Survivors: ed. by Thomas Ország-Land, Smokestack
True poetry is immune to propaganda and social control; it is immune to infiltration by the far right and to the rewriting of history. That is why we need it. Of vital importance – now, perhaps, more than ever - is this small volume of work from Smokestack Books, which operates as a firewall against extreme right politics and Holocaust denial. How can it be, the editor asks, that the far right is on the march again across Europe - not only on the rise, but becoming increasingly accepted and mainstream? The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece has 18 seats in parliament; Marine le Pen’s Front National came first in the European elections in France earlier this year; the “radical nationalist” Jobbik party is now the third largest party in Hungary.
US poet Carolyn Forché, in giving the Poetry Society annual lecture at the Southbank Centre in July 2014, explored the theme of “poet as witness”. When asked to explain this term, she said: “Poetry of Witness is a mode of reading poems written by those who have passed through extremity: warfare, military occupation, torture, imprisonment, forced exile, house arrest and extreme forms of censorship.”
The poets in this book endured all those fates. One such survivor, Thomas Ország-Land, has translated and edited Survivors, a first volume dedicated to Hungarian Holocaust poetry, bringing together, among others, searing work from Magda Szekely, Miklós Radnóti, Eszter Forrai, as well as his own poems written in English.
In his brilliant introduction Ország-Land tells us: “There are in fact very few good Holocaust poems accessible to English readers, and for very sound reasons. The deed was done outside the English-speaking world. Its perpetrators succeeded in destroying many poems as well as their authors."
Miklós Radnóti died whilst on a forced march from the Ukraine border to central Hungary in November 1944, murdered not by Nazis but by a regular unit of the Hungarian army. His body was buried in a mass grave. A small notebook of poems was found still extant on his body, after exhumation of the gravesite 18 months later.
This is what Forché refers to as poetry of witness. Not the fact that the persona of the poet was present and witnessed horrific events (although certainly the need to bear witness is a driving force), but the impress on the language of this extremity, words composed at the extremes of human endurance, the possibilities inherent in language as an act of resistance.
Thomas Ország-Land asks us not to be under any illusion that there can never be another Holocaust. There are people who thinly disguise or openly advocate their wish for such horrors to recur. The rise of the far right brings its inevitable rabble of Holocaust-denying, revisionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and homophobic politics. What this horrible trend teaches us is that freedoms have to be fought for, suffered for, gained, and then fought for again.
“Our murderers have dispersed, / confessed and gained forgiveness / to kill and confess again …" (Eva Lang, ‘Wandering Jews’). This book is about political barbarism, writes the editor, but it is also a book about life. The need and ability to produce beautiful poetry, sometimes in the last days or even moments of life is something more than a mere desire to record. It is an act of spirituality, the sending of a message to humanity’s future. And such a message as this needs to be read and re-read. This poetry is beautiful. Heartbreaking, yes; how could it not be heartbreaking? For example:
A grieving 5-year old
Promised her rabbit:
When the soldiers
Come to grab you …
I won’t leave you.
(‘The Promise’, Ország-Land)
It is a privilege to have access to these translations, particularly of the poems of Miklós Radnóti. This is from ‘ Letter to my Wife’:
… and you are far away. My dreams, persistent,
are woven nightly in your voice, and during
the day it’s in my heart still reassuring –
and thus I keep my silence …
Silence is a choice, an option available to those who are in extremis, but it is not a option chosen by these poets. Now, more than ever, volumes of work such as this are so vitally important. But publication is only the first part of the dialogue; these poems must be read and heeded.
The editor tells us that he believes the passionate warnings of Holocaust witnesses will resound through the ages in the surviving voices of poets of our own time. He says: “Poetry is a great vehicle of post-crisis reconciliation. The work of these Holocaust masters may teach the future how to heal the wounds of the past.” Let him be proved right.
(The full text of Carolyn Forche’s Poetry Society annual lecture ‘Poetry as Witness’ will appear in Poetry Review, autumn 2014. For those interested in poetry composed at the limits of human endurance, I highly recommend reading it.)