‘Write, though all is broken, on the sky’: Miklós Radnóti, a twentieth century Hungarian poet-hero

In this special guest blog post, Kim Sherwood writes about the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti

When I turn onto Radnóti Miklós utca, I am not expecting it. I did not know the poet Miklós Radnóti, who died in a mass grave in 1944, had been given a street name in Budapest. I stand under this act of remembrance with the shrill delight of children ringing from a nearby playground, and cry.

I hadn’t expected Miklós Radnóti in my novel, Testament, either. Testament is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family, and stretches from 1944 in Hungary to the present day. The novel explores identity, memory, and the role of art in survival.

I had been drawn to write about the Hungarian forced labour service, a system unique to Hungary, in which Jews, Communists and others worked in slave labour units attached to the German and Hungarian military and paramilitary across Europe, clearing minefields with their bare hands, digging trenches, laying railroad. My great-grandfather and my grandmother’s uncle both suffered forced labour service, and my grandmother’s uncle was murdered and left in an anonymous grave much like Radnóti.

Writing about the Bor mines in Serbia, I came across this small addition in Randolph L. Braham’s The Hungarian Labour Service System 1939-1945:

Among the slain Jewish servicemen who were withdrawn from Bor was Miklós Radnóti, the noted Hungarian poet and literary translator. He was killed by an SS-man sometime between November 6 and 10, 1944, and was buried in a mass grave at Abda, near Győr. When his body was exhumed after the war, the last poems he wrote before his death were found neatly tucked away in his raincoat.

The poet George Szirtes leant me his copy of Radnóti’s collected works. I was struck by a poem Radnóti wrote before his first forced labour service:

I lived, but as for living I was shiftless in my life,
knew always I’d be buried here when all was done,
that year layers itself upon year, clod on clod, stone on stone,
that in the chill and wormy dark the body swells,
and cold, too, lies the fathom-deep and naked bone.
That up there scurrying time is ransacking my poems,
that down, down, down, my mortal heaviness must drive;
all this I knew. But tell me – did the work survive?

It did, and I became determined to write about Radnóti in my novel, not only because I want my writing to be as authentic as possible to the historical record, but also because those words haunted me. But tell me – did the work survive?

Radnóti was born in Budapest in 1909, and faced anti-Semitism all of his life. The Numerus Clausus Act of 1920, the first anti-Semitic law in Europe in the twentieth century, called for Jewish students in universities to be reduced to 6%. Radnóti had to leave Budapest and study in Szeged, where he earnt a Ph.D in French and Hungarian literature. Szeged was consumed by violence as the country swung to the far-right, and Radnóti joined the Art Forum of Szeged Youth, a left-wing group that identified with Sándor Petöfi (1823-1849), known as the ‘poet-revolutionist’. Radnóti started to publish, and despite facing unemployment as the country’s prejudices worsened, became a contributor to Nyugat, the most significant literary journal in Hungary.

From 1940-1944, Radnóti was called up for labour service three times. He was beaten, tortured, worked to exhaustion. The fear of death that always followed Radnóti, his twin brother and mother dying in childbirth, only hastened now, as he left Bor on a forced march – and yet he kept writing, squeezing poems into a notebook smuggled to him by a local Serbian, and then onto the back of a label for cod liver oil found in a yard. These would be found in his jacket pocket.

In ‘The Fourth Ecologue’, a voice exhorts him: ‘write, though all is broken, on the sky.’ He did. Radnóti’s poems describe his last days, his love for his wife, the forced march as the SS and Hungarian officers shoot and torture thousands, as ‘I fell beside him and his corpse turned over, tight already as a snapping string,’ and he whispers to himself: ‘that’s how you’ll end too’.

It is hard to find words for writing in the face of that. Persistence, bravery, certainly. A vision of art that survives, certainly. But also an unwavering fidelity to his self, to his identity as a poet. He will not be stopped. He wrote to the last.

Looking up at his street sign, I told him I would do my best to honour that fidelity.

NB: All of the poems quoted here are translated by Zuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner.

Testament, by Kim Sherwood is published by riverrun.