I Know Not What… Miklós Radnóti   4 comments


A few weeks ago I posted a blog on the ‘Heroes of the Hungarian Holocaust’ which dealt with recent articles from The Hungarian Review, one of them about the poet Miklós Radnoti, who died on a forced ‘death’ march in November 1944. Four of his last poems from his camp notebook appeared in English in the same publication, but since then all his major poems have been published in a bilingual edition, so I thought I would post them one by one on the anniversary of the day on which they were written, exactly seventy years ago.

First of all, however, here’s some information about the poet from Zsuzsanna Ozsváth’s introduction to the volume published by Corvina Press (details below):

Miklós Radnóti was one of Hungary’s greatest poets of the twentieth century. Born in Budapest in 1909, he was murdered by members of the Hungarian armed forces in the small village of Abda in western Hungary, on an unknown date between the sixth and tenth of November in 1944. Caught up in the whirlwind of the Hungarian Holocaust which followed the Nazi takeover of the country in March 1944, he suffered unspeakable deprivation and died a horrifying, anonymous death. However, he left behind poems of the utmost beauty and rarity that both express and illuminate Hungarian culture. Many of them covey moods and perceptions untainted by the horrors, while others offer first-hand accounts of the wholesale murder. Taken as a whole, they reveal the wide range of Radnóti’s imagination and the obligation he felt to give testimony to an existence engulfed by catastrophe. As well as being masterworks in the annals of the poetry of the last century, they are also documents of destruction, much as Wilfred Owen’s poetry also serves to document the suffering of the trenches of the Great War. Through them Radnóti subverted the horror of the Holocaust, in helping us to understand it.


Radnóti also witnessed the rise of Nazism, and, like many in different walks of life, fought for Hungary’s freedom and independence from it. He insisted on the ethical mission of art, but the bestiality unleashed upon European Jews of the time destroyed both life and art. Taken by a freight train from Hungary to Yugoslavia in May 1944 and forced to trek back as the German army evacuated the Balkans, he was shot in the neck and buried in a mass grave with twenty-one other forced labourers. When his body was exhumed a year and a half later, his last poems, stained by dirt and blood, were found in the pocket of his raincoat. Within a few years of the end of the war, his poems, including these resurrected ones, became well-known to Hungarians, exalting and moving millions of them in the continuing gloom which followed. Radnóti’s place among the Hungarian masters was confirmed. Until now, they have not been so well-known outside Hungary, but Ozsváth and Turner’s volume seeks to call the attention of the English-speaking world to them, giving them the means to resound… and communicate the vital, immediate sense which characterizes the original.

From its very beginning, Radnóti’s life was overshadowed by tragedy. At his birth, both his mother and twin brother died. However, because his father re-married in his infant years, Miklós was at first unaware of the double death, and only heard of it at the age of twelve, after his father’s funeral. He spent the next six years with distant relatives and, after graduating from secondary school, he left Hungary to study textile technology in Czechoslovakia. A year later, he returned to Hungary to study literature. However, the ‘Nemerus Clausus Act’ of September 1920, the first anti-Semitic law in Europe, required that the number of Jews in Hungarian universties be reduced to six per cent. Barred from the University of Budapest, Radnóti enrolled at Szeged University, where he read French and Hungarian literature and was awarded a PhD in 1934.

However, by this time the Horthy regime had renewed its relationship with the populist right-wing forces which had fomented chauvinism and anti-Semitism since the end of the Great War. They joined a new, radical Right that blamed the short-lived Soviet Republic of Béla Kun for the country’s ills and associated the Jews with it, as many of them had appeared visible in its reign.  The Jews were also blamed for the international banking crises which led to the Depression. Despite its longstanding liberal literary traditions stretching back into the mid-nineteenth century and beyond, much of the city’s recent identity had become intertwined with the radical Right which had set itself up there in 1919, organising murder squads that moved from place to place, killing Jews and those suspected of being Communist sympathisers. Although the atrocities stopped after Horthy’s assumption of power in 1920, the politics found its way into public institutions so that, when proto-Fascism re-emerged from the end of the twenties, the university proved too weak to keep out the rabble. and it became a battleground between the ultra-Right and the defenseless Jewish students.

In response to the country’s shift to the right, there were a number of groups arising on the centre-left, liberal, populist and social democratic. Continuing in the liberal tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Hungarian poets, Radnóti was among the young people in favour of social change. He joined the Art Forum of Szeged Youth, a populist movement addressing the plight of Hungarian peasants, supporting agrarian reform. Drawing on Hungarian folklore, they identified with the national poet Sándor Petőfi and musicians like Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.  Inspired by the left-wing idealism common among writers and artists of the time, both inside Hungary and from outside, Radnóti cherished the values he developed in this group for the rest of his life.

He also became interested in Catholicism at this time. Many of the intellectual conversations of Jewish literati and artists took place at a time when anti-Semitism was a swelling tide, and many Jews became aware of the fragility of their Jewish faith and ‘ethnicity’. They were, once again, scapegoats, blamed for not only for the excesses of both Communism and capitalism but also labelled as aliens and even enemies of their native country.  Ever since Petőfi became the voice of the fight for Hungarian independence in 1848-9, being a poet in Hungary meant becoming part of that struggle, a heritage cherished by all great Hungarian poets, who were also expected to be exemplary patriots. To convert to Catholicism meant being able to tear down the walls of separation, to free oneself which many secular, well-integrated Jews found wearisome in any case. When the political pressure called into question their very identity, several artists became Catholics. Radnóti was one who embraced an aesthetic Catholicism with a view of life which included faith in the redemptive quality of art, socialist concerns, and an overwhelming compassion for human suffering. It took him fifteen years to convert, he became a Catholic at heart in his late teens. Ozsváth has observed that he interwove Biblical symbolism and the best of the humanist tradition in his poetry and focused passionately on a noble patriotism, one which countered and challenged the brutal and militant chauvinism of official Hungary. He insisted on his identity as a Catholic and a Hungarian poet for the rest of his life, though his country branded him as a Jew. Once identified as such, regardless of his own detentions, he was effectively sentenced to death.

After publishing his first collections of poems, Radnóti moved to Budapest in 1934. Despite his teacher’s certification, he remained ‘unemployed’ for the rest of his life, though he became a regular contributor to Nyugat (Occident), the most prestigious literary journal in twentieth century Hungary. He became part of what the poet and editor Mihály Babits described as the third generation of the journal’s distinguished literary tradition. He accepted this responsibility for the direction Hungary was taking, trying to warn against the impending disaster. From the mid-thirties, a significant group of Hungary’s artists and writers, from Bartók to Babits, turned against the increasingly pro-Nazi political tide and were joined by some of the country’s leaders, who began to anticipate the catastrophic consequences of its alliance with Nazi Germany. However, Nazi infiltration and pro-Fascist ideology had already made Hungary economically dependent on the Third Reich so that hopes for political independence proved futile. At the same time, Hungary’s cultural life continued to flower and its poets wrote some of its most beautiful poetry. It’s scientists and mathematicians also began to achieve international recognition for their original discoveries and achievements.

Despite his darkest premonitions, Radnóti’s work also continued to flourish, especially after his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Fanni Gyarmati, who had been the central focus of his love poems since the late twenties. By the late thirties, he was widely recognised in literary circles. However, within three years, from 1938-41, three sequences of anti-Jewish laws were introduced. The first two defined who was Jewish and regulated the percentage of Jewish participation in various economic activities. The third created a forced labour system that became responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, including the poet’s. Following the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, he anticipated the full-scale destruction of Hungary, and became sick in the stomach, ridden by insomnia and near to collapse. Nevertheless, he recovered sufficiently to produce work of great innovation in the lyrical tradition, combining the classical forms of the ancients with modern sensibilities. In 1938 he published a collection of poems, Steep Road, and in 1940, three more collections, including a volume of prose writing, a selection of translations and his own Selected Poetry. Two more volumes followed in his lifetime.

Much of what he started, however, he was unable to finish, as from 1940 he was called up three times into slave labour units. He was worked to exhaustion in coalfields, sugar plants and ammunition factories during his first two call-ups and in his last he was taken to the copper mines in Bor, Yugoslavia. However, under pressure from Soviet and Partisan forces, the German Army was forced to evacuate the Balkans. Radnóti’s squad was force-marched back to Hungary, to be transferred from there to slave-labour camps in Germany. Cold weather, exhaustion, hunger, savage beatings and killings meant that of marching column which contained of 3,600 men on leaving Bor, only eight hundred crossed the Hungarian border. Marching on through Western Hungary in November, Radnóti began to lose his strength. His feet were covered with open blisters, such that he could no longer walk. It was probably on 8 November that the squad reached a brickyard in a town near Győr, where they spent the night. Next day three NCOs of the Hungarian Armed Forces separated Radnóti and twenty-one others from the column. Crowding them onto two borrowed carts, they took them first to a hospital, then to a school housing refugees. Neither had room for them, so the soldiers took them to the dam near Abda, where they were ordered to dig a ditch. The guards then shot them one by one into the ditch.

Radnóti’s last volume of poetry, Foamy Sky, was published posthumously in 1946, a volume which did not then contain the last five poems. Only after his body was exhumed were these five poems found, inscribed in the small camp notebook he had obtained in Bor. Two years later, the entire and complete volume was re-published. Since then it has been re-published many times in Hungary, but never in English, until now. Ozsváth concludes:

…the unforgettable formal music of his poems not only preserves his most personal perceptions but also echoes the lives and culture of all those who were murdered in the Holocaust.  And while they give account of the darkest hours of history, they also demonstrate the tremendous power of the human spirit to triumph over death.




An extract from I Know Not What…

I know not what to strangers this dear lanscape might mean,

to me it is my birthplace, this tiny spot of green;

ringed now with fire, it was, once, my childhood rocking me;

I grew there as a fragile branch from the parent tree;

O may my body sink back to that life-giving soil.

This land is home to me: for if a bush should kneel

before my feet I know its name just as its flower,

I know who walks the road, whither and at what hour,

I know what it might mean if reddening pain should fall

dripping some summer dusk down the lintel or the wall.

For him who flies above it, a map is all he sees,

this living scape of being but symbols and degrees;


and in the park the trace of loves who once loved me,

the honey taste of kisses sweet as bilberry,

and on the way to school you’d not step on a crack,

lest you’d forget your lesson, or break your mother’s back;

the pilot cannot see that paving-stone, that grass:

to see all this, there is no instrument or glass.

For we are guilty too, as others are,

we know how we have sinned, in what, and when and where;

but working people live here, poets in innocence,

breast-feeding infants with their dawned intelligence,

and one day it will brighten, hid now in safety’s dark,

till peace shall write upon our land its shining mark

and answer our choked words in sentences of light.

With great wings cover us, O guardian cloud of night.

17 January, 1944


Zsuzsanna Ozváth & Frederick Turner (2014), Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti. Budapest: Corvina Books.

Francis R Jones & Attila Balázs (2013), Forced March and Poems from a Muddy Notebook, in The Hungarian Review, Volume IV No. 6.

Posted February 18, 2014 by AngloMagyarMedia in Uncategorized

4 responses to “I Know Not What… Miklós Radnóti

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Readers may be interested to know that Music of Remembrance has commissioned a new opera about the life and work of Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti. “The Parting,” composed by Tom Cipullo with libretto by David Mason will premiere in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on May 19, 2019 and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on May 23, 2019. More info at http://www.musicofremembrance.org.

  2. Pingback: An Early Answer to a Difficult Question | Take Away the Takeaway

    • A better translation of the title of Radnóti’s poem is ‘I would not know’ or ‘I know not what’, which rather indicates the ‘inexplicable object’ or quandry which the poet faces, rather than a personal inability or inadequacy. This holds the clue to understanding the ‘Holocaust in Hungary’. The IHRA told me not to use the term ‘Hungarian Holocaust’ because the Holocaust was a unique international event. The Hungary of 1938-45 was not the Hungary of today, in any case, either in constitutional or geopolitical terms.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: