“[W]HY THE BACK BROKE”
One Woman in the War: Hungary 1944–1945, by Alaine Polcz, translated by Albert Tezla1
Two years ago Fiona Duff Kahn, an editor unknown to me, wrote from New York, inviting me to write brief personal essays for a pocket reader on books forgotten or neglected. The commitment came at the right moment, and writing the short pieces for a sympathetic editor was a truly inspiring challenge. When he handsome volume – Books: The Essential Insider’s Guide – arrived by mail, I read with curiosity, almost hunger, what the other authors – mostly American and British writers – had to say on books they loved, books that came often from languages and cultures they did not know. They responded in a personal way to the unknown. Serious or facile, pedantic or light, generous or elegantly jaded – the essays were all authentic. Therefore, acknowledging my indebtedness to Fiona and the General Editors, Robert Kahn and Mark Strand, I decided that Hungarian Review should run a series of such brief essays on neglected books coming from Central and East Europe – also reprinting with them a passage from the book, whether prose or poetry, that their critic selects.
Near the middle of Alaine Polcz’s memoir One Woman in the War, she asks – then repeats – a question that in English has had an originating power. The question is commonplace, just as a phrase like In the beginning is commonplace. “Was it for this…?” Polcz asks, and again: “was it for this…?” In English this question, although commonplace, can be as powerful as the sound of a stream – of murmuring water – because it is at the beginning of modern poetry in English. It is the first phrase that Wordsworth wrote as he began The Prelude in 1798, as he initiated a poetry of unwilled memory in which the past (it was) is transformed into the here and now of a poem (this): “was it for this,” Wordsworth wrote, beginning in mid-sentence,
That one, the fairest of all rivers, loved
To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song,
And from his alder shades and rocky falls,
And from his ford and shallows, sent a voice
That flowerd along my dreams. For this…
Of course Polcz herself did not actually ask this question; the question in English is only a translator’s equivalent for Polcz’s Hungarian. Only in English can the connection with modern poetry in English occur, and perhaps, only for a reader like me who has spent much of his life re-reading and teaching Wordsworth’s poetry. But while unintended, perhaps the echo of Wordsworthian poetry in the English translation of Polcz’s autobiography is not meaningless. Walter Benjamin says that like an unwilled memory a translation is a “survival,” an “afterlife,” of the original; in this “afterlife,” the original brings alive possibilities in another language which could not have been imagined until the translation occurred. For me, as translated, Polcz’s autobiography has become Worsworthian, another work of unwilled memory, and in English, in this context, it has force specific to its devastation in English and in addition to its devastations in Hungarian. Was it for this?
What happens to poetry in a “universe of death” (Coleridge’s phrase)? In At the Mind’s Limits, Jean Amery recalls an evening as he marched back to Auschwitz when he saw a flag in the wind near the gates of the lager and thought of a poem by Hölderlin:
[W]e were dragging ourselves, out of step, from the IG-Farben site back into the camp to the accompaniment of the Kapo’s unnerving ‘left, two, three, four,’ when-for God-knows-what reason a flag waving in front of a half-finished building caught my eye. ‘The walls stand speechless and cold, the flags clank in the wind,’ I muttered to myself in mechanical association. Then I repeated the stanza somewhat louder, listened to the words sound, tried to track the rhythm, and expected that the emotional and mental response that for years this Hölderlin poem has awakened in me to emerge. But nothing happened. The poem no longer transcended reality… [A]esthetic associations and recollections… brought no consolation, at times they appeared as pain or derision; most frequently they trickled away in a feeling of complete indifference.
The poem and the place were incommensurate, and in that place at that time the poem turned out to mean nothing, Amery found. And yet years later, not long before his suicide, as he composed At the Mind’s Limits, the meaningless of the Hölderlin poem became a recurring memory of what for Amery was the meaning of Auschwitz, in which the meaning of Auschwitz was the meaninglessness of a poem he had once cherished. Wordsworth called such memories, “spots of time,” and thought that they evidenced a power in human thought, but for Amery what was evidenced was a helplessness that “trickled away into a feeling of complete indifference”. Reading Polcz in translation and finding Wordsworth, I also thought of Amery, of Hölderlin’s flag at Auschwitz, and of a power in unwilled memories that leaves one feeling helpless and meaningless. For me, One Woman in the War became entangled in this constellation of my own cultural associations.
“Was it for this that the Russians evacuated us?” Polcz asks. “Was it for this that those who fell out of line had to die?” (82). To what will “this” refer. At first it refers to the night when Polcz,
her husband, mother-in-law and others crawled past a Russian sentry into Csákvár. A spot of time? And then. The memories accumulate, and in retrospect the earlier narrative begins to seem more and more a prelude for what immediately follows and devastates memory. One night Russian soldiers come and take the men away. And then, this, in many ways forever out of context: “I listened to what people around me were saying: which woman’s back broke, which one lost consciousness… Suddenly it became clear to me that… we knew next to nothing” (85). And a page later, almost as if it were incidental: “Then he smiled and called me into the room. I went with him; I knew what he had in mind. …When he was done…” (86- 87). Polcz is trying to protect her husband. And a page or two later: “No one emitted a sound… I lost consciousness… I regained consciousness… One of the Russians was on top of me. I heard a woman’s voice ricocheting from the ceiling, ‘Mommy, Mommy!’ it shouted. Then I realized it was my voice, that I was shouting… This had nothing to do with embraces or sex. It had nothing to do with anything. It was simply – I just now realize, as I am writing, that the word is accurate: aggression. That is what it was” (88-89). And again, a page later: “Eight to ten Russians… first one lies on me, then another… They specified the time allotted to each of them. They looked at a wristwatch… they kept track of time… One asked, ‘Dobre robota? [You don’t mind the work]’… Toward dawn I understood why the back broke. They did the following: they pushed the legs toward the shoulders and threw themselves between them on their knees. If one of them did this too hard, the woman’s spine would snap, not because they wanted it to, but because of the unrestrained force. They shoved the woman into a curl on a point on her spine backward and forward, and they didn’t even notice if it broke” (90). And a few pages later… In this accumulation which I can only excerpt in fragments, three moments have now become inescapable for me – I have even begun to dream them – the “woman’s voice ricocheting from the ceiling… my voice,” “they looked at a wristwatch,” and “toward dawn I understood why the back broke.” Like many Americans, until recently I had been much more aware of events in other parts of Eastern Europe (its killing fields) than in Hungary during the Second World War. And now, for example, I can’t think of the painted clock at Treblinka, a clock without hands on which time stood still, without also thinking of this wristwatch from Polcz’s memoir.2
Freud’s most useful insight may have been the recognition that in practice what I say about a dream can be interpreted as more dream. This hermeneutic principle has the uncanny corollary that it not only holds for what the dreamer says about the dream but that it holds for what others say as well. The dream grows with every reiteration. A dream that speaks to us, also speaks from us. Perhaps books that find us most deeply are dreamlike in this sense. The hermeneutic principle is Talmudic. Just as every reading of Torah adds to Oral Torah, there are books like dreams that have this dialogic power. For me Alaine Polcz’s autobiography has this power: to speak from me as it speaks to me.
Given Polcz’s memories – her spots of time – I am not sure that there is any conclusion I can draw in response. Neither perhaps can Polcz, either at the time or later. Once when she was given the chance to identify a young soldier who raped her, she refused. The soldier would have been shot:
I saw fear in the eyes of one of the soldiers. He had blue eyes and was quite a young boy. From this fear I knew he was the one. But what flashed in his eyes was so keen, so dreadful that I immediately felt: it is out of the question! There was no sense in having them kill this boy” (104).
Amery found that Auschwitz made Hölderlin meaningless, but One Woman in the War overwhelms with its meaningfulness, its terrible overdeterminations that leave me not knowing what to think. Some pages later, Polcz recounts a dream:
I am fleeing, the Russians are running after me. My legs seem made of lead, I have difficulty running, but I have to keep accelerating because they will catch up with me. A leafy, large tree. I clamber up, I fall back. They are already in my tracks; I can see their faces, their glances. Somehow I climb back up the tree. I keep climbing, I do fall back, but they are also up on the tree behind me. I crawl out on a branch ever higher, rather ever closer to its tip. I fall and hit the ground. I race along. I reach a wall. I climb up the wall. I climb up the wall between slot of the bricks to reach its top. My nails tear as the Russians tear me back. I am running again, into my house. I flee back and forth inside the house. I go across attics, cellars. Through doors, windows. They catch up with me. I run into a lavatory, I lock the door behind me. I know they will break in, but I have a second or two until then. I stand on top of the toilet. I reach into the tank, I know it contains a weight. I want to take it and hit my head with it and shatter my skull. But by then they break the door in. The weight is in my hand. A Russian comes toward me, I want to hit him on the head. At that moment I wake up, sweating; I feel my heart throbbing in the corners of my eyes, I am suffocating, gasping for breath. (117)
The dream of a woman, in later life a distinguished psychologist who treated disturbed and incurably ill children, who in 1944–1945 when she was 19-20, lived the events repeated in her dream, events through which so many others also lived – have lived and will live, and not only in 1944–45 Hungary and not only in fear of Russian soldiers (for Hungarian women and Russian soldiers we could substitute so many others), so that the terror in the dream is more than universal, more norm than exception for what Benjamin in 1940 called “the tradition of the oppressed.”3 So many dreams leave us gasping for breath, leave us grasping without knowing “why the back broke.” “I am still wandering about in houses and fleeing,” Polcz wrote in 1991. “[T]he Russians are still opening doors on me and crawling through windows.” And:
I am now realizing, as I write this, that I shall always be apprehensive when a door stands ajar – who will come through it and pounce on me and take me away or… hit me? But I do not like tightly locked doors either. What an illusion they are (I learned from the Russians, how to open any door with a crowbar), I cannot escape quickly enough if the door is locked. (page 117)
Perhaps no one can ever escape quickly enough if the door is locked.
In reading and re-reading Polcz’s dream, I have also thought of another dream, also a woman’s (identity and fate unknown), recorded in a journal in the early 1950s and as she experienced Soviet terror: “Stalin here, Stalin there, Stalin, Stalin everywhere. You can’t go out to the kitchen, or sit on the toilet, or eat without Stalin following you. He creeps into your guts and your very soul, creeps into your brain, stops up all the holes, treads on a person’s heels, rings you up in your innermost self, gets into bed with you under the blanket, haunts your memories and your dreams.” Who today takes Stalin’s place in this dream?
1 Budapest and New York: Central European University Press (2002).
2 Richard Glazar, who survived Treblinka, recalls that in April 1943 “Stangl [the commandant] ordered the camp ‘street’ to be built, new fences to be put up, the forest cleared, a zoo installed, the famous railway station made to look totally genuine; with a false clock, everything painted in beautiful, garishly bright colors; the ‘petrol station,’ again with flowers around it; wooden benches dotting the landscape like a luxury spa – it was not to be believed.” Years later Stangl recalled that while “it is difficult to describe it adequately now, …it became really beautiful.”
3 Not long before his suicide in 1940, Benjamin wrote: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight… The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”