Published in English in 1989 by Macmillan, János Nyíri’s ‘Battlefields and Playgrounds’ immediately became a success in the UK. However, this book is all but unknown in Hungary. Granted, it was published in Hungarian in 1990 (under the title ‘Madárország’), when the country was engrossed in the regime change, but even its new, 2014 edition did not create a stir. The novel begins in the late 1930s, earlier than most Holocaust narratives, and is an extremely rich portrayal of Jewish life in those years, including the life and fate of Orthodox Jews in the Tokaj wine district. Although the vast majority of Hungarian Jews (many of whom were Orthodox) who perished in the Holocaust were not from Budapest, and Orthodox Jewish life was eventually eradicated in Hungary, their fate is much less documented in Hungarian literature than that of assimilated Budapest Jews, seeing that most writers belonged to the latter group. The identity of Nyíri’s 11-year-old child protagonist (a delightful and cheeky guy, the epitome of chutzpah) and his parents is far from being uncomplicated: though the mother had abandoned Orthodox Judaism and became secular, the child goes to an Orthodox school in Budapest. There are many details in the book that do not fit in a black-and-white picture, from the Jewish scout group to the many shades of characters among Jewish and non-Jewish Hungarians, Swabians, and Russians. The reader gets a sense of how things are changing from moment to moment, untainted by hindsight bias―like in ‘Fatelessness’, but whereas in Kertész’s novel the emphasis is on gradual deprivation, here it is on the precariousness of life. While the novel is certainly not a completely faithful account of things “as they were,” it sheds a light on many themes that are very topical in Hungarian public life today, from the behavior of Hungarians towards their Jewish compatriots to the changes brought about by German occupation―discussions of which all too often remain on the level of mudslinging on both sides of the political spectrum.
Perhaps even less known is Teréz Rudnóy’s strange and unsettling ‘Szabaduló asszonyok’ [Women Getting Free] from 1947, an incredibly powerful book written roughly at the same time as some of the foundational texts on the Holocaust. The mere external facts about this novel―the date of publication, and the author being a woman―should not necessarily guarantee its stature as there is an abundance of memoirs, by women as well as by men, written in those years. However, contrary to the majority of these memoirs which have very little literary value, Rudnóy’s book is a true masterpiece. Why it still has not found its way to readers and literary critics has to do with the circumstances of its publication. Rudnóy (b. 1910) was already an accomplished writer when she was deported to Auschwitz, together with her parents, husband and sons who all perished in the camp. Teréz survived, only to drown in the Danube in 1947, before ‘Szabaduló asszonyok’ was published. Besides her untimely death, the cultural politics of the era was not favorable either for the reception of the book―neither the murder of Jews nor the portrayal of Americans as liberators fitted the ideological frame of those years. Before its publication in 2011 by the Budapest press Noran, the novel was as good as lost; and even afterwards it did not create a literary sensation, though it should have. It is the work of a fully-fledged writer with a very distinct voice and a complex moral vision. In mesmerizing prose, the novel narrates the first twenty-four hours of two women after their liberation from the camp. The protagonist, Lulu, is a charismatic woman who was an aging, lonely prostitute before her deportation. The novel must have felt unbearably subversive at the time of its publication―and, sadly, it still does: neither the tension between different kinds of truth nor the uncommonly rich and bold portrayal of the female body feel any less transgressive than they did in 1947.
In her excellent book ‘A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction’ (Oxford UP, 2011), Ruth Franklin writes about the unwillingness of critics to dissect novels written by Holocaust survivors. It feels “barbaric,” she says, to seriously worry about such questions as whether it is true that babies were burned alive at Auschwitz―it is enough to know that they were burned at all. “But,” she continues, “if it feels barbaric to perform critical dissection on a book such as [Elie Wiesel’s] ‘Night’, the alternative is worse.” She goes on to explain that the overcautious attitude of critics does not only give scope for Holocaust fraud, but engenders problems that emerge when a topic become taboo—in other words, when critical thinking is stifled. Reading books like the ones discussed above has the effect of opening up minds, and getting closer to an empathic understanding of the past.
By Agnes Orzoy