Page 50 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
teenth century liberalism and a personal trium ph for Hungarian
ju r is t Karoly Eotvos, the defense attorney in the case. Some
commentators have gone as far as to maintain tha t the atmo­
sphere in which the Tiszaeszlar trial was held was ultimately
more liberal than tha t o f the Dreyfus case in France two decades
later.
One could argue that it was this liberal tradition, the very
high degree o f Hungarian Jewish acculturation and integration,
tha t explains, partially at least, the very unique Hungarian lit­
erary response to subsequent tragedies, above all to the catas­
trophe o f 1944. What distinguishes Hungarian literary trea t­
ments o f the Holocaust from o the r examples o f the literature
o f atrocity is that in the Hungarian works the major theme is
invariably the protagonist’s crisis o f identity, the anguish o f re ­
jection. For example, the fourteen-year-old hero o f Im re
Kertesz’s largely autobiographical novel
Sorstalansag
(Without
Destiny, 1975) recounts his concentration camp experiences
with a curious, almost somnambulant detachment. T h e boy’s
passivity and d isturbing equanimity begins to make sense when
we realize tha t he is as incapable o f identifying with fellow Jews
as he is o f comprehend ing his sudden expulsion from the H un ­
garian nation.
Sorstalansag
is perhaps the most compelling Hungarian novel
about the Holocaust. Last year Kertesz followed it up with an ­
o the r gripp ing work o f fiction,
Kaddis a meg nem sziiletett
gyermekert
(Kaddish for an Unborn Child, 1990) This novel is
one long, anguished monologue by a Hungarian Holocaust su r­
vivor, a writer who tries to explain to a friend why he could
never bring himself to fa the r a child. The woman he m arried
left him, for although she, too, was Jewish with identity p rob ­
lems o f he r own, she did very much want the child he would
never give her. T h e na rra to r is clearly a lifelong victim o f the
moral disaster o f Auschwitz, though there is no thing hysterical
or maudlin about his despair — if anything, it is dignified and
serene. Kertesz frequently alludes to Paul Celan’s famous poem
“Todesfuge” (Death Fugue), and
Kaddis
is in some sense a prose
version o f tha t poem .10
10. For more on the literary treatment o f the Holocaust, see my essay, “The
Holocaust in Contemporary Hungarian Literature.” In Randolph L.
Braham, Bela Vago, eds.,
The Holocaust in Hungary: Forty Years Later.
New
York: Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 191-202. For a more general