WAR AND ART – MEMOIRS OF A HUNGARIAN CHILDHOOD – PART I

IN MEMORIAM of my mother Paula Hertlik
1910–2007

She taught us to live and love and be all that not harms freedom and dignity.

***

“There is one experience that happens to nearly all human beings alike, and that is war.”
George Orwell

“War will be the music of the future.”
Gyula Krúdy

I.

I was only nine in 1943, a third grade student in an elementary school in the remote mountain hamlet of Antalócz, since 1946 called Antalovtsi, in the Zakarpats’ka Oblast in western Ukraine. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The art is in the pity. Do not look for solutions in the remembrance of things past, there is none. In general, a man fighting wars has no solution. If my memoirs have any power, no day will ever dawn that erases the winter of 1944–1945 from the memory of time. War is the discovery of the boundaries of good and evil through personal experience. There is no other way.

Nothing is permanent but change. Nothing is constant but war and death. Every war inflicts a wound upon us, life would be nasty, brutish and short were it not for art and poetry. Art grants us what war denies us: a golden age that does not rust; a spring that does not fade, cloudless happiness and everlasting youth. Above the blind, battling armies, in honoured poverty, the voice of poets and artists weave songs, consecrated to truth and liberty. Not yet did I admire, though I admired to admire, seeking what I might admire, admire to admire: art and truth, liberty and love. I agree with Albert Camus, who famously said: “The responsibility of the writer is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” And that’s always been my self-definition, my informal motto.

My fair wind brought me here, the United States. O my America! My new-found land, my republic, to enter these bonds is to be free. When you set out for new worlds you must bid goodbye to old shores. O Time. Again the pain of 1944–45 when I was a child of joy, blessed with the fullness of my mother’s love, with light upon me from my father’s eyes. Delight, beauty and liberty, the simple and yet magic creed of childhood, with new born dreams of moving about the worlds not yet to be realised, dreams that wake, to perish never. And I was green and carefree, loved by parents and grandparents, in the happy home and joyful, in the sunrise that is young once only.

I lived and dreamed and played my heedless ways. At Stalingrad, August 1942– February 1943, the blood-dimmed tide of war is loosed, and everywhere, even in Antalócz, where Nature mingles grandeur with beauty in indescribable magnitude, the life of innocence is drowned. Where is fled the visionary gleam? Where is now, the glory and the dream? All fade into the dark light of war, that brings human suffering; that looks at life through death; that adds pain, violence and misery to the weary life of frail humanity.

O World, O Life, O Time. On those high steps I climb to see and remember. Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O Time, a deep and boundless manifoldness and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself. What am I then, what do I remember? A life brutal, base; and its violence exceeding immense. So great is the force of memory, so great is the force of life, even in the mortal life of man.

Going back, going home again. Antalócz and Kesztölc, 1943–1945, you see life as it really is, a constant process of bending hard iron. Historical consciousness, recollection has the richness, the power of paradox that future imagination cannot master let alone match. Going home again is regeneration, a healing process. The events of childhood are like the Hungarian alphabet, the letters can be double, gy or zs, the vowels accented, ó or ú, and the older self, living and writing in a different alphabet, has to make sense of them. Going home again in memory imposes narrative sequence of events, events that seemed inconsequential in the mind, but shaped and determined life and its course. You circle deep inside and meet and see parts of yourself that were more exposed then than now.

Let us return, you and I, when the flame of war is spread against the sky, let us go back to our childhood, to lead you and I to an overwhelming question. Oh, do not ask, “What it is?” Let us go and make our visit.

The world stage, 1944–1945:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewing and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwilling to school…

Unlike Shakespeare’s “whining school-boy” who was “creeping like snail to school”, I, with “shining morning face”, ran breathless to school. The hours of happiness are measured by the clock. But the love of school and learning, no clock can measure. What emerges from my school years, 1943–1944, in Antalócz, is the creative intimacy between teacher and pupil once the pupil has shown real promise. I cannot rest from learning. I will drink knowledge to the lees. All times I have enjoyed greatly, have studied greatly, both with those who taught me, and alone. My teacher in Antalócz, Jolán Almásy, lit the first candle to learning, to books, to ideas. She was a bringer of new things. She challenged us to sail beyond the sunset, for how dull is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use and excel.

One day after school, Almásy walked home with me because my mother asked her to come and serve as an interpreter. There was a rumour among the dominantly Ukrainian–Russian population that, after the Battle of Stalingrad, the tide had turned and that the Red Army was recovering the occupied territories. Unlike the Russian-speaking villagers, my mother, and the small minority of Hungarian-speaking families, had no reason for welcoming the Red Army as it advanced west out of the frozen wastes of the Volga–Don steppe.

Fearing the worst, she contacted a German officer who, for a considerable sum of money, promised to secure a freight car and transport our furniture and household items from Antalócz to Leányvár. But as the tide of war continued to turn, the German officer changed his mind. It was too risky to command transport in a war-bound zone.

The Russian villagers spoke openly about Hitler’s obsession with taking Stalingrad, to compensate for his failure to seize the oilfields of the Caucasus. He talked about it in a broadcast speech in Munich, “I wanted to reach the Volga”, he declared with unsubtle irony, “to be precise at a particular city. By chance it bore the name of Stalin himself”.1 Hitler’s boast turned into a death knell for the Wehrmacht. By 26 November 1943, over a quarter of a million men from Paulus’s Sixth Army, the largest formation of the Wehrmacht, had been surrounded between the Volga and the Don. After Stalin issued Order 227, “Not One Step Back”, there was undisguised elation in Antalócz. Russian soldiers do not retreat. Soldiers and officers may die like heroes, but the enemy – “the fascist jackals” – won’t succeed until they’ve stepped “over my corpse”. This was said to my father by twenty-year old Misha, a native Russian who had a venomous, inhuman anger toward the Germans.

Misha was a born Pied Piper of youth whose voice and golden laughter knows how to descend into the underworld of every soul, whose Dionysian will to life is fulfilled through rich contradictions of “shall” and “shall not”. He served as an assistant to my father, Commissioner of Woods and Forests. Misha was ready to fight and die like heroes for Stalin’s city, and, in youthful bravado, make the Soviet land the enemy’s grave.

Stories from the battlefield reached the village, that Stalin’s order, “Not One Step Back” included an instruction to each Red Army commander to organise three to five well-armed detachments to form a second line “to combat cowardice” by shooting down any soldier who tried to run away. “The prisoner was forced to undress before being shot so that his uniform could be issued to somebody else without too many discouraging bullet-holes.”2

We know that under Stalin’s order, cowardice, desertion, treason, and any other crimes or activities deemed anti-Soviet carried the death penalty. The soldier faced summary execution at the hands of the NKVD Special Departments, that were attached to Red Army formations in a counter-intelligence role, which in Stalinist terms meant looking for treason within, as much as espionage without. Not surprisingly, as the Red Army drove Hitler’s army west, my mother decided to leave. She filled two suitcases with clothes and food, and, taking me by the hand, literally ran to the railway station. The station was nearby, and we could hear the plaintive hooting of engines shunting at the distance.

The train was already crowded. The passengers arriving late stormed the train, climbing through windows and fighting their way to any place on the train. We managed to secure a place on the roof of the train. A frightened stream of humanity. Women with young children set in motion by fear of the advancing Red Army. The railway cars, clustered with swarming humanity fleeing en masse, looked like hell on wheels. For three days the wheels rattled underneath us like sticks on a mechanical toy drum, a drum I left behind in Antalócz.

The train had twenty cars. We were on the fourth car, close to the smokestack. We inhaled the smoke, and, our faces, exposed to the fiery ashes that the coal- powered locomotive belched, burned red. We, children of war years, riding on roof of trains, listened and memorised the thunder of steel wheels on steel rails, the monotone clatter of wagons carrying guns and steel tanks to the Front, to fight the Red Army of the Man of Steel, Stalin.

We, children of war years, we, first born of the twentieth century, fed on empty dreams of hope. I know it, I was a child. Up on the roof of the train for three days and night, my soul may have remained white, but I was black with soot, black as if bereaved of light. When crying from hunger and pain, my mother took me in her lap and kissed me, and, pointing to the blue sky and the rising sun, consoled me: “Look at the rising sun: there God does live and gives us his light and his hope.”

Yes, there was light and hope as the train clattered on. Yes, life is a voyage that is homeward bound. My childhood was cradled and tested in war, the crucible of adversity. Those who recommend and declare war and promise to build a new Heaven invariably create a Hell for others. War always creates the world in its own image, it cannot do otherwise. It is the glorification and affirmation of will to power, the proud patriotic glance that rules and looks down, the eye of Caesar, Hitler and Stalin, which seldom admires, seldom looks upwards, seldom loves.

I know what war is. I saw in the many long years, 1939–1945, that whatever is begotten, born and loved, lives or dies. I experienced the hardship of nations at war: many rich sank as in a dream among the poor, and of the poor many ceased to be, known by their graves in silent cemeteries. A dreaming, playing, happy child, that feels love and life in every limb, what should he know of death!

When the train stopped at Leányvár, my mother was exhausted, more dead than alive. There was no public transportation. We dragged our two battered suitcases through fields, uphill. Worn down by the three day voyage, she halted at the crest of hill, sank to the ground and wept. Thrilled to see her beloved Kesztölc, she bowed to the good green earth, raised her hands to the sky, and prayed at once.

My mother, her prayer book and her prayers were intimate friends. The prayer, using the language of the soul, knows well enough what it knows: the prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it. My mother was convinced that, not God, but you, the maker of the prayer, get to know something by your act of praying. Help thyself, pray: then everyone will help you too. How little is needed for happiness, she said. The voice of praying. Without praying life would be a mistake. She even thought of God as singing songs and praying. Her happiness arose from faith, hope, love and prayers.

As we entered my grandparents’ arched gate, a dog that lay there in the yard lifted up its muzzle, his ears raised, and alert. It was Bundi, my father’s dog he had raised since it was a puppy. The moment he saw us he thumbed his tail and whined his welcome. My mother glanced to the side and flicked away a tear. Happy in the blissful present, caring not what lay beyond, she sighed and, smiling through tears, whispered: “Home, home to my own land. Home at last.”

In the summer of 1944 cow bells were ringing in the hills of Kesztölc. In the fields, the poppies and cornflowers blew between the roadside crosses row upon row, that, in winter, marked the place of war. We lived in bliss, felt dawn, and saw the sunset glow. Now, in the winter, the hills echoed with German and Russian guns. We huddled in wine cellars as the sirens whined warnings of bombs. The general inclination of Hitler and Stalin, perpetual and restless desire of power after power and immortal fame that ceases only in death, turned the village into a battleground, from 25 December 1944 to 22 March 1945. For three months the midnight moon glistened on the guns and bayonets of soldiers.

Bitter winter it was. The owl in the pear tree in our yard, for all its feathers, soft hoots with a stuttering, shivering rhythm, hoo-h’hoo-hoo a-cold, a-cold. The geese and ducks limped through the frozen pond, and silent was the livestock in straw fold. Crows skimmed over hoar frosted fields in long low flight, and caw- cawed with mournful voices. Icy wind stirred the poplars, tearing away the last dead leaves; they fell slowly, like trickling tears of widows. The leafless orchard, wrapped in ice and snow, waiting for what was to come.

What was to come arrived. In mid-November 1944, the Germans came and occupied the village. Budapest, controlled by a brain-mad anti-Jewish Arrow Cross “government”, was encircled by the Soviet army from west and north. By 24 December 1944 the encirclement was complete.

 
The Soviet troops had reached the eastern edge of Pest and were closing in on Buda from the west… The break-out [of the Germans] was one of the most horrific events not only of the battle for Budapest but of the Second World War as a whole. The annihilation of 75 per cent of the first waves of US troops landing on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy is well known. The slaughter of the garrison trying to escape from the ruins of central Buda was even bloodier. In less than six hours several thousand men were killed over a three-kilometre section of the front line. Of some 28,000 less than 3 per cent got through; 45 per cent died, and the rest, many of them badly wounded, were captured.3

The Germans that broke through chose the escape route leading to the Pilis Hills. Trying to reach Esztergom through the hills, the Germans from Budapest, a mechanised column, were ambushed on the narrow, serpentine road connecting Dobogókő and Pilisszentlélek. The Russians opened fire from the hilltop with heavy mortars, infantry weapons and machine guns. The Russians outnumbered the Germans between fifteen and twenty to one in most categories.

The escape route became a route of death. The annihilation was apocalyptic, with piles of bodies, human remains shredded by grenades and bullets, the road and stones covered with blood and pieces of flesh. Four days after the carnage, I and three of my friends, in search of adventure, scoured the Pilis Hills all the way to Dobogókő. Under the bushes close to the resort hotel we found discarded German uniforms, papers, cartridges, daggers, some Wehrpasses, the military ID documents that the German soldier carried, with his photo, and personal details for identification purposes. We also found pages torn from a diary. The owner of the diary must have been an educated, well-read person. He quoted Hegel and Nietzsche, Goethe, Heinrich Heine and Stefan George.

And yet the diary had this entry: “Today we exterminated two Jewish vermin. They were hiding in a shed, and afterwards we drank Tokay and laughed about how we had outsmarted the Jews.” A German soldier, fearing capture by the Russians, left behind his wallet. We found it under a hazelnut bush. It contained a picture of his wife, and, on the back of it in Gothic script: Steffi, vergiss mich nicht [Steffi, forget me not].

Here the killer and lover become one. How painful to see the lover as killer, love and hate split the soul and form a personality. War changes the lover. The change happens but there is no time to assess it in the diary! The Russians are coming. The sword, not the pen, writes the script of Fate.

The future SS men went to school in Germany, the best in Europe, and read Goethe, Kant and Heine. They knew that Goethe’s dying words had been: “More Light!” But in Nazi Germany what stands out is that which I call pathos of distance from Goethe’s ideals. Germans did build death factories where Jews had to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Men of classical-liberal education turned into killers in uniform. The brakes of civilisation proved too weak and failed the first test.

Perhaps we should let Nietzsche address the question of what the Germans lack.

You will see I want to be just to the Germans: I would not like to be untrue to myself in this – so I must also tell you what I object to. Coming to power is a costly business: power makes stupid… The Germans – once they were called the nation of thinkers: do they still think at all? Nowadays the Germans are bored with intellect, the Germans mistrust intellect, politics devours all seriousness from really intellectual things – Deutschland, Deutschland über alles was, I fear, the end of German philosophy… “Are there any German philosophers? Are there any German poets? Are there any good German books?” – people ask me abroad… I blush; but with the courage which is mine even in desperate cases I answer: “Yes, Bismarck!”4

For Nietzsche, “War is the father of all good things; war is also the father of good prose.”5He recognised only four writers who attained mastery in prose in the nineteenth century. “I regard only Giacomo Leopardi, Prosper Mérimée, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walter Savage Landor, the author of Imaginary Conversation as worthy of being called masters of prose.” There must be something deliberate in the choice of one Italian, one Frenchman, one American, one Englishman – and no German!

Actually, it would have strengthened Nietzsche’s case if he had included Heine. But he made up for that omission in Ecce Homo: “One day it will be said that Heine and I have been by far the foremost artists of the German language – at an incalculable distance from everything mere Germans have done with it.” Heine and Nietzsche had always been citizens of the world, receptive to the genius of other languages and cultures. Their language is that of a classical humanist – natural, strong, lyrical – and always open to the voice of reason, scepticism and tolerance. Compare it with the sub-human jargon of Nazism. And behind the jargon sounded the great dark chords of Wagnerian ecstasy, Hitler so admired. Being jargon and therefore dead, Hitler’s language turns to lies. Even German music, Nietzsche said, is the music of Europe. “If you want to imagine the human being that goes with this music, merely imagine Beethoven as he appears beside Goethe…”.6

How ironic and tragic it is. Goethe and Heine said the Germans and Jews are alike in the nature of their intellectual potential, refusing to restrict themselves to pragmatic and utilitarian goals, but sharing the Faustian ambition to find the secrets of the universe and to solve the riddle of man’s relationship to God. Goethe visited the Jewish ghetto in Berlin and took pride in learning Hebrew. For Heine, the Jews are the People of the Book, and the Germans das Volk der Dichter und Denker; poet and thinker, form an alliterative pair. The thinker is interested in the truth of thought, but the poet merely in its fitting expression. In other words, the thinker invites us to believe what he says, whereas the poet aims only atmoving and pleasing, as he puts it.

War is the death of spirit and art its salvation. Where does truth reside? Is it in the deadly real world of corpses and carnage or in the redemptive vision of the artist? The question hinges on the all but imperceptible borderline between Hitler’s delusion and lunacy on the one hand, and Goethe’s and Heine’s poetic inspiration and Tolstoy’s prophetic prose on the other. I confess not to be seized with holy terror in the face of that choice: War, Truth, Reality and Being. The essential function of art is to make us think and feel existence to that conclusion which convinces us of its ideals, to create perfection and fullness of life, to affirm, to bless, to dignify and ennoble existence. The dimension of profundity is entered through art, whose language, subtler than the language of war, can admit us to mystery, but with its real commitment suspended and undefined. Unlike war, art aspires to a certain kind of eternity, to be able to speak to future ages.

Art is inclusive, not exclusive. Art is truth, truth art. If so, what caused the dissolution of the relationship? Why have not those resemblances led to integration rather than to the destruction of the Jews by their fellow citizens? The books of the poet Heine, who brought fame to Germany, who enriched its lyrical poetry, were burned in Hitler’s Germany. The racists could not forgive the author of Wintermarchen for being a Jew. Heine’s prophecy proved right, “When I die they will cut my tongue out of my dead body.”

Why was Heine’s wish not fulfilled, that Germans and Jews, the two ethical nations, as he called them, would create a new Jerusalem in Germany, the home of philosophy, the mother soil of prophecy and the citadel of pure spirituality? Here is one answer why the much discussed German–Jewish symbiosis, which Goethe and Heine dreamed of, never became a reality. Heine, born in a ghetto, accepted baptism as the entrée card into European culture. Europe’s great Jewish writer, Heine, fluent and brilliant in the European idiom of language and thought, is homeless in Germany. As a Jew, Heine has his anchorage not in Fatherland but in time, in thought, in his tragic sense of history. Six thousand years of agonised inwardness and self-awareness are a homeland. When Ilya Ehrenburg, the most widely read and most influential journalist in the Soviet Union, found that his references to Jewish suffering were being censored, he complained to the chief of the Red Army’s Political Department. The chief retorted: “The soldiers want to hear about Suvorov, but you quote Heine.”

Heine was a German poet. Yet, although he was the greatest lyrical poet after Goethe and an acknowledged master of prose style, he never received, in Germany, in his own lifetime or later, the recognition that is usually given to great masters. Consider, the two un-German Germans, Heine and Nietzsche, admired France. The masters of German prose and poetry, like Goethe, Heine and Nietzsche, were citizens of Europe. Hitler had no love for France, nor for universities, scholarship or professors. The Jew-baiting Gauleiter of Franconia, Julius Streicher, once asked a group of university teachers, “If someone put the brains of all the professors in one pan of a scale and the brain of the Fuhrer in the other, which pan do you think would sink?”7

Ah, we Germans, we Aryans, rhapsodised Hitler, we understand Destiny and Greatness. He gave a perfect definition of Wagnis, the daring experiment or the Will to Power. “Just as the Almighty needs the earth to make him omnipotent, so, for my Reich, I need the space of Russia to make a Conqueror.” Here it is necessary to touch on memory. I bear witness, I saw the new human species, the Conqueror, wearing the SS uniform. One morning in December 1944, going to school, I stopped and stared, transfixed by the sight. A German SS soldier in black uniform stood at the corner of Heroes’ Square in Kesztölc.

He was the most powerful, visual embodiment of the Master Race. His body, slung all over with ribbons of cartridges, was the terrifying symbol of the iron-clad Nazi in the iron-clad Reich. I stood there, mesmerised by this Superman, this creature of immanence, who, inflicting upon us the Absolute in a world without Truth, moved with perfect grace and ease in the world of annihilation and death. The SS soldier, a black demi-God, was a giant with a statuesque figure. He could have served as model for Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece, David. We have only to look at the marble statue, carved for the revived Florentine Republic, to know that Michelangelo shows David not as a conqueror, but as a thinking, resolute being – the precondition for victory. Wearing no armour, with a sling as his only weapon, David symbolises the ideals of the Republic – freedom and independence. His eyes look outward from the soul’s domain with fierce clarity; the splendid physique of Michelangelo’s ideal man takes second place to the noble expression in that man’s eyes.

But this Nazi “David” from Hitler’s Reich, in SS uniform, fixed his steely blue eyes on the hilltops in Kesztölc where the Russians were expected. He scanned the horizon, ignoring the little Untermensch gazing at him. In his loveless, martial, inquisitorial world there was no place for me. I was invisible. In the Hitlerite recomposition of the Aryan past, in the apocalyptic imperative of a savage new beginning in German destiny, I was an Untermensch. The Nazi “David” could and did imagine a world without what his leader in Berlin called the “eternal mushrooms of humanity”, which included me, the smallest mushroom.

The Untermensch – dwarfs, centaurs, satyrs, Jews, demons and devils – should be overcome or eliminated by the hyperanthropes. The Superman acts, thinks not, and therefore I am not. My death, the death of others provide an overwhelming proof that he is superior, alive. Was I not part of humanity, born in humanity, sustained by love and brought forth by humanity? Have we no deep spiritual connection with history and civilisation and culture that Goethe and Tolstoy, Petőfi and Ady so lovingly described, that Shakespeare and Keats captured in lyric of beauty and grandeur? For the Superman in the Heroes’ Square, in the vast expanse of many-hued humanity, I was just inferior flotsam and jetsam.

What we owe future generations is our humanity, not our annihilation. Some of life’s most important choices are determined not in war or in Hitler’s bunker or Stalin’s dacha but emanate from a fundamental ethical source within human beings. For millennia, and, in written history, from Socrates and Jesus to Emerson and Tolstoy, we have striven to make the world better, to advance the lot of humanity, thinking not just of our own well-being but that of those who follow. Advances in science, education, philosophy and, yes, even in political organisation have been initiated with future beneficiaries in mind. It is I submit in our very nature to do so.

Intimately, I belong to the sovereign world of gods and myths, to the world of compassion and incalculable generosity, just as my love belongs to my desires. In our strange religious and metaphysical myths, in our cruel rites of war, we are from the beginning in search of lost intimacy. We have a task of gratitude to our forefathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general. Men live in diversely diverse worlds, in diverse capacities. The very existence of our being, our actions and our thinking is and must be diversified.

How did Hitler acquire this monstrous, untamed infinity of destruction? Of nullity and of nihilism? I know of no more chilling paean to a superior race, inhuman and menacing in its “otherness” than Hitler’s language, the bearer of death, that master from Germany. Language creates, it is our final dignitas, man alone can contract and parse the grammar of hope – what I take to be foremost. Without it we would be no better than Hitler or Stalin. In Hitler’s language, as in particle physics, there is matter and anti-matter. There is construction and annihilation.

Stalin’s glorification of the proletariat, Hitler’s vision of the Aryan race, blue-eyed masters of the universe, a hellish world it would be. The logic of such a world would lead to a world in which books would be burned, Jews incinerated, deviants perish in gulags, a Cicero would have his tongue cut out, Copernicus would have his eyes gouged out, Galileo on his knees begging forgiveness for his science, a Shakespeare would be stoned – a world which would smother every human inspiration in infancy, and reduce everything to the common denominator: class or race.

Hitler’s sentences can cripple our humanity, bring death to hope. His unconstrained language can blueprint and legislate the death camps and chronicle the torture chambers. But language that articulates the ethics of Socrates, the parables of Jesus, the majesty of being in Shakespeare or Lincoln cannot blueprint and legislate the death camps. The virtuosity of Hitler with words, his innovations within the crucible of violently forged syntax, this is anti-matter, anti-life. He envisions and enacts mass extermination, sadistic humiliation that defies intelligible articulation, let alone the logic of understanding.

In fiction as in life, living human beings should not be thrust into an annihilating peril of metaphor – Final Solution. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulate futurity. Hope, not death, is the future tense. I can love silently, but only up to a point. Wordlessness comes with death. To die is to stop living in the word. The death of six million Jews opens the world to silence. This is Hitler’s greatest crime against humanity. Death cannot be lived, it stays silent outside of existence. The cremation ovens in Nazi death camps incinerated not only Jews but all possible literary-dramaturgical constructs of intellectual moves and counter-moves. Hamlet, Faust, War and Peace are intellectual presence of momentous stature. How many of these possible dramatis personae, which shape so much of western consciousness and questions that follow in their wake, have perished in the Nazi-built brick ovens?

A dictator denies free access to ideas. This conviction, set out with chilling severity by Hitler and Stalin, is known as thought control and censorship, whether inquisitorial, fascist or Stalinist. The unfettered poet energises, enlarges and exemplifies the rebellious flights of imagination. Stalin’s warped society of warped minds repudiates the open society of open minds. He seeks to silence, intimidate, discipline the sensuous, ungoverned creative demon within us, a potential in sharp contrast with the daimon of truth and justice in Socrates and Solzhenitsyn. Hitler and Stalin cannot renounce violence. If they do, they perish. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt and covert, is the basis of dictatorship. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future.

Have you ever asked why there is no place for tragedies in Hitler’s Reich or Stalin’s Russia? The answer is simple. Hitler and Stalin were authors of a tragedy, the greatest, bloodiest and best they knew how to make. In fact, the whole Reich and Soviet Russia were constructed as dramatisations of an ignoble and death-bound life. That is what Hitler and Stalin held to be in truth the most real of tragedies.

I too feared death by the Germans and Russians. Who knows whether the absent- minded gods will add more tomorrows to the sum of today? When you are young, you do not share Keats’ being “half in love with easeful death”. Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose. But young boys think it is, and I was young. The real fear was that the world and my mother would go on without me. The prospect of our death, which was all around us, confronts us with the inconsolable fact that we are not irreplaceable, that we are and will be nothing unless we do something that should make significant difference. My mother, deeply religious, prayed and had faith in the divine promise of life after death. I prayed not well, but loved well. I, having lost faith in the immortality the church promised, share Jean Starobinski’s view of how Montaigne responded to death.

Not by an act of faith in the divine promise, but by recourse to literature, to art, in order to fashion an image of his life to be bequeathed to posterity. To exist in the pages of a book is better than to perish into nothingness and oblivion. The Essays are to have the value of a monument.8

I survived the horrible months of war because my mother held me in her hands, like a warm piece of bread that you love, squeeze and knead and protect. Where did I find harbour in the rising tide of violence, engulfing men in madness? In my mother’s love and sacrifice. As a boy, I saw a land of sorrow and of tears where not many smiles were seen. I saw that war has a human face, and so does death. I saw that German and Russian soldiers were young when they died. I saw the eyes glaze once, and that is death. I saw that prayers win no wars nor end wars. I saw it: Hic Rhodus, hic salta. Here is war, here the dance of death must be danced. I saw young men who, caught in the web of war, were lost and felt they were like a leaf over which strange winds passed.

Where are the wonders of summer with apples, pears and berries? The forgotten morning when I walked with my mother through the parables of sunlight. Now in wintertime bullets trace the parables of light. I saw that in combat life is a perpetual staking of existence, man a mere “essay in existence” and praised because, in the words of Horace [Odes, 3.2.13]: “It is sweet to die for one’s country” [Dulce et decorum est…]. But saw no “Dulce”’ etched on the faces of dead Germans and Russians.

The great poet of war, Wilfred Owen wrote a poem titled Dulce Et Decorum Est:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

I saw that in war the eternal hour glass of existence is turned upside down time and again, and you with it, speck of humanity. No external appearance of the SS soldier in Heroes Square could conceal the cold contempt in his ice-blue eyes. Unlike Michelangelo’s David, the Nazi David gave no sign of universal goodness, tenderness, human benevolence toward all men, or delight in the good opinion and love of others. He stood there, in converse with his own superiority in remote solitude. He never looked at me, never showed any affection, which is natural to us, for the interest and goodness of others. This Nazi David fought his way back from Russia, commanded by Hitler, who wrote:

If land was desired in Europe, it could be attained at the expense of Russia, and this means that the new Reich must again set itself on the march along the road of the Teutonic Knights of old, to obtain by German sword, sod for the German plough and daily bread for nation.9


Hitler’s reckless attempt to obtain by sword sod for the German plough actually dug graves for millions of Germans who never returned from the frozen vastness of Russia. From this tragic perspective, the life and conquests of Hitler raise the possibility that his birth was an error in creation, because his thoughts were death anticipated. This is inextricably bound up with unchecked power, delusion and the madness of Titanism. “Let there be light!” said God, and “there was light”. “Let there be blood!” said Hitler, and there was a sea. He wrote history of blood on the path of conquest and his ideology taught that truth is borne out with blood. But blood is the worst witness of truth; blood poisons the purest teaching of morality creating delusion and hatred of the heart.

It is a painful, dreadful spectacle which opened up before me in 1944–1945. How in the last century could people in Europe en masse give themselves up to evil. How people could flock together, and let a hysteria get hold of them, and feel stimulated, inflamed by it. The demonic pleasure, where pleasure consists in losing oneself in order to be volatilised into a higher potency, where being outside oneself one hardly knows what one is doing or saying while the blood courses faster, the eyes are bright and starry, the salutes “Heil Hitler” and “Za Stalina” are loud, the passions and lust seething. The Nazi elite often taking revenge with their conquests for an inner defilement, often lost in savagery and almost in love with it, until they become exterminators and pretend to be saviours. May I be forgiven for remembering the demise of the glorified higher type of man. My uncle, János Hertlik, a POW in Russia, told me that a captured German officer needed a blood transfusion which would have saved his life. He shouted: “Nein, nein!” He did not want any subhuman Slav blood. He died the next day.


To be continued.

1 A Writer at War: Vassily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, edited and translated by Anthony Beever and Luba Winogradova (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005), p. 190.

2 A Writer at War, p. 141.

3 Krisztián Ungváry, The Siege of Budapest (Yale University Press, 2005), p. 201.

4 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin Books, 1990), p. 70.

5 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 145.

6 The Gay Science, p. 159.

7 Gordon A. Craig, The Germans (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982), p. 178.

8 Jean Starobinski, Montaigne in Motion, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 35.

9 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 140.

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