
Cooling with late summer, the gardens half asleep,
Voluptuous fruit lolling on branches dipping deep,
And she before the hedgerow stood with sunbleached hair,
The lazy morning scrawling vague shadows on the air ...
Why not? The moon is full, her circle is complete.
Don't leave me, friend, shout out, and see! I'm on my feet!

—translated by George Szirtes

War Diary

1. Monday Evening

You see, now fear often fingers your heart,
and at times the world seems only distant news;
the old trees guard your childhood for you
as an ever more ancient memory.

Between suspicious mornings and foreboding nights
you have lived half your life among wars,
and now once more, order is glinting toward you
on the raised points of bayonets.

In dreams sometimes the landscape still rises before you,
the home of your poetry, where the scent of freedom
wafts over the meadows, and in the morning when you wake,
you carry the scent with you.

Rarely, when you are working, you half-sit, frightened
at your desk. And it's as if you were living in soft mud;
your hand, adorned with a pen, moves heavily
and ever more gravely.

The world is turning into another war—a hungry cloud
gobbles the sky's mild blue, and as it darkens,
your young wife puts her arms around you,
and weeps.

2. Tuesday Evening

Now I sleep peacefully
and slowly go about my work—
gas, airplanes, bombs are poised against me,
I can neither be afraid, nor cry;
so I live hard, like the road builders
among the cold mountains,

who, if their flimsy house
crumbles over them with age,
put up a new one, and meanwhile
sleep deeply on fragrant wood shavings,
and in the morning, splash their faces
in the cold and shining streams.

I live high up, and peer around:
it is getting darker.
As when from a ship's prow
at the flash of lightning
the watchman cries out, thinking he sees land,
so I believe in the land also—and still I cry out life!
with a whitened voice.

And the sound of my voice brightens
and is carried far away
with a cool star and a cool evening wind.

3. Weary Afternoon

A dying wasp flies in at the window,
my dreaming wife talks in her sleep,
and the hems of the browning clouds
are blown to fringes by a gentle breeze.

What can I talk about? Winter is coming, and war is coming;
soon I will lie broken, seen by no one;
worm-ridden earth will fill my mouth and eyes
and roots will pierce through my body.

Oh, gently rocking afternoon, give me peace—
I will lie down too, and work later.
The light of your sun is already hanging on the hedges,
and yonder the evening comes across the hills.

They have killed a cloud, its blood is falling on the sky;
below, on the stems of the glowing leaves
sit wine-scented yellow berries.

4. Evening Approaches

Across the slick sky the sun is climbing down,
and the evening is coming early along the road.
Its coming is watched in vain by the sharp-eyed moon—
little puffs of mist are gathering.

The hedgerow is wakening, it catches at a weary wanderer;
the evening is spinning among the tree branches
and humming louder and louder, while these lines build up
and lean on one another.

A frightened squirrel springs into my quiet room,
and here a six-footed iambic couplet scampers by.
From the wall to the window, a brown moment—
and it's gone without a trace.

The fleeting peace disappears with it. Silent
worms crawl over the far fields
and slowly chew to pieces the endless
rows of the reclining dead.

—Translated by Lucy Helen Boling

You were what is real, returned to dream in essence,
and I, fallen back into the wall of adolescence,
jealously question you: whether you love me.

—from "Levél a hitveshez" (Letter to my Wife), translator unknown

The poem gains its form like the
raindrop. The water gathers,
takes form, lengthens,
then it falls off and while falling,
it forms a perfect drop.

—original poem title and translator unknown

“… a truly great poet, one in whom the lyrical image-maker and the critical human intelligence dealing with the tragic twentieth century are utterly fused, as they so rarely are … The quality of the translation is such that it is hard to remember the poems were not first written in English, even though one is always aware of Radnóti’s vision as European and of his locus as Hungary.”—Denise Levertov

"He framed poetic innovation in the pattern of the lyrical tradition, combining the classical forms of the ancients with modern sensibilities. Essentially, the more chaotic and barbaric the age [became], the tighter and more refined became his poems' designs. Some poems, cast in ancient meters, ring with prophetic power. Others, in delicate invented forms, create the most exquisite crystalline tones. They produce magic, conjuring up the unprecedented without becoming obscure." — Zsuzsanna Ozsváth

"One reads history backwards, and if that history is sufficiently tragic or tidy (which may sometimes be the same thing), it begins to feel like myth. Radnóti had long been obsessed by his own death, so much so that he seems to have been able to imagine its precise circumstances. He produced a distinct body of 'prophetic' poems in which a particular form of death is courted, feared and almost desired. The reader approaches these with a certain veneration, as though they were more than poems. Slowly, everything assumes a mythic shape and the life embraces the oeuvre so comprehensively that the one disappears in the other." — George Szirtes

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