November 19, 2013

Burning the books, shattering the statue, of poet and holocaust victim Miklós Radnóti


After the accident.

They drove a car into it, a black Mercedes.

Miklós Radnóti, if you’ve not read him. was an immensely skilled poet, born in Hungary in 1905. He died in 1944, murdered on a forced march as part of a Jewish labour battalion conscripted into the Hungarian army. His last poems were found in a notebook inside his coat when his mass grave was exhumed eighteen months later. Written during that march, they remain some of the most searing works of literature ever committed to paper. They are nearly unreadable.

A statue was erected to the memory of Radnóti in 1980, not far from the site of his murder in Northwestern Hungary.

The car that hit it was found abandoned in a ditch. But, so what if a car hit a statue? Surely accidents, however terribly symbolic, do happen. The driver, local police say, was likely speeding and “lost control of the vehicle.”

The past week has also seen a spate of book burnings, organized online on fascist message boards. Radnóti poems were among the books photographed burning.

And now, someone has driven a car into a statue of a murdered poet, breaking it off at the knees.

As we’ve written before on MobyLives, the increasingly open antisemitism and homophobia in Hungary, organized by the extreme right wing party Jobbik, has led many authors, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Elie Wiesel to turn down or return prizes offered by that government. Our own author Imre Kertész, Hungarian Nobel winner and himself a survivor of the holocaust in that nation, has said “The country never asked itself why it systematically was on the wrong side of history.”

The coming year is full of planned memorial services to mark the seventieth anniversary of some of the worst atrocities in Hungary during the Second World War, with joint events planned between the Israeli government and that of Viktor OrbánAs Der Spiegel reports, this is seen by some as an effort by Orbán to dampen international outcry about Hungary’s increasingly public far right anti-semitic movements.

It seems unlikely to work. The memorials, yes, seem unlikely to do much, certainly not to change minds within Hungary. But I mean, more, the burnings, the murder in effigy of a man already murdered in life, will not work. Because I have here before me even as I type this the poetry of Radnóti. I can read it to spite these drivers who’ve lost control. I can read it to memorialize the man. I can read it for itself. But whatever the reason, I can read it. As can you. They broke this poetry off once before, and now it cannot be broken again.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.