Review – 2nd June, 2016

Blame and self-blame

The diary of Fanni Gyarmati, 1935-1946

Review–2nd June, 2016


The diary of Fanni Gyarmati, 1935-1946

The diary of Miklós Radnóti’s wife is a disturbing read. It depicts the most important ten years of a life full of tragic turning points, from their marriage to Radnóti’s burial, and it does so with unsparing honesty.

As a result of the joint work of Győző Ferencz and Zsejke Nagy, a very important document was published by Jaffa Publisher, Budapest in December 2014. Fanni Gyarmati’s diary is far more than a footnote to the splendid poetic oeuvre of her husband: apart from enriching our existing knowledge of Radnóti’s poems (including the greatest ones), this text poses a wide range of questions that are topical in our days as well.

Fanni Gyarmati, who had already sought and craved death upon receiving news of her husband’s death, outlived Radnóti by no less than seventy years. Her life was no less tragic than that of Radnóti – the sea of torments did not spare her either. She was a hard, extremely honest, but mistrustful woman, whose text is an indictment against all those conditions that landed her husband, undoubtedly one of the finest Hungarian poets of his time, in a mass grave. She describes the flaws of her immediate surroundings and of Hungarian society with analytical and brutal promptness; however, she was probably the most unforgiving to herself. If we wanted to get away easily with this piece, we could focus on the details of their dual happiness and their descent to hell on earth, in a tabloid fashion. But that is not in the least what we intend to do: we would betray this book’s spirit if we read it as a source of gossip about their private lives. These are authentic and human details, but the text proposes questions to which we cannot find reassuring answers and which poison public discourse to this day.

It is always a pleasure when such an honest and unbiased work comes to light in today’s Hungary. Győző Ferencz is right: the writer of the diary evolves into a mature writer from a mere chronicler, and this process takes place before our eyes. The simple descriptions of everyday events are replaced by dialogues, inner soliloquys, cross-references and symbols. However, this is dangerous ground, since this literary style has a price: the initially fairly objective viewpoint is replaced by a subjective, constructed reality. Let’s see then who is to blame for Radnóti’s death and Fanni Gyarmati’s fate – in our reading of the diary.

Obviously, the Germans are responsible. The inhumanity of Fascism, its everyday reality radiates from the lines, especially those from the late autumn and winter of 1944, the time of the siege of Budapest. However, the members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross are also responsible: the excerpts depicting the finding of Radnóti’s remains (she recorded these a few days after the events, in August 1946) show clearly that among those carrying out the execution of Radnóti and his comrades were four members of the Arrow Cross, alongside a single SS soldier.

In the decades of the following, and also inhumane regime of Hungarian history, Communist dictatorship, it was not allowed to talk about those willing to cooperate with the Fascists, and Radnóti contributed to this silence with the following line of his last poem: “Der springt noch auf,” giving an opportunity later to István Örkény to claim, supported by the indisputable prestige of the witness: “That time, the language of the murderers was German.” Well, German, too, as well as Hungarian, and other languages no less. Fanni, who points out the flaws and biases of her beloved sweetheart with surgical accuracy, mentions an episode: when Radnóti read “How Others See” to them on New Year’s Eve of 1943, his friends protested – probably because they thought he was abnormally biased towards his home country. When in the original closing line he asked for the protection of Mary, mother of Jesus, for the country, they were especially indignant, so much so that the poet changed the line, thereby creating one of the most beautiful lines in Hungarian literature: “Extend your vast wings above us, protective cloud of night.”

The diary is also disturbing when it comes to Radnóti’s religion. This is an extremely sensitive subject in several senses. Let’s just focus on what we learn about this from Fanni Gyarmati’s diary. Some people associate Radnóti with Holocaust literature. This seems like an exaggeration, since Radnóti considered himself a Hungarian Catholic poet, and his art differs from Holocaust literature in many ways. However, we are quick to add that Fanni Gyarmati, who was also of Jewish origin, sympathised with members of the Jewish community, and saved some of them using her Catholic connections, and secured documents for them in hard times. She was closer to the Jewish community, not in terms of her faith but in her social relations and sense of responsibility.

If we keep on searching for those responsible for the couple’s destiny, we find ourselves on even more difficult grounds. Sándor Sík, who appears in the book as an angelical figure, and to whom they owe their conversion to Catholicism, can also be charged with having some part in their tragedy. Not actively, to be sure: he helped the couple from the beginning as much he could. But he nurtured hopes in them which contributed to them staying in Hungary: he appealed to faith in divine providence which saves the good even here, on Earth. He comforted Mrs Radnóti by telling her that God loved Miklós because he was an excellent man and so he was going to save him. If they had not had such a solid trust in God and in humanism, they might have run away in due time, before the occurrence of the final tragedy. In one of the many dramatic moments of Fanni’s text, she overhears Catholic sextons talking about how grateful they are to the Germans for coming into the country. Laconically, in her very own reserved style, but with scathing irony, she only adds: “this is our religion.”

Fanni Gyarmati does not blame Sándor Sík; he blames Radnóti himself for his fate: he was too much of a humanist and a citoyen, steering clear of open rebellion. Instead of emigrating and running away, he insisted on remaining in Hungary, holding on to his library that he collected with years of hard work. The writer of the diary also blames herself, for not being determined and aggressive enough, and for not trying to save Miklós vigorously enough in the October of 1944 when he could still have been saved as they had influential friends. She also blames all those people who were only concerned about their own lives and property, and failed to help the couple effectively rather than by giving them alms.

Finally, the book blames anyone who lets those in power do whatever they want with them and with those around; everyone who is only concerned with safeguarding their own interests with petty selfishness. Today, the responsibility of intellectuals continues to be immense. We tend to forget that.

This article was originally published in Hungarian on Revizoronline.

Sándor Fazekas

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