I J Singer, the lesser known brother of Bashevis Singer, also a Yiddish novelist, wrote in an essay in 1942 of the “tsvey toyznt yoriker toes”, the two thousand year mistake – the thought that Jews could be accepted in Gentile society. Whether Jews sought assimilation or separation, whatever they did, the Gentile world would not accept them. He held this position only briefly, drawing the conclusion that only Jewish nationalism would resolve this situation. This is not a view I share, yet looking at the last hundred years of Jewish life in Hungary, it becomes harder to argue – over that country if nowhere else.
Partially as a direct result of previous oppression, Jews were over-represented in the failed 1919 Hungarian revolutionary government which was followed by two years of anti-Semitic “white terror”. Jews were just too left wing. The impact of the Holocaust is well known, some 600,000 Jews being killed, with the direct involvement of Hungarian fascists. Many were Christians as the Hungarian laws defined Jews by ancestry rather than religion. This number included the poet Miklos Radnoti, a Catholic, whose poems are included here. Some Christians were just too Jewish. In the wake of the 1956 uprising against the Communists there were further pogroms. And now we have Jobbik, which sees Jews everywhere, including, again, those whose families are long converted to Christianity. It wants them out.
It is with Jobbik in mind that I read this new collection of Holocaust poetry by Hungarian Jews, some of whom were not, unfortunately, as the title suggests, survivors. The poems are more than ably translated and the collection edited by Thomas Orszag-Land, himself a hidden child in Hungary during the Holocaust. The stand out poets are Radnoti and – new to me – Andras Mezei, who did survive the war. But it is a collection that is hard to read, remorseless in tone. In a rare positive moment Mezei concludes a poem “For love redeems the fence of death”, but it really is hard going. Perhaps it has to be.