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Radnóti, Miklós

(1910–1944), poet and translator. Considered one of the great Hungarian poets of the twentieth century, Miklós Radnóti was born Miklós Glatter, of Jewish parents, although he remained indifferent toward his Jewish roots all his life, converting formally to Catholicism in 1943. “I do not feel Jewish,” he wrote in a 1942 letter to Hungarian Jewish literary critic Aladár Komlós. “I was never taught to be religious, I do not feel a need for it, I don’t practice it. Race, blood ties, unseverable roots, ancient pangs quivering in every fiber—I consider such things utter nonsense, and not the defining characteristic of either my intellectuality, my spirituality, or my poetry.” Yet he died as a persecuted Jew. In 1944, during a forced march westward across Hungary, Radnóti and members of his labor battalion were shot dead by their Hungarian guards. After the war, his body was removed from a mass grave, and his last poems, his most gripping, were discovered in his coat pocket. His final, prophetic “Razglednica,” or Postcard, is dated 31 October 1944:

I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,

tight already as a snapping string.

Shot in the neck. “And that’s how you’ll end too,”

I whispered to myself; “lie still; no moving.

Now patience flowers into death.” Then I could hear

“Der springt noch auf,” above, and very near.

Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.

(Translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner)

Even here Radnóti seems to absolve his Hungarian captors, putting German words in the mouth of a Hungarian killer.

As a poet, Radnóti clung with stoic serenity to the humane values of the Western tradition at the very moment the forces of inhumanity were trying frantically to destroy them. In his greatest poems he combined the moral imperatives of the Judeo-Christian tradition with an evocation of the classical ideals of beauty. But he never particularized, and felt no special kinship with the people who bore the brunt of Nazi savagery. In one of his celebrated eclogues, written in a labor camp in Yugoslavia, he mentions a “sad Jew” along with Frenchmen, Poles, Italians, and Serbs.

Radnóti’s tragic fate lends a special poignancy to his work. But what makes his mature poetry even more extraordinary is that he intimated the horrors to come even before Europe was engulfed in war, and saw the artist’s lot as an especially melancholy one. In his “First Eclogue,” written in 1938, he has the Poet say:

While cannon boom? Among smoldering ruins, deserted villages?

Still, I keep on writing and I live in this frenzied world

As that oak over there: it knows it will be cut down and already

Is marked with a white cross, showing that there, tomorrow,

The woodcutter begins. Yet, as it waits, it puts forth a new leaf.

(Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri)

In his literary memoirs, the poet István Vas, a close friend of Radnóti, notes that if one is born a Jew, one has a choice: either to say “I want to be a Jew” or “I don’t want to be a Jew”; but one cannot say “I am not a Jew.” Yet this is exactly what Radnóti said. According to Shimon Markish, “the Radnóti case is an extreme one, where the mental state borders on the pathological, showing a total lack of sensitivity to the environment” (“The Soviet Jew as Intellectual,” Commentary, December 1978). Vas, on the other hand, believed that Radnóti was “the sanest of all of us,” contending that if one lives in a madhouse, one has to have great inner strength and even a lack of sensitivity, a “total immunity,” to the environment (personal correspondence, late 1970s).

Suggested Reading

Emery George, The Poetry of Miklós Radnóti: A Comparative Study (New York, 1986); George Gömöri and Clive Wilmer, eds., The Life and Poetry of Miklós Radnóti (Boulder, 1999); Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Life and Times of Miklós Radnóti (Bloomington, Ind., 2000).