Zsolt, Bela Nine Suitcases

ISBN 13: 9780712606899

Nine Suitcases

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9780712606899: Nine Suitcases
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One of the first – and greatest – memoirs of the Holocaust ever written.

First appearing in May 1946 at a time when there was, of course, no “Holocaust literature,” Nine Suitcases appeared in weekly installments in Haladás. Concentrating on his experiences in the ghetto of Nagyvárad and as a forced labourer in the Ukraine, Zsolt provides not only a rare insight into Hungarian fascism, but a shocking exposure of the cruelty, selfishness, cowardice and betrayal of which human beings – the victims no less than the perpetrators – are capable of in extreme circumstances.

Apart from being one of the earliest writers on the Holocaust, Zsolt is also one of the most powerful: he bears comparison with Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel or Imre Kertész. Nine Suitcases is a horror story but, sadly, a true one. Zsolt was both a journalist and an accomplished novelist. He reports and analyzes the appalling events almost immediately after they occurred, with a devastating blend of despair and cool detachment. Yet for all the imaginative qualities of the writing, the crucial facts are authentic.

Set in a very dark period of modern European history, interspersed with moments of grotesque farce, grim irony and occasional memories of human kindness, Zsolt’s nightmarish but meticulously realistic chronicle of smaller and larger crimes against humanity is as riveting as it is horrifying.

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About the Author:

Béla Zsolt was born in northern Hungary in 1895. He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, until he was gravely injured in 1918. In 1920 he moved to Budapest and, for the next two decades, produced ten novels and four plays, as well as political and literary journalism. In 1945, after the experiences he describes in this book, Zsolt returned to Hungary and, in 1947, was elected to Parliament. In 1948, his health failing, he was admitted to a sanatorium in Budapest, where he died in 1949. Zsolt’s wife, Ágnes, committed suicide in 1948 after publishing the diary of her thirteen-year-old daughter, who was killed at Auschwitz.

Translated from the Hungarian by Ladislaus Löb
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

So, here I am, lying on my mattress in the middle of the synagogue at the foot of the Ark of the Covenant. The light that consultant Németi inked hospital-blue the day before yesterday flickers. Outside, foreign aircraft are flying over the town, but this doesn’t bother us. The star, our stigma, excludes us not only from life’s amenities but also from its fears. We aren’t afraid of air raids, or any other kinds of death. The dead are lying here next to me: on the mattresses to my right and left there are diabetics in a coma, angina patients, uraemics, people with galloping TB who haven’t been looked after during the last few weeks, and suicides who are being brought in on stretchers day and night, generally in pairs, mostly couples, including doctors who had poison at hand and knew the exact doses.

Next to the terrible WC there is a laundry turned into a morgue, but by yesterday half a dozen legs, naked and waxen, were hanging out of the half-open door. The gendarmes allow no funerals. ‘They’ll all be taken care of together,’ the gendarmerie colonel says with icy humour, and the bodies continue to pile up. At the top of the pile, as high as the ceiling, are the naked bodies of two children.

That is why nine dead men and women have been left in the synagogue, decomposing in the stifling heat. My neighbour on the next mattress, Uncle Niszel, the old leather merchant, went with great difficulty—at home in normal circumstances, according to his doctor, he would have had the ‘beautiful death’ his heart disease had been promising him for years—falling peacefully off his chair, surrounded by his family. Here, in the synagogue of the wonder-rabbi of Wisznice, which is now the ghetto hospital, weighed down by his ordeals, he kept puffing for a day and a half, with his mouth open, rhythmically, like the small steam engine at the timber yard. The whole ward was bored with the poor devil, the amateur nurses shook their heads in disapproval, and three impatient patients, who were after his mattress near the Ark of the Covenant and closer to the window, inspected him every quarter of an hour, interrogating the dazed doctor in his white coat as to how much time the old boy had left. Finally he died at about ten o’clock, but wasn’t carried out, because there was no room in the morgue. Even so, the three patients, in their pants and vests, who had hoped to grab his mattress, fell out over the succession, although they eventually contented themselves with sharing out the old man’s possessions—his felt slippers, brown blanket and personal bedpan—and slunk away in the blue darkness, each with his booty.

The nurses fluttered ineffectually, before huddling together again in the corner. They were middle-class girls from good families, who hadn’t been trained for the work but had fought to get it, because those who sported a nurse’s bonnet were able to move freely in the ghetto. The other girls, in groups of sixteen, were stuck in dirty, unfamiliar rooms, where they weren’t even allowed to go near the window and every gendarme was entitled to use his weapons against them. Here, in the wonder-rabbi’s two-storey synagogue with its large courtyard, the ghetto was freer and more cheerful. On the mattresses unwashed patients lying in their own filth puffed, panted, moaned, prayed and swore, and during the first two days caused a lot of trouble: they needed to be washed, to be given bedpans and enemas, to have their temperature taken and to be fitted with compresses. During the first two days the doctors too fought with all their strength: they administered injections, flushed out the stomachs of suicides, carried out operations and, on the top floor, even carefully delivered babies. Then the rumour spread that the ghetto would be deported. Thirty cattle wagons were shunted on to the industrial siding that cut across the enclosed part of the town. Now the doctors faltered, became absent-minded, dropped out from time to time, went back to their relatives several times a day, clearly in order to discuss whether it wouldn’t be better to exterminate all of them. The nurses, for their part, disappeared or sat down on the long bench near the morgue. They were clean, well dressed, with nice hairstyles, and men gathered around them as they had on the promenade. The conversation was entertaining, as it had been in the world outside, but more outspoken, because after two days here the girls overacted the part of the liberated and experienced professional who is familiar with every dirty secret of the human body.

So, when the contenders for Uncle Niszel’s mattress pillaged his body in the dark, the girls fluttered and huddled. Then one of them—a tall, blonde, pretty girl of about twenty with a slight squint—separated from the group and set out unsteadily towards the Ark of the Covenant. She stopped and squatted down at the edge of my mattress.

‘Mr Hirschler,’ she whispered, ‘that friendly gendarme was here just now. He said that from tomorrow they’ll be beating people up to make them admit where they’ve hidden their jewellery. They’ll do it in alphabetical order, and my father’s name starts with B.’

‘Have you hidden anything?’

‘Yes. My father has high blood pressure. He wouldn’t be able to bear a single blow.’

‘Then it might be wiser to tell, so they don’t hurt him.’

‘But they’ll beat him all the same.’

‘Well, then . . .’

‘The gendarme says’, she whispered, bending close to my ear, ‘that if I go to bed with him he’ll save Daddy. I know your real name, Mr Hirschler. I’ve read things you’ve written . . . You could advise me.’

I wouldn’t have felt particularly guilty in this situation, in this hell, this synagogue of the wonder-rabbi, if I had advised the girl to give in to the gendarme. So many things had been lost since 19 March.* There are really no bogus, high-flown sentiments left in me. I’m saying this as one who has lost not only all his belongings, but something very important, something vital: above all else, I have lost my homeland. This homeland has always meant more to me than to most people around me: it exercised me feverishly when I was writing, speaking or dreaming, and there were years, particularly the years of my youth, when, for example, I hardly took notice of love because of it. That was the time when after the failure of two revolutions,* for nearly a decade I waited for my political ideas to prevail, for my exiled role models and friends to return and save my homeland from the crooks and bunglers. Yes, I waited for nearly ten years, in which I had no lover. And when I had tired of waiting and almost renounced the game for the duration of my life, I married, clutching at privacy as a shipwrecked man clutches at a plank that might help him reach some shore—although I must admit I had no illusions about the shore. But, for all my conscious efforts to abandon ‘my crazy ideas and whims’, I was time and again dragged out of my private idyll, which had soon staled, by my social passion: the most simple-minded reason for hope was enough to make me forget where I lived and where a person living with me was waiting with my dinner. A few months after my divorce from my first wife we tried to trace the events leading up to our slow, bitter drift apart. ‘What started the trouble’, she said, ‘was that I was all of eighteen years old and married for six weeks when you woke up one morning and said “Bethlen!” instead of noticing—with the March sun shining on our bed—that it was the first day of spring.’

Indeed, I hated Bethlen† with a personal passion, because with his determination, ruthlessness and stubbornness he was gradually destroying all hope of the return of the revolution. I had experienced the collapse of my ideas and my homeland too early, when I was hardly eighteen, and it wasn’t only my political, social and philosophical illusions that collapsed, but almost everything else. This collapse has remained the sharpest break in my life to this day. It extinguished what had been burning in me with even hotter and brighter flames than the social passion—the lyrical and the aesthetic. And it nearly turned me into a nervous and physical wreck: it caused painful disturbances in my sex life, and many years of insomnia, lack of appetite, many types of self-flagellation and waste of energy, which drove me close to a state of frenzy. I spat blood, ran a fever—Sándor Bródy* said that I wouldn’t last till the spring—and sat in cafés till dawn, hating and hoping. I know that this gnawing political grief contained many different things, for instance bitterness over the collapse of my personal ambitions, but whatever the case, by the time I was twenty my youth had gone. Over the next few years, time and nature numbed and even healed many wounds, but I never again knew what it was like to be really well. Whatever I ate or drank left a bad taste, and whenever I wasn’t fully absorbed by the hatred or enthusiasm of the political and related intellectual battle I felt that I was committing an infidelity. Even while making love I felt guilty about squandering something that should have been reserved for my one and only important passion. At the same time I almost began to worship men older than myself whom I believed to have purer and more faithful passions than I did. For a long time I refused to accept, even when I experienced it face to face, that many of them, despite their patriotic sorrow, were seeking a separate peace and, being corrupted by clever compromises, were slowly slipping across to the other side.

Yes, it was Bethlen who gradually decimated the ‘inner emigration’, in which we had lived in heroic sterility till the death of Lajos Purjesz.† People would cross over and, with some traces of pride left, invent an ideology for their treason. Fühlung mit dem Feinde—direct contact with the enemy—had to be maintained. They did maintain it, making money and carving out successful careers in the process, by publishing a newspaper that served Bethlen under the pretext of being in oppostition to him—while a few of us were left behind on our own, and even among us the majority only used our political salon des refusés as an alibi for laziness, tiredness and lack of talent to forge ahead elsewhere.

Never had an idol made of ice been able to arouse more fiery feelings of attraction in coldly calculating usurers, big industrialists, lawyers with large offices, and cynical careerists, than Bethlen. And there could hardly be a society whose so-called elite—both Christians and Jews—could have wallowed in its own paltriness and weakness more lustfully than it did in the shade of Bethlen’s pompous arrogance and ruthlessness. I hated him also because I couldn’t resign myself to being intellectually and morally helpless against him. I pounced wildly on his speeches, in which lack of logic was masked by acoustic vigour, and aristocratic conceit masqueraded as intellectual superiority and manliness. I dissected and laid bare his contradictions, his reckless immorality and ignorance. It was useless. I didn’t convince or change a single mind. Eventually even people who shared my viewpoint began to rebuke me for making a fuss and hurting those whom I couldn’t help anyway. I was helpless but didn’t budge. Eventually Bethlen became a symbol of all my public and private failures: the rock on which I foundered. This fruitless, childish struggle—which Bethlen for his part also experienced as a struggle, although I discovered this only after his fall—became an obsession. Is it surprising that on that morning I woke up with his name in my mouth, and our bed, with the sunshine on it, couldn’t relieve this obsession? Yes, it was my delusion that I had to change the order of the world, the order of my homeland, before I could be happy in my house and in my bed.

Bristling with mines, traps and savage thugs,

Ours is no world for kisses and hugs.


This is what I wrote at the time, because I felt that with every kiss I was obeying a bitter, dangerous coercion.
Two

So I have lost my homeland—and a lot more—since 19 March. A postcard arrived at the address of an Aryan friend, written by my mother when she was already in the cattle wagon at Komárom station. I don’t even want to think this right through: so my mother is no longer at home in the house in Úri Street that she hardly ever left in fifteen years and where I used to drop in, admittedly not very often and not very eagerly, as if I had never gone away. We would always start our conversation in mid-sentence, as if I had just popped out of the room or been called to the phone and we had resumed at the comma. She had been a very beautiful woman, as mothers generally are in their sons’ memories, chaste, naive but wise, critical but credulous where I was concerned, with no illusions, except about me. To me she was timelessness and permanence itself, the centre of my emotional map, which had proved more constant than anything or anyone else. I could never imagine that one day I would go home and she wouldn’t be in her place, at the centre, that she would no longer be alive. I never tried to torture myself or indulge in a vision of visiting my mother’s grave. I had faced my own death several times as a young man in the First World War, and had fervently wished for it on wintry roads during the Second—but my mother, to me, was like Mont Blanc: she would always be there, even when I was gone. Now she would turn seventy-five in the cattle wagon, with her hair as white as Mont Blanc in dull weather.

I felt as if the mountains had toppled.

And how many more things have been lost! Yet of my so-called human dignity I lost none. When civilised people are devoured by cannibals, it can only hurt physically. Can the bite of a savage’s fang cause moral pain? All the while they tortured me as a Jew, giving rein to their envy and loutish greed—first by the laws they had designed to deprive us of our money and our civilised pleasures, the informers and detectives they sent after us, and the loud-mouthed, mechanically rowdy press campaigns they conducted against us; then in Russia with cables and lashes—I was only troubled by the physical and material inconveniences and ill-treatments, but could never be hurt morally or emotionally. Rather, I always suspected that through their venomous, seemingly studied hatred they were trying above all to prove to themselves what they were unable to believe: that they really felt superior to me. I didn’t hate them—you can only hate someone you could also love. I was merely sickened by these common criminals, press whores, venal poets and clowns, and butchers’ dogs turned wolves. I was repelled by them, I despised them—and, face to face, perhaps revealed too much of my arrogance, like the haughty white man in a topee of the English adventure story for boys, who keeps flaunting his loathing for the blacks, high on their stolen rum, and who excites them to further cruelties through his superiority. And because they noticed my hauteur they often treated me with particular cruelty. But, as I say, their laws, their dirty words and their lashes only hurt my skin and my flesh, and even now that they have dragged me to this ghetto I feel like the doctor in the mental hospital in Poe’s short story, who has been put into a straitjacket and locked in a cell by the rioting lunatics. Now they are living in the doctors’ quarters, waving the instruments and drugs—transformed into murder weapons and poison in their hands—and cutting up the medical books into sheets of toilet paper. Yet they are not too mad to steal the doctor’s money, watch, clothes and whatever else he has . . .
Three

They have taken everything away from me—these gendarmes with their red faces, their thick cheekbones, their eyes like black buttons, their chins, made to look...

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