Miklos Radnoti, a Hungarian poet born in Budapest in 1909, published his first book of poems, Pagan Salute in 1931 and shortly after obtained his Ph.D. in Hungarian literature. In the early forties he was conscripted by the Hungarian Army, but being a Jew he was assigned to an unarmed “labour battalion”, at times arming and disarming explosives on the Ukrainian front. In 1944 Radnóti’s group of 3,200 Hungarian Jews was force-marched to central Hungary. Most of them died on the road, including Radnoti who was shot near the village of Abda in north-western Hungary. When his body was exhumed from a mass grave in 1946, a small notebook of poems telling the story of his last months was found in the pocket of his overcoat. This is:
LETTER TO MY WIFE
By Miklos Radnoti
(trans from Hungarian by Zsuzsanna Ozsvath & Frederick Turner)
Beneath, the nether worlds, deep, still, and mute.
Silence howls in my ears, and I cry out.
No answer could come back, it is so far
From that sad Serbia swooned into war.
And you’re so distant. But my heart redeems
Your voice all day, entangled in my dreams.
So I am still, while close about me sough
The great cold ferns, that slowly stir and bow.
When I’ll see you, I don’t know. You whose calm
Is as the weight and sureness of a psalm,
Whose beauty’s like the shadow and the light,
Whom I could find if I were blind and mute,
Hide in the landscape now, and from within
Leap to my eye, as if cast by my brain.
You were real once; now you have fallen in
To that deep well of teenage dreams again.
Jealous interrogations: tell me; speak.
Do you still love me? Will you on that peak
Of my past youth become my future wife?
– but now I fall awake to real life
And know that’s what you are: wife, friend of years
– just far away. Beyond three wild frontiers.
And Fall comes. Will it also leave with me?
Kisses are sharper in the memory.
Daylight and miracles seemed different things.
Above, the echelons of bombers’ wings:
Skies once amazing blue with your eyes’ glow
Are darkened now. Tight with desire to blow,
The bombs must fall. I live in spite of these,
A prisoner. All of my fantasies
I measure out. And I will find you still;
For you I’ve walked the full length of the soul,
The highways of countries! – on coals of fire,
If needs must, in the falling of the pyre,
If all I have is magic, I’ll come back;
I’ll stick as fast as bark upon an oak!
And now that calm, whose habit is a power
And weapon to the savage, in the hour
Of fate and danger, falls as cool and true
As does a wave: the sober two times two.