How the Murder of a Poet Has Become a Hero in Hungary

Miklós Radnóti (1909-1944)

Budapest commander of the death-squad personally responsible for the murder of Miklós Radnóti—perhaps the greatest poet of the Holocaust well known in English translation—escaped retribution for the deed. His remains rest in official burial grounds reserved for the heroes of the Hungarian republic.

This has been established by Tamás Csapody, a noted jurist and sociologist. His revelations, published prominently by the country’s leading literary and political journals, are of particular interest in the context of widening current antisemitism sweeping Eastern Europe.

Radnóti was shot at the age of 35 in 1944, a victim of the National Socialists’ attempt at the “ethnic cleansing” of Europe. He was condemned with a group Jewish-Hungarian prisoners because of their inability to keep up with a Westward “deathmarch”. Their bodies were dumped in a mass grave.

But his best poems contained in a notebook were recovered after the war when the bodies were exhumed. They are treasured today as some of the most flawless modern additions to Hungary’s poetic heritage. This is how Radnóti described his own execution in the notebook, very accurately, shortly before it occurred:


I tumble near his body. It turns over
already taut as string about to break.
Shot through the nape. You too will end up like that,
I mutter to myself. Lie calm. Be patient.
The flower of death unfolds in fear. I wait.
Blood mixed with dirt grows clotted on my ear.
I hear a soldier quip: He’ll get away yet.

(This and the following poems quoted in this article are in my translation.)

The circumstances of the massacre are even worse than the many myths current about the event. It was carried out by the Royal Hungarian Army, not some “foreign” ethnic Germans hitherto blamed by the literary establishment. And two members of the five-man death squad positively identified in secret inquiries after the war were allowed to go free. The reason: they had by then joined the ruling Communist Party.

Radnóti’s literary stature is enormous. The other great writers of the Holocaust—Anne Frank, Imre Kertész, Éva Láng, András Mezei, Elie Wiesel among them—were children at the time. Paul Celan and Primo Levi were very young men eventually compelled by their grief and outrage to protest in poetry. By contrast, Radnóti was at the height of his literary powers when he entered the storm, notebook in hand, seeking to transform the horror into poetry.

Until now, his murder has been shrouded by misinformation. In common with the opinion shapers of the rest of formerly Soviet-dominated Europe, most of Hungary’s teachers and editors have not even begun to digest the shameful role their country played during the war. This in fact explains the vulnerability of this region to neo-Nazi agitation today in a climate of insecurity following the deepest world recession since the war.

Holocaust poetry is therefore an irritant here. Generations of Hungarian school children have been required to recite Randnóti by heart, but they have been taught that the poems were about the general horrors of war rather than genocide. They have been told that the poet had met a “tragic death”—but not that it was racist murder committed with the approval or connivance of the majority of Hungarians at the time. Radnóti describes the mood of the nation in these lines:


I lived upon this earth in such an age
when man was so debased he sought to kill
for pleasure, not just to comply with orders,
his faith in falsehoods drove him to corruption,
his life was ruled by raving self-deceptions.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
that idolized the sly police informers,
whose heroes were the killers, spies, the thieves —
and the few who held their peace or only failed
to cheer were loathed like victims of the plague.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
when those who risked protest were wise to hide
and gnaw their fists in self-consuming shame —
the crazed folk grinned about their terrifying
doomed future, wild and drunk on blood and mire.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
when the mother of an infant was a curse,
when pregnant women were glad to abort,
the living envied the corpses in the graves
while on the table foamed their poisoned cup.

I lived upon this earth in such an age
when even the poet fell silent and waited in hope
for an ancient, terrible voice to rise again —
for no-one could utter a fitting curse of such horror
but the scholar of dreadful words, Isaiah the prophet.

Yet the spirit of his poetry has miraculously survived and won the affection of the nation. Radnóti today is perhaps the best loved by the Hungarian public among all its poets of the recent past. His name fills auditoriums. His lines are quoted at public meetings. Hence the prolonged furor over the revelations of the circumstances of his murder.

Unknown to the public, the facts were reliably established shortly after the war by confidential inquiries conducted under the authority of the interior ministry. This was done in order to forestall any hitch to the smooth administration of the Communist order. The archives of the ministry at last exposed to researchers are belatedly rewriting history.

Their contents form the core of Csapody’s evidence, corroborated by the records of slave labor camps in Serbia where Radnóti and some 6,000 other Hungarian Jews (some of them, including Radnóti, Christian converts) were deployed in the war, about half of whom perished. Csapody matched his findings with testimonials by survivors and material in the archives of Jad Vasem, Belgrade, Berlin and Budapest.

Csapody is a widely published, highly respected intellectual and author of Civil Scenarios, a collection of essays on principal aspects of the Hungarian transition process. He has published several specialist papers during recent years on his researchers into Radnóti‘s murder and the Serbian slave camps near Bor.

But the issue has burst into the public domain only through the recent publication of major articles by him in the authoritative Népszabadság newspaper and the literary journal Élet és Irodalom. These articles have been reprinted by many other newspapers, and the subject taken up by many other writers.

The issue is of considerable public interest because Radnóti is a genuinely loved national figure and the revelations coincide with an upsurge of neo-Nazism that upsets a lot of people.

Csapody writes that the Bor camps were supervised by the Germans but administered by the Hungarians with senseless sadism. They were vacated late in 1944 as part of the German retreat, its inmates despatched westwards in an infamous “deathmarch”.

Their weakened captives were driven at a forced pace under the blows of their armed escorts who were themselves being harassed by the Serbian partisans. People were being murdered at no provocation. Following is Radnóti’s description of the horror:


Collapsed exhausted, only a fool would rise again
to drag his knees and ankles once more like marching pain
yet press on as though wings were to lift him on his way,
invited by the ditch but in vain, he’d dare not stay…
Ask him, why not? maintaining his pace, he might reply:
he longs to meet the wife and a gentler death. That’s why.
But he’s insane, that poor man, because above the homes,
since we have left them, only a scorching whirlwind roams.
The walls are laid. The plum tree is broken. And the night
lurks bristling as a frightened, abandoned mongrel might.
Oh, if I could believe that all things for which I yearn
exist beyond my heart, that there’s still home and return…
return! the old veranda, the peaceful hum of bees
attracted by the cooling fresh plum jam in the breeze,
the still, late summer sunshine, the garden drowsing mute,
among the leaves the swaying voluptuous naked fruit,
and Fanni waiting for me, blonde by the russet hedge,
while languidly the morning re-draws the shadow’s edge…
It may come true again — the moon shines so round — be wise!
Don’t leave me, friend, shout at me, shout! and I will arise!

In a rare gesture of humanity, Radnóti and 21 others who could not keep the pace were put on horse-drawn wagons under the command of Sergeant András Tálas. He was ordered to take them to hospital. But they were not accepted.

He might have decided to abandon them in the prevailing chaos with impunity. He chose to murder them instead. Witness testimonials made by Tálas’ subordinates state that he drew his handgun and led the massacre.

Tálas was recognized after the war by a former Bor inmate. He was tried and executed in 1947 for other war crimes. His body was buried in parcel No. 298 at Rákoskeresztúr cemetery in Budapest, together with those of other war criminals.

But after the eventual collapse of Soviet administration here, a simplistic public honors committee mistakenly assumed that all people executed by the Communists had sacrificed their lives for freedom. Or was this a deliberate act of neo-Nazi mischief? The funeral grounds of shame thus became a resting-place reserved for the “martyrs” of the nation.

Today, Tálas’ grave is furnished with all the trappings of honor that the living can lavish on the dead. His name has been at last removed from the list of “heroes” borne by a commemorative plaque, but those of other presumed war criminals are still present.

The grounds regularly receive ceremonial visits by state dignitaries and school children. Csapody and other lovers of Radnóti’s poetry argue that at least this should cease until another, better advised honors committee thinks its way out of the memorial mess.

No one suggests that the confusion has been cleared up by the removal of Tálas’ name. Other war criminals as culpable as Tálas may still occupy a resting place of honour.

According to incomplete and often unreliable records, the remains resting in parcel No. 298 include those of at total of 51 people condemned for war crimes. But their status is confusing because the notoriously unprofessional, Communist-controlled, post-war tribunals that condemned them often handed down hasty and harsh sentences driven by political rather than judicial considerations in the tradition of the Moscow show trials.

The issue thus reflects the confusion of values in Hungary’s current, painful transition from a humiliated subject state to a robust democracy — -one capable of confronting its past as well as the neo-Nazi challenge of the present. The controversy is therefore a matter of great symbolic significance because the declared choice of a country’s public heroes may influence the behaviour of its leaders in the future.

Thomas Ország-Land is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes from London and Budapest. His poetry has been published by The New York Times and The London Magazine, his reviews and polemics by The Baltimore Sun and The Times Literary Supplement (London). Last major work: Deathmarch: Holocaust Poems Translated from the Hungarian of Miklós Radnóti (Snakeskin, England, 2009).

3 responses to “How the Murder of a Poet Has Become a Hero in Hungary”

  1. syrimne1 says:

    very well-written article, makes me want to read Radnoti's poetry (more of it, I mean – this is the first I've read). It's really sobering what's happening over there, in terms of neo-Nazi social movements. I saw it in Poland when I was last there as well. Very sad. I would think that memories would be longer, but it seems violence just leaves seeds for more violence of the same kind. I think it breeds a kind of fear that makes everyone scramble to put someone else beneath them on the racial hierarchy…as if that would keep them safe.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Elise Blackwell and Kayin Wong, Mark Kerstetter. Mark Kerstetter said: Essay by Thomas Land on Hungarian #poet Miklós Radnóti at Escape into Life: […]

  3. artstamers says:

    Such a brilliant post.

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