Hungarian Jewish writers look at survival after suffering

Reading the powerful anthology “Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary” reminded me of the first time I heard Judy Frankel’s beautiful voice singing Ladino songs and the first time I read the poignant translations in Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg’s “A Treasury of Yiddish Literature.”

This book gave me the feeling a part of Jewish life was being translated so accurately that it had become my own, that the Jewish people were one people and our history one history, despite our many differences.

There are 100,000 Jews in Hungary. But before World War II, almost three-quarters of a million Jews lived there and 20 percent of Budapest was Jewish. And unlike other Jews in Eastern Europe, Hungarian Jews felt themselves to be accepted as fellow Hungarians.

In their invaluable introduction, editors Susan Rubin Suleiman and Eva Forgacs point out that what happened during the Holocaust — when Hungary collaborated with Hitler and 70 percent of Hungary’s Jews were murdered —was a terrible betrayal.

Hungarian Jewish dreams of equality were shattered twice in the century —first by the Nazis and then by the communists, who ruled from 1948 to 1989.

The introduction describes the high hopes of Hungarian Jewish writers to “belong to two communities at the same time,” in the words of Hungarian Jewish critic Aladar Komlos. But then the genocide of the Holocaust was followed by the actions of Hungary’s liberators, the communists, who denied Jews equality and acceptance. The price Jewish communists paid was a high one, as the editors put it: “… it was considered unnecessary, inappropriate even, to focus specifically on the Jewish tragedy.”

Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz is among the 24 writers included in the anthology. He was born in Budapest in 1929, deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. In his autobiographical novel “Fateless,” the young survivor returns to Budapest where he meets with other survivors and realizes that after Auschwitz, one cannot start over.

And in his essay “Long Dark Shadow,” he tries to explain why the Stalinists, who would rule Hungary for more than 40 years, could not acknowledge the genocide of the Jewish people and the complicity of so many Hungarians in that genocide.

Bravely, Hungarian Jewish writers stood against silence and memorialized their loved ones lost in the Shoah.

Thus poet Agnes Gergely, whose father was murdered — shot by the Nazis, in forced labor — remembers her father’s suffering and that of other Jews: “… the truck moved off/ and his companions held his hands/… and his tears trailed down his jacket/… and it meant nothing to him to be shot dead.”

This is an anthology of writers who are heirs of 20th century Europe’s greatest suffering, who are proud of being Jewish and Hungarian and who do not choose to forget. Their witness honors the Jewish people.

“Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary,” edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman and Eva Forgacs (429 pages, University of Nebraska Press, $24.95).