by Bela Zsolt
Jonathan Cape, 17.99
Between the two catastrophic 20th century wars in Europe, Bela Zsolt was a celebrated liberal Hungarian novelist, playwright, journalist and editor.
He was also a Jew. Two-thirds of Hungary’s 750,000 Jews were massacred between 1939 and 1945. Zsolt and his wife escaped death by the narrowest of margins, riding a hellish roller-coaster between forced labour, detention, urban imprisonment and rural extermination camp before their eventual liberation.
Nine Suitcases is his novelised account of a short part of that infernal journey. It was serialised in a Budapest magazine in 1946 and 1947. Zsolt’s wife Agnes committed suicide in 1948, and a year later Zsolt himself died in a sanatorium at the age of 54. Nine Suitcases was not published in book form in Hungary until 1980, and this is its first English-language edition.
If the continental Nazi Terror did not, as was once suggested, render artistic interpretation redundant, we must thank the artists who survived. Criticism of the work of people such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel may be ventured only with respect and humility, but it would be a final denial of the writers’ own humanity to refuse their literature the same examination as any other.
Following such examination we rightly conclude that Levi and Wiesel were and are men whose genius would have redeemed almost any other horror. In the face of the fact that what happened in occupied Europe cannot expect redemption, they devoted themselves to making language comprehend what had formerly been inconceivable, to finding words for the inexpressible. We are now, fortunately, able to place Bela Zsolt on the platform beside those guiding lights, where unknown to us poor Anglophones he has belonged for 60 years.
Nine Suitcases is a brilliant and beautiful book. It was written, at most, two years after the episodes in 1944 which it relates. Zsolt’s tremendous journalistic powers were deployed to recall the detail; his virtuosity as a novelist provides the irresistible narrative flow.
It takes place mainly in the provincial synagogue where Bela and Agnes Zsolt, along with several hundred other Jews, were brutally detained while the German overlords and their indigenous accomplices from the Hungarian gendarmerie and fascist Arrow Cross prepare the rail wagons for transport to a place called Auschwitz. From here, as in a delirium, Zsolt looks back to his months spent digging mass graves in Ukraine, to his lost last days of freedom in Paris, to the central Europe which he had known, loved, criticised and enriched, but which fascism had destroyed.
Bela Zsolt shares more with Primo Levi than their compulsive readability. His work reminds us of what was destroyed by that tyranny. The urbane sophistication of Bohemian caf life, the mordant humour, proud scholarship and challenging insight of the European intellectual owed its soul to Jewry. Zsolt and Levi survived to rebuke us with their hint of what magnificence was buried when that civilisation collapsed.
The shock of the collapse was immense. Hungary had been bad enough in the early years of the war, but when Hitler lost patience with its proxy government in March 1944 and the Wehrmacht marched in to complete the Final Solution, it became literally unimaginable. Zsolt’s fellow Jews, he perceives, "failed to realise to the very end that they were no longer living in a state whose laws had to be obeyed ... even when the filth was rising mouth-high and they were inhaling the stench of the decomposing bodies of their own parents, their own brothers and sisters, and their own children. They were unable to realise that this state had become a rabid dog . . ."
The unreality that enveloped Europe echoes through these pages. Their inability to grasp the dissolution of every standard, every moral precept upon which western civilisation had previously stood, caused persecuted Jews to behave in an otherwise inexplicable manner.
In a book full of haunting vignettes, none is more poignant than the tale of the reluctant escapees. A gravedigging unit is taken to within five kilometres of the Romanian border and freedom. Their Hungarian armed escort, informed partly by sympathy and partly by the proximity of the liberating Red Army, advises them to flee. Only one of them can raise the will to do so.
While the others are making the return journey to their familiar ghetto, silently cursing their own timidity, the escapee reappears. Panting and dishevelled, he had reached the border unmolested before panic set in and he turned back to rejoin, with guilty gratitude, his countrymen, his friends, his family, his fate aboard the wagons bound for Auschwitz.
They boarded those wagons - whose destination was, by 1944, well known to them - in a condition of chronic disassociation. The enormity was too much for a single brain to compass. "People are not only unable to believe that what is happening is happening to them, but are even unable to believe in their own identity … Dimly, they just observe these strangers disguised as themselves going through impossible experiences … How can it be that now, in a place at the edge of town where his wife and child have probably never been before, they are trudging towards the wagons with their bundles on their backs? "Thus it was that those who dug their own graves under the gaze of the gendarme and the Luger, dug on without much protest - because this must end as all nightmares do, perhaps between one shovelful and the next.
Nobody has described those scenes more vividly than Bela Zsolt. He captures even the sound of the death carriages in their sidings - "The engine gave the 30 wagons a shove and under the unoiled wartime wheels the worn-out rusty rails resounded like vibrating strings. This sound effect was as characteristic of the whole event as the shrieks of vultures are of a battlefield or the howl of jackals are of the desert."
We need such writing. The obscene bankruptcy of Holocaust denial is best exposed by witnesses. Far from too much having been made of the details of the Nazi Terror, there is still too much that we do not know - too much that we will never know. Six million biographies remain to be told. Bela Zsolt’s transcendent story is a rare blessing.