by William Sommers
During the 2009 holidays I sent a greeting card—along with a short poem—to an old friend—Andras Baltazar—in Budapest with whom I worked on local environmental projects in Hungary in the early 90s. I wasn’t sure that his e-mail was still the one I had in my address book. My wife and I lived in Krakow, Poland where I was assigned to a local environmental project that focused on a group of five cities in Poland and two in Hungary. I visited the Hungarian projects monthly to assess progress and to pay consultant and office costs. Andras saw to the day-to-day operations and kept our “book” on project outlay and progress. When I left in 1995, we kept in touch via sporadic e-mails. By the time I rolled up my career in 2003, we had pretty much lost our connection. Still, I wanted to try one more time.
Happily, the holiday card—with a seasonal poem—did the trick. Andras sent a fulsome, detailed response that brought back a boatload of memories, filling a sixteen-year gap. Receiving my poem, led him to detail the 2009 Hungarian festivities focused on the birth-centenary of Hungary’s revered poet-martyr â€”Miklós Radnóti. And then, as if to tie us all together again—though sadly—he wrote of the recent death of Andras Kovacs, our mutual—and valued—friend when we worked together in Hungary, particularly, in Gyor, Kovacs’ home town. This news revived an all but forgotten image of the two Andras and the door they opened for me to the life and memory of Miklós Radnóti.
As close as I can remember, here’s how it all came about.
In Hungary Andras and I worked together—and directly—with Borsod County and its major city, Miskolc, located in an area north of Budapest, near the Slovakian border. We tried, via a set of local consultants, to assist both the county and the city to build a substantial environmental focus in an area beset by difficult problems, left over with the collapse of the Soviet-type production system. But the prize operation was focused on the very large and bustling city of Gyor, about two hours directly east of Budapest. The city was eager to rebuild its local communal service company with particular emphasis on the remediation of its expanding landfill operation. Andras Kovacs, who also was the administrator of the local communal service company, headed this local project. And it was with him that Andras Baltazar and I incorporated a long-standing friendship. Our project provided Andras Kovacs a series of stateside consultants and in our nearly four years of activity made measurably significant improvement. But the personal off shoot reflected a much deeper relationship than I had anticipated. And bit-by-bit, after I left, I was drawn, because of their direction, to the poetry of Miklós Radnóti, his life and tragic death.
As the project reached its final weeks, I took my last Krakow-to-Gyor visit, inspecting our final effort, which focused on harnessing methane gas from the expanded landfill to be used for its internal operation. In a quiet closeout celebration we three adjourned to our usual “watering place.” After a blessed service of real-style goulash, sprinkled with the ever-present Hungary hot peppers, we settled down to cold beer. At one point in our roil of conversation, Andras Kovacs turned to me with a surprising question:
“Is it true, Bill, that you like poetry? I heard that you write some?”
“Well, yes Andras, I confess. But I think we should stick to beer for now.”
“Well, it was this guy, this other Andras that told me. Said he saw a couple of your pieces,” Kovacs responded, his laughing smile decorated with beer foam.
I turned to Baltazar nearly tipping his beer glass.
“When did you see my scribblings? I don’t remember giving you any. They are really bad anyway.”
“Ha, Bill, you shouldn’t trust your Hungarian friends so much. On that last trip you made a couple of months back; I came to pick you up at your hotel. You were still showering so I sat at your desk to see what you were scribbling and came across three pieces that looked like poems and I remember one about—what was it? Yeah, that’s it—St. Stephan and the Night Train. I couldn’t understand it and started to read it again. But you came out of the shower and started to dress so I slipped them under your scatter of newspapers.”
“Well, anyway, they were lousy and I ditched them before I left to catch the night train back to Krakow.”
Though we ordered more beer, it didn’t stop. Kovacs kept talking about Hungarian poets, telling me about Istan Vas, Deszo Tandori and others whose names I wrote on an unused napkin.
“But if you really want to know about Hungarian poetry, Bill, get a translation of Miklós Radnóti—then you will learn about Hungary and about real poetry.”
By then night began closing in and with more talk and more the beer we had to end it before it ended us. We made our goodbyes, promising to keep in contact. We walked to Baltazar’s car, parked in back of Gyor’s city hall, and said goodbye to Kovacs whose last word to me was “Bill, don’t forget Radnóti.”
Andras Baltazar drove me back to Budapest and to my hotel, very late and very sleepy.
“Hey, Bill, I can’t come around in the morning. So don’t forget that your train pulls out of Keleti pu tomorrow 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Let me hear from you when and if you get back to Krakow. I think we can tie up all the project stuff over the phone. And like Kovacs said—don’t forget Radnóti!”
I didn’t forget. And yet I did.
I woke up too many hours after noon, left the hotel, a quick coffee at Gerbeau and a fast walk down Vorosmarty ter to the Corvina, my favorite bookstore in Budapest. They stocked a bevy of Hungarian classics in quality English translations. I rummaged through the English language shelves and found, by luck, the last copy of a 1985 edition of Under Gemini—Selected Poetry of Miklós Radnóti, published by Corvina Press in cooperation with Ohio University Press.
“Okay, Kovacs Andras, I’m on my way!”
A tiring train trip with a soft head. I pulled down the bed, dozed, squirmed around, and sank into oblivion until we arrived at the Krakow Station at about 9 a. m. I hadn’t touched the book; it was safely packed in the debris of my bulging suitcase.
The next three weeks were immersed in project closeout when, at the same time, I found out that I had an assignment waiting in Indonesia. I wrote the final project report on both Poland and Hungary while helping my wife with a tearful pack up after this long and wonderful stay in Poland.
Eventually, we tripped back to Southeast Asia, taking up residence in Jakarta.
Radnóti was pushed beneath another layer of memory while trying to get resettled in a very unsettling Indonesia—a marvelous country but a not too marvelous job. Then, some two years later, during those hectic days and weeks surrounding the fall of Sukarno and his family-filled house of cards, we packed up again and headed for home—for good we hoped—leaving a fire-filled Jakarta moving toward chaos.
Home was Lexington, Massachusetts and a house, purchased years ago, but lived in mostly by itinerant renters while we pursued a passel of overseas assignments.
Focused now on getting settled, we began to enjoy this stateside-retreat. I returned to municipal government, working as a budget assistant with an old friend of years gone by who was now the Budget Director and Treasurer for the Town of Concord. I needed to keep my finger in the working pie while my wife reorganized space for her studio to continue her long exciting career in painting with much focus on our recent experience in Poland and Indonesia.
We also re-learned how to relax in the old house and began to settle down to a more moderate and life-changing order. But we were still completing the chore of unpacking as our stuff began to arrive via the long torture of the shipping miasma. I was strongly directed by my wife to “unpack that pile of boxes all marked BILL’S BOOKS and stash them somewhere so we can have more room.”
I picked the next Saturday to begin. While emptying the fourth box, I found, near the bottom a soft-cover thin book, my long ago purchase: Under Gemini—Selected Poetry of Miklós Radnóti. I couldn’t have been more embarrassed than if Andras Kovacs were right there pointing a long forefinger at my forgotten promise.
Unpacking stopped. I sat on the floor and read through the whole book, the background and the poems. At first I did it as a penance for my neglect. But the inspired, difficult and ultimately tragic life of Miklós Radnóti, stroked in me a feeling of great sadness, surrounded by the unbelievable horror of his last days and the tragedy of his death.
Miklós Radnóti was born on May 5, 1909 in Budapest of Jewish parents, along with a twin brother. The twin died immediately and his mother shortly thereafter. His father remarried and Miklós was raised by a very loving stepmother and his sister. He knew nothing of these tragic circumstances until his father died suddenly when he was 12 years old when he was told of his mother’s death. That was shock enough. Then some three years later, in answer to questions about his mother’s death, he learned about the death of his twin brother and carried the pain and horror of the knowledge that his twin brother and his mother paid the price in giving him life.
In the years that followed, Radnóti, with the help of an uncle, focused on schooling and began to turn toward poetry to express both the tragedy of his beginnings and the hope for the future. But the upheavals suffered by Hungary after World War I, under the catastrophic Trainon Treaty, the rise and fall of the communist rulers and the change-over to a government headed by Admiral Horthy, left little hope for the people of Hungary. The Horthy regime, via a chain of reactionary decisions, passed laws against its Jewish citizens, encouraging the anti-Semitic movements of the 1930s and 40s, paving the way for the coming tragedy. Through all this Radnóti, writing in the hope of better days to come, became one of Hungary’s greatest and most popular poets.
But eventually Horthy’s reluctance to contribute to the German war effort and to the deportation of Hungarian Jews, coupled with attempts to strike a secret deal with the Allies, eventually led the Germans to invade and take control of the country in March 1944. In October 1944, Horthy announced that Hungary would surrender and withdraw from the Axis. He was forced to resign, placed under arrest and taken to Bavaria. (At the end of the war, he came under the custody of American troops).
With the help of the SS, the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross leadership moved swiftly to take command of the Hungarian armed forces, and to prevent the surrender that Horthy had arranged even though Soviet troops were now deep inside the country. Arrow Cross chief Ferenc Szálasi as Prime Minister resumed persecution of Jews and other “undesirables”. In the three months between November 1944 and January 1945, Arrow Cross death squads shot 10,000 to 15,000 Jews on the banks of the Danube. The Arrow Cross also welcomed Adolf Eichmann back to Budapest, where he began the deportation of the city’s surviving Jews (Eichmann never successfully completed this phase of his plans, thwarted in large measure by the efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg). Out of a pre-war Hungarian Jewish population estimated at 825,000, only 260,000 survived.
By September, however, the war began to take a different turn. The Russian armies began their drive against the Germans. Tito’s guerrilla army was moving toward Belgrade and Romania had already capitulated to the Allies. The Germans began evacuating the Balkans. In the face of this deterioration the Bor camp disbanded and the survivors were assigned to columns. Radnóti was in the first column of about 3,000 Jews and one hundred guards that left Bor on September 16, 1944 and reached Abda, just west of Gyor, on November 4. A group of the weakest prisoners, who by now could hardly stand, including Radnóti, were shot and buried in a shallow grave. Radnóti died without knowing that his stepmother, Ilka, and sister, Agica, had already been killed at Auschwitz in July.
On June 23, 1946 the mass grave at Abda was re-opened and the bodies, partially decomposed, were laid out for identification. On corpse number 12, a notebook was found soaked in the juices of the body and blackened by wet earth; a note on the inside cover identified the body to be that of Miklós Radnóti. The notebook contained many poems, some written while in the Bor camp, others done during the long march. The last poem, dated October 31, 1944, prefigured Radnóti’s own death:
I dropped alongside him, his body rolling over,
Already tightening, a cord about to snap.
Shot in the neck. You’ll be finished off like this â€“
I muttered to myself â€“ so just lie still.
Patience flowers into death now.
Der springt noch auf, spoken over me.
Mud and blood drying on my ear
The death described was not Radnóti’s but that of Miklós Lorsi, a fellow prisoner, formerly a celebrated violinist, to which the tragic simile, comparing the dying body to a taunt string, alludes. And, tragically, it speaks as well to the death that would the next day overcome the poet himself.
When I finished the whole story and read the poems, I was, myself, nearly finished. But my wife and I had a small candle-lit dinner that night while, between us, we read Miklós Radnóti’s poems to each other, especially those taken from the notebook. I had, at the very least—and after a long time, squared myself with the two Andreas, Kovacs and Balthazar.
But it didn’t end there. In early 1999 I received an invitation from none other than Andras Kovacs who asked me to come back to Gyor and participate in the 50th Anniversary of Gyor’s Communal Company in which our project was a recent and key element. Thus, in September I was back in Hungary and in Gyor. Andras K. asked me to speak at a symposium they had organized for the celebration. And to no one’s surprise—but to my great delight—the other Andras—Baltazar —was part of the celebration as translator of my speech both orally and in its written version. Mindful of Kovac’s long ago admonition re Miklós Radnóti, I included him—and a couple of other poets—in my talk and with a kind of written legerdemain, fitting the verses to the subject matter. Andras Kovacs was particularly pleased when I quoted one of Radnóti’s last poems where he observes that
Reality is like an urn that’s cracked
And cannot hold its shape; and very soon
Its rotten shards will shatter like a storm
which I followed up by noting that “a lifetime spent in local government work—in the United States and in many countries abroad—has taught me the full meaning of Radnóti’s observation.” I then used the poems conclusion to point out that the Gyor experience showed us how to make successful realities that did not “shatter like a storm.”
|The author at the Radnóti sculpture|
But the crowning event in this return to the “reality” of Gyor and our joint experiences came when Andras Baltazar suggested, with Andras Kovacs urging, that we take an afternoon trip to Abda, not far from Gyor. There—just off the highway and at the dead end of the railroad tracks—is the place where Miklós Radnóti was shot, buried and reclaimed. The Hungarian government commissioned a sculptured remembrance of its great poet in a poignant statue of red granite, showing Radnóti, his head bowed, wrapped in the flowing robe of death yet serene, inviting a quiet meditation on his life, death and the poetry that has outlived his body and, forever, perpetuates the essence of his soul.
I knew then that my connection to Hungary, to these two old friends and to Miklós Radnóti*—and his poems—had become a permanent part of my life.
* For additional details on Miklós Radnóti see:
William Sommers worked as a municipal administrator for many years in the United States and worked overseas advising on various local government assistance programs. He and his wife, Joan, lived and worked in Poland, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt and Hungary. Sommers’ last overseas assignment was in Bosnia. They now live in North Carolina where Joan has continued her painting and William has continued writing and working on improvements in aspects of local government.