Saturday, November 2, 2013

Forced March … Miklós Radnóti

From the Introduction               George Gömöri &  Clive Wilmer       

“On the 9th of November Miklós Radnóti was executed by firing squad. He was thirty-five. He had been encamped in Serbia, attached to a forced labour battalion under German command, but as the axis armies began their retreat from the Eastern front, they drove the labourers westward across Hungary. Near the village of Abda in the north-west, those who were too weak to continue the march into Germany were shot by their guards and buried in a mass grave. When the bodies were exhumed the following year, a notebook full of poems – some written within days of his death – were found in Radnóti’s greatcoat”.


He was identified by this notebook of poetry, and they were published in 1946 under the title Foamy Sky, and secured his position as one of the giants of modern Hungarian poetry.




Garden of Istenhegy

Summer has fallen asleep, it drones, and a gray veil
  Is drawn across the bright face of the day;
  A shadow vaults a bush, so my dog growls
  His hackles bristling, then he runs away.

Shedding its petals one by one, a late flower stands
  Naked and half-alive. I hear the sound
  Of a withered apricot-bough crack overhead
  To sink of its own weight slowly to the ground.

Oh and the garden too prepares for sleep, its fruit
   Proffered to the heavy season of the dead
   It is getting dark. late too, a golden bee
   Is flying a death-circle around my head.

And as for you, young man, what mode of death awaits you?
  Will a shot hum like a beetle towards your heart,
  Or a loud bomb rend the earth so that your body
   Falls limb from limb, your young flesh torn apart?

In sleep the garden breathes. I question it in vain.
  Though still unanswered, I repeat it all.
  The noonday sun still flows in the ripe fruit
  Touched by the twilight chill of the dew fall. 

  20 July 1936                                                           

Miklós Radnóti, was born Miklós Glatter on the 5th May 1909 in Budapest into an assimilated Jewish family. At his birth he lost both his twin brother and his mother, this was obviously to have a major impact on his future self, along with the fact that a few years later his father died. He was adopted and raised from that point on by a wealthy uncle, this allowed him to receive an education and in 1934 he graduated from Szeged University with a distinction in Hungarian and French. He also had three books of poetry to his credit Pogány köszöntő (Pagan Greeting 1930 ), Újmódi pásztorok éneke (Modern shepherds' song 1931), and Lábadozó szél (Convalescent Wind 1933). This was a time of great insecurity, the nation was governed by Admiral Horthy, an ultra conservative who was distinctly inclined towards the far right of the political spectrum. Horthy guided Hungary through the years between  the world wars and in 1941 would take Hungary into an alliance with Nazi Germany, making this not the ideal climate for someone like Radnóti – a libertarian socialist and an idealistic man of letters.


Simple Song Of My Wife

As she comes in, cackles burst from the door,
The potted plants all stamp, shaking the floor,
A blond streak, small and drowsy, in her hair
Cheeps like a frightened sparrow in the straw.

Clumsily whirling towards her through the air
The ageing light-flex too lets out a squawk:
Everything spins - to jot it down, no chance.

She has come back. She has been gone all day.
She bears an enormous poppy in her hands
To drive death, my adversary away.

5 January 1940


In 1935 Miklós Radnóti married Fanni Gyarmati who would be that one candle flame sustaining him from all that would happen and whose constancy is the optimism that, despite what is happening or will happen, there is light in this world. By 1938 - 39 things took a turn for the worse as the Hungarian Government began to legislate against the Jews, and in 1941 they granted Germany permission to cross its territory & also declared war against the Soviet Union. In March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and the German ambassador nominated the government.

In the course of these events the fate that Miklós Radnóti had long foreseen was gradually fulfilled – from 1940 onwards he was conscripted to serve in various labour battalions. Shortly afterwards the Nazi’s took over Budapest and he was sent to the copper mines at Bor in Serbia. There he worked on the construction of a railway-line and from there in the autumn of 1944 when Bor was evacuated he and his fellow inmates started the forced march that was to culminate in his death. During this march Radnóti recorded poetic snapshots or postcards of what he saw and experienced, it was whilst he was doing this that he was badly beaten by a militia man annoyed by his scribbling. Battered, badly weakened and unable to walk he was shot to death on the 9th of November 1944, with twenty-one others.


The Second Eclogue


Last night we went far; in rage I laughed, I was so mad.
Their fighters were all droning like a bee-swarm overhead.
their defence was strong and friend, O how they fired and fired!
Till over the horizon our relief squad appeared.
I just missed being shot down and scraped together below,
But see, I am back! And tomorrow, this craven Europe shall know
Fear in their air-raid shelters, as they tremble hidden
But enough of that, let’s leave it. Have you written since


I have. the poet writes, as dogs howl or cats mew
or small fish coyly spawn. What else am I to do?
I write about everything – write even for you, up there,
So that flying you may know of my life and of how I fare
When between the rows of houses, blown up and tumbling
The bloodshot light of the moon reels drunkenly around,
when the city squares bulge, all of them stricken,
Breathing stops, and even the sky seems sicken,
And the planes keep coming on, then disappear, and then
All swoop, like jabbering madness down from the sky again!
I write; what else can I do? If you knew how dangerous
A poem can be, how frail, how capricious a single verse…
For that involves courage too – you see? Poets write,
Cats mew, dogs howl, small fish…. and so on; but you who
What do you know? Nothing. You listen, but all you hear
Is the plane you have just left droning on in your ear;
No use denying it, friend. It’s become part of you.
What do you think about as you fly above in the blue?


Laugh at me: I’m scared. And I long to lie in repose
On a bed beside my love, and for these eyes to close.
Or else, under my breathe, I would softly hum her a tune
In the wild and steamy chaos of the flying-men’s canteen.
Up there, I want to come down; down here, to be back in
In this world moulded for me, for me there is no place.
And I know full well, I have grown too fond of my
True; but, when hit, the rhythm both suffer at is the same….
But you know and will write about it! It won’t be a secret
that I,
Who now just destroy, homeless between the earth and the sky,
Lived as a man lives. Alas, who’d understand or believe it?
Will you write of me?


If I live, if there’s anyone left to read it.

27 April 1941



Like Hans Fallada in Germany, Miklós was too sensitive a writer not to be aware of the zeitgeist, not to have noticed the writing on the wall or the fact that his identity did not fit with the promoted image of the ideal citizen being stamped upon the country's identity. According to the Hungarian view, prevalent at that time, Radnóti was not Hungarian, but a Jew, and as such could be humiliated, and destroyed and yet he stayed, witnessed, and recorded  even up to the last moment he was writing down his experience, his thoughts and feelings. It is this and the quality of what he wrote that has made him recognised posthumously as one of the greatest Hungarian writers.

forced_march Forced March is made up of poems from Miklós Radnóti’s last three books: Keep Walking, You Death Condemned (1936), Steep Path (1938) and the final collection Foamy Sky (1946), providing an introduction to his mature work, to the poetry that came to define him as not just a great writer, but as a great man, or as his friend and fellow poet István Vas, said that “Radnóti’s poems are among the rare masterpieces that combine artistic and moral perfection….. not just an exciting body of work, not just truly great poems, but also an example of human and artistic integrity, that is as embarrassing and absurd as it is imperative”.


Forced March

A fool he is who, collapsed,       rises and walks again,
Ankles and knees moving          alone, like wandering pain,
Yet he, as if wings uplifted him,          sets out on his way,
And in vain the ditch calls him           back, who dares not stay.
And if asked why not, he might answer     - without leaving his path -
That his wife was awaiting him,         and a saner, more beautiful death.
Poor fool! He's out of his mind:          now, for a long time,
Only scorched winds have whirled       over the houses at home,
The wall has been laid low,                the plum tree is broken there,
The night of our native hearth             flutters, thick with fear.
Oh if only I could believe                   that everything of worth
Were not just in my heart -                 that I still had a home on earth;
If only I had! As before,                  jam made fresh from the plum
Would cool on the old verandah,        in peace the bee would hum
And an end-of-summer stillness        would bask in the drowsy garden,
Naked among the leaves                would sway the fruit-trees burden,
And Fanni would be waiting,             blonde, by the russet hedgerow,
As the slow morning painted            slow shadow over shadow -
Could it perhaps still be?               The moon tonight's so round!
Don't leave me friend, shout at me:                I'll get up off the ground!

15 September 1944

This book began as a series of literal translations by George Gömöri from Hungarian Clive Wilmer's task was to turn his prose into something that could be read as English verse. They then would work together to create a finished version as close to the Hungarian as possible, without losing the qualities as readable English verse. The translators state categorically that these are not imitations, or free variations, although they have regarded form and content as equals, where this proved unworkable, they allowed themselves minor liberties.

Miklós Radnóti (Wiki)

Penniless Press (M.R)

Enitharmon Press


  1. Of course the ultimate fate of Radnoti makes some of these works very poignant and almost too difficult to bear.

  2. touching piece Gary ,all the best stu

  3. Hi Brian, true especially the last one.

    Hi Stu, thanks.

  4. I apologise for my absence from the book-blogging world for the last three months or so - juggling priorities became a little too problematic for a while.

    I very much enjoyed this article Gary - someone I'd never heard of - and probably would never have heard of if I hadn't see your fascinating account of his life.

    What brave people were in the world during the last century, and how would we fare under similar circumstances. At least reading the experience of people like Radnoti could prepare us for the worst and show us how we should behave

  5. I was impressed by his amazing way with words. Thanks for bringing another thoughtful poet to our attention.

  6. Hi Tom, I understand totally having similar problems myself, new job, a diploma & family life all push blogging further down the list.
    Thanks for your comment.

    Hi James, what is really impressive is that he wrote some of them, by jotting down notes whilst being forced to march.


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