Lajos Kassák, 'Booklet in Memory of Our Dying: Diary Entries'
in 30 év. Magyar írók tanúságtétele (1944-45) (Budapest: Magvető, 1975), pp. 339-415. First publication: Budapest: Új Idők Irodalmi Intézete, 1945.
Translated by Gwen Jones.
'If you're not afraid of coming to see me, I'd like to invite you over to look at my latest sculpture.'
'I'm not at all afraid,' I said laughing.
'You know, hmm, you know, I don't mean that, but I am a marked person and I wouldn't want, er, how can I put it...'
He stuttered more than usual in his nervous awkwardness, while fixing me with such an acute gaze as if he wanted to see through my clothes, my flesh and my bones, as far as my heart. He wanted me to look at his new sculpture, while fearing the discomfort; it was him who was afraid for me, and who was visibly full of dread. I promised that I would visit him the next day at half past four in the afternoon, and then we shook hands, parting as if sealing with a handshake the moment of alliance in a dark crime.
I rang his doorbell at the precise time agreed. He was in the brown tracksuit he usually worked in, and came towards me with doddering steps; once again we shook hands, as if both of us had just set foot on dry land from some terrible maelstrom. His workshop was a fairly large room that also functioned as a living space; there were a few worn-put pieces of furniture, and a bunk or some chaise longue-type thing covered with a blanket. Near the window was a sculpture trestle, and on it a statuette covered with a wet kerchief. D. B. B.'s [Dezső Bokros Birman] latest work that he wanted to show me, and which he had created during these dangerous, difficult days, labouring with body and soul, and yet he still had the strength to serve his incurable obsession. Before I could see the sculpture, I had to think of what elemental strengths must exist in this weak-bodied, neurasthenic nervous wreck of a man! What heroic audacity is required today for someone to forget their most personal problems, to take the materials in their hands, and begin to mould. He stepped over to the trestle but still didn't lift the wet kerchief. He was still looking at me as if he were afraid he would indeed hurl his guest into terrible discomfort.
'Lovely', I finally said. 'One of your best works to date.' He didn't let on whether he was pleased at my opinion, or maybe found it unsatisfactory.
We talked about art as a useful, noble activity, as if it had recently gone missing all of a sudden. All my writer, painter, sculptor and musician friends I'd spoken to in recent weeks complained about a lack of work, their physical fatigue, and the darkness that overcast their souls. Nobody was able to work, as if they expected nothing from the next day. D. B. B. was one of the few who hadn't pronounced the tools from their hands, and not turned off the path on which they'd set off, who knows when or on what command. It wasn't that he didn't wholly and truly feel what was happening around and against him, but he was still fighting, wanting to hold on with every sinew, and wanting to move forward, so that he could document and bring news for the future. He was around fifty-one years old, and didn't want to resign from life, despite the fact that he felt the threat of violent death. He expected help from nobody, but until this point had never depended on anyone anyway, he lived for his art and kneaded all his strength, energy, desire and imagination into his sculptures.
D. B. B. broke off my long silence with a sudden question.
'Are you afraid?'
'Yes, I am.'
'You know, hmm, I'm not afraid that I must die, hmm, you know, I am afraid of something completely different. Do you know how difficult our last night was? The second time we were woken up by the sirens, I shuffled over to the window and looked out onto the street. I couldn't see anything in the dark, and yet I was still seized by a terrible sense of panic. The sirens were silent, and I could hear the cannon-thunder. The sky was very dark. I lay down about an hour later, and was so afraid that I broke out into a sweat. But I wasn't afraid that I must die, but was dreading that I might not have enough time to finish this sculpture.'
We were silent again for a while, and then he said:
'I think that those who want to destroy my kind are right after all. Always working, always wanting something new, something unsettlingly beautiful, what's the point in this? Maybe nobody needs it anyway. Have you ever thought of this?'
We talked of war, the present reality, and of chances we don't yet know. We uttered the words slowly and quietly, and both of us felt tired and helpless.
'Do you know I was glad when the doorbell rang just now? I knew that you were coming, I knew, hmmm, and I was so sure of this. But any other time when the doorbell rings, it's as if something were suddenly unsettled inside me. You know, one must always be afraid that someone will ring the doorbell, then come in and say: you have to be here at seven o'clock, you have to be there at seven o'clock. I don't know where I will have to go, but the number seven is always in the sentence... Hmmm, but now you're here, I'd like to ask for a favour. You don't have to do it if you feel it would make you uncomfortable. What it is, hmmm, is that in this bottle here on the table, you should buy me two decilitres of apricot brandy if we go downstairs to the pub opposite. You know I'm no longer allowed to go to the pub. A little apricot brandy is good for when they wake us up at night with the sirens, and one is cold. No more, just a mouthful. But I'm no longer allowed to go to the pub. And I'm mad, just imagine, I'm still making sculptures.'
After a long discussion, he realized that the decree we were talking about would only come into force from the 25th.
'But then still come with me to the pub. It's good to have company.'
He spoke with biting resentment of the large yellow star he had to wear on his coat, above his heart. 'Some call us noxious scrounging Jews, others just call us sheriffs.'
On the tram, we exchanged a few words about the sculpture again. Then we fell silent. The tram was full of sheriffs and non-sheriffs.
'You see how good it is for you, a non-Jew', he said, as we were walking along the Grand Boulevard. 'When I walk like this, I'm constantly staring ahead, to see whether there are any sheriffs coming towards me.'
'I don't understand.'
'What I mean is that if I see people wearing stars wobbling towards me, then it's fine for me to go in the direction they're coming from. But otherwise, hmm, one would like to flee into the side-streets, as if smelling a trap. One never knows what one will run into. Otherwise, the sculpture again comes to mind, that I should set something right on it. I feel that it is missing one more impression, and I would definitely like to finish it.'
After a short silence, he again said:
'Indeed, those who want to destroy my kind must be right. I'll say it, there's no need for us. No need at all.'
I'm amazed at the stupidity of Jews who end up among sincere Christians and then moan:
'I'm not afraid of death. If the bombs come, I don't want to remove myself from the common fate, I too am ready to die, along with the rest. It's just this star on my breast that hurts, with which they humiliate us like this.'
Clearly, one doesn't have to take this word for word. The death that occurs once and which can never be changed; and what that abject yellow mark means, which will surely sooner or later disappear from their coats. The moaner is not just complaining away their pain, but also wants to impress this on the listener. He is asking for understanding and help, even if he isn't speaking with unambiguous clarity. He is desperately wrong. Although the person who doesn't have to wear the yellow star may feel truly sorry for the complainer, he will, in the meantime, be pleased that he doesn't belong to the marked group, and since he too is just a frail little person, he is happy that some good contingency thus separates them from one another. If I want to win somebody's sympathy, I wouldn't talk about what is different, but what is desperately similar between us. How much more apt it would be for the complainer if he said:
'What is this rag on my breast! What hurts me, neighbour, is what hurts you too just the same, that this war is trampling us underfoot and devouring us. As far as a bomb is concerned, there is no difference between someone with a star and someone without a star. We can then both ask: why must we die, what is the common offence for which we are being punished?'
This is the moment when one involuntarily feels solidarity with man, regardless of race, religion or party affiliation. Those who offer their hands in alliance like this, those forced into common danger, can be of help to one another.
But it seems that man is not simply a selfish animal, but also his own ingrained enemy.