The last edition of The Hungarian Review (November 2013) included articles about two very different men who were caught up in the ‘whirlwind’ which was the Hungarian Holocaust of 1944-5, who are little known, at least outside Hungary. These were General Zoltán Álgya-Pap and the Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti. It is difficult to call them ‘heroes’, and neither would want that, but they were both, in different ways and to differing degrees of suffering, both victims of these events. One a victim in survival, the other in death on a death march.
The Hungarian General
Zoltán Álgya-Pap was the only Hungarian general in the second world war who received the coveted gold medal for extraordinary courage in the face of enemy fire. By mid-October 1944, his troops were completely dispirited, under Nazi High Command who had occupied Hungary in March in order to make its one million men fight on against far superior Red Army forces, and against the will of their own politicians, who had tried to surrender to the Americans. They were now fighting the Soviets on historic Hungarian soil west of the Carpathians. Between 23 and 26 October, Álgya-Pap rallied his troops by the old-fashioned means of personally leading them into battle. His surprise counter-attack is said to have saved the lives of his men. Although he was promoted to Lieutenant General for this action, it is an unremembered episode in the epic clash between Germany and Soviet Russia.
Álgya-Pap was an Unitarian, a Protestant denomination known for its tolerant attitude in his home region of Transylvania, where it was part of a broader culture of nonconformity, religious and secular, dating back to times before the Turkish and Hapsburg division of Hungary. Born in 1895, he had enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army at the age of nineteen with the rank of lieutenant and was wounded fighting the Russians in the first year of the Great War. In the thirties he was sent to London and Washington as a military attaché.
In January 1944, as the Red Army pushed back the Axis forces, Lieutenant General Ferenc Szombathelyi, the chief of staff and architect of the clandestine peace negotiations with the US, sent Álgya-Pap to the Croatian border, hoping that, as an experienced diplomat fluent in English, he would negotiate a settlement with the American team set to enter south-west Hungary through Yugoslavia. In the event, Tito put a stop to the idea of a separate peace with Hungary and the German discovery of the Hungarian ‘plot’ against them led to Szombathelyi’s arrest following their occupation of Hungary. The Germans also forced the removal of Kállay as PM, because he refused to allow the deportation of Hungary’s Jews, and then proceeded with their plans, drawn up with their partners in the new pro-Nazi Hungarian government. Álgya-Pap therefore lost his opportunity to become a hero of the Hungarian Independence Movement and was sent by the new Nazi regime to help administer Sub-Carpathia, where tens of thousands of Jews lived in small towns and villages.
Álgya-Pap was assigned the military’s representative on the special commission set up to administer the region, but when he chastised the gendarmerie for their inhumane methods in “corralling” the Jews and was removed from the special commission within forty-eight hours. Although he was present at a top-level meeting (12 April) on the implementation of the anti-Jewish laws in Sub-Carpathia, it is unclear what role, if any, he had in the deportations from mid-May to when his post officially ended on 1 June. Imprisoned by the Soviets at the end of the war, he was released from hard labour in 1955, but arrested and imprisoned under the Rákosi regime until he was released again just before the Uprising of October 1956. He fled to the west, and was given asylum in the Netherlands, from he went to India to work for the Theosophical Society.
The author of this article, Charles Fenyvesi, met him in India and commented that:
The one subject Zoltán avoided discussing was the Second World War, which he characterised as “the deepest pit of inhumanity”. He was not the only Hungarian Gentile I know who refrained from talking about having done something to help the Jewish population…it occured to me that he might have objected to public recognition for his defiance of Nazi policies. There are people who do not wish to have themselves identified as heroes, perhaps because they do not feel that they lived up to their definitions of a hero or they could not accept being celebrated when so many were killed without anyone attempting to rescue them. But I also know that silence can serve as an alternative to admitting guilt…. I regret that I may never know what went through his mind when the first train packed with Hungarian Jews left Sub-Carpathia for the then unknown village of Oswiecim – Auschwitz in German… I cannot ask my Krausz cousins what they thought of the Hungarian officials who ruled over their lives because out of fifty-five of them only a single one returned alive from Auschwitz, and she was too young to know about local politics. A subject of Dr Mengele’s medical experiments, Kati Krausz could no longer bear a child. By now, she too is dead…. I cannot bring myself to believe that as a general, Zoltán bácsi was an enemy of my people – or of any other people. But he ordered his troops to kill and he might have even initialled the papers that sent thousands to Auschwitz…
Forced March and Poems from a Muddy Notebook
In the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, the official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, there is no mention of Miklós Radnóti. The great Hungarian poet was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, later converted to Catholicism, but that didn’t stop him from being drafted into a “labour battalion” in the Second World War. He was killed on a death march from Bor in Serbia to somewhere in Germany. Too weak to continue, he was shot by Hungarian fascist troops into a mass grave near the village of Abda in northwest Hungary. Some witnesses said that he was severely beaten by a drunken soldier for “scribbling” in his small notebook. This was found in the mass grave, in his raincoat pocket. The poems that it contained were published later with the title ‘Camp Notebook’.
Some of Radnóti’s poems have been translated into English, but these last poems are only now available in translation. Painstakingly translated by Francis R Jones (here in conversation with Attila Balázs), they have been published in a bilingual book, Camp Notebook, by Arc Publications, an independent publishing house in the UK. Here is one of the four poems which appear in this article:
It’s a fool who, fallen to earth, gets up and trudges on,
flexes his ankle and knee, a single walking pain,
but still, as if lifted by wings, sets off again on his way,
and ignores the ditch’s call nor even dares to wait
and if you ask, why not? who might just find the breath
to say there’s a lady waiting and a wiser, finer death.
But the poor fellow’s a fool: back there, since time out of mind,
swirling over each house there’s only the scorched wind.
The plum-tree is shattered, the house wall is felled
and all those homely nights are matted thick with dread.
If only I could believe that everything still worthwhile
were not just stored in my heart, and homecoming might be real;
if the bees of peace were humming now, like then, out loud
while the plum jam stood cooling in the old veranda’s shade,
if the late summer’s silence still basked on the drowsy garden
and, swinging nude in the leaves, the fruit were starting to ripen,
if Fanni were still waiting blonde by the reddening hedge
and the slow forenoon still writing the shadow’s slow edge –
yes,it might still be! The moon today’s so round!
Don’t leave – just give me a shout and I’ll get up, my friend!
Bor, 15 September 1944
Charles Fenyesi, The Three Lives of a Hungarian General in Hungarian Review. Budapest: Volume 4 No. VI (November 2013).
Francis R Jones & Attila Balázs, Forced March and Poems from a Muddy Notebook, HR, op.cit.
Miklós Radnóti: Poems from ‘Camp Notebook’, HR, op.cit.