Béla Zsolt, Nine Suitcases
translated by Ladislaus Löb (London: Pimlico, 2005), pp. x, 9-10, 317-24
from the Translator’s Introduction
It may be worth mentioning that the translator once had the opportunity to observe Zsolt at close quarters for a period of five months. Zsolt is unlikely to have taken much notice of an eleven-year-old child, but the child had been told that Zsolt was an important person. Sallow-faced, emaciated, desperate for cigarettes, he gathered groups of followers around him, with an air of distinction that the child did not fully understand, but could clearly sense. The time was the second half of 1944. The place was the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.
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 even more beastly by the tight straps of their helmets. They looted our apartment, gobbled up everything in our kitchen, and slung on to their truck the nine suitcases that held all my possessions, my clothes and my wife’s clothes and all the necessities and small luxuries we had collected in our lives: the objects, the fetishes. With these nine suitcases we had arrived in Paris one day before the war, never intending to return to Budapest. In the second month of the war, we brought the nine suitcases back from Paris, or rather – as I will explain later – the nine suitcases brought us back. Then they were put on top of a wardrobe and I never saw them for two years, because I was in Russia, where I had only a knapsack, and in the prison in Margit Boulevard, where I had only a shoe box for my food. And when I got out of prison a few weeks ago my wife decided to put everything we had back into the nine suitcases and bring them here to Nagyvárad, to my father-in-law’s house, because here they would certainly be in no danger from bombs. We brought the nine suitcases back on 16 March, the Germans arrived on the 19th; then the gendarmes came and took them away. Now I don’t even have a shoe box under my mattress – I have nothing. An acquaintance gave me a box of biscuits yesterday, and that’s all the luggage I have. Everything I had has become national property. The “nation” first broke into my father-in-law’s small house, which it looted, turned out my pockets like a pickpocket, and finally kicked me with its gendarme boots when, with nothing but the clothes I stood up in, without a penny or a crust, I wasn’t quick enough to slip away through the ghetto gate under cover of the large crowd milling there.
Before this I had had two personal contacts with robbers and thieves.
When I was a young child a cobbler called Buzgó, a professional burglar, looted our home. When a policeman brought him along to confront him with my mother, he wrung his hands and apologized in tears, returning everything he had taken. On another occasion a barber’s apprentice named Eszlényi stole my wallet on the tram. Some other people noticed and handed him over to the police. He was doubly unlucky because in my wallet there was nothing but a ticket for a dress rehearsal at the Comedy Theatre. He pulled such a disappointed and desperate face over having risked everything for such a lousy theatre ticket that I begged the policeman to let him go.
But the “nation” wanted everything: the gendarme even pickpocketed a season ticket to the zoo belonging to my wife’s young daughter. It too, became national property … That is what I have lost, among many other things, since 19 March.
I’ve trespassed against everybody, but most of all, against myself – in addition to the terrible devastations of two wars, I myself have damaged my body, neglected my private life, seen my mother only once or twice a year, and, out of laziness, or in pursuit of some other moral or intellectual passion, applied only a fraction of my abilities to my work as a writer and to the struggle for fame or money. I’ve trespassed against everybody and everything, except against this city, where anybody who recognized me in my furtive disguise – any good-for-nothing fascist – could club me down like a rabid dog, even though this city is my home and was built by my urban forebears, whether working- or middle-class, whose urban heroism, regarded by some as wrongdoing, clings to every brick. This city is my city, and I still accept the city, warts and all.
But what business was this city of the strangers from the surrounding countryside, who always resented, suspected and hated its rhythm, its outlook, its fashion, its dialect, its press and its literature? To them it meant the West, which they abhorred not so much because of its corruption and frivolity, but rather they felt that it made demands on their minds, which they might have been able to fulfill but which, in their intellectual indolence, they weren’t prepared to take on board. Before the First World War they used to pay short visits around Midsummer Day, countrifying the city, which they despised and envied, and which showed them a falsely boorish face. They vomited into the flower beds in the parks and urinated on the four corners of the Academy of Sciences, before returning to their rural homes, hungover, grumbling and swearing. But then the provinces took up arms to capture the city, stretching that Midsummer Day out into decades. Ever larger legions were let loose and installed not only in the buildings, but also in the city’s administration, its spirit, its theatres and its attitudes. Step by step, they took over the city hall, while the taverns and beer halls overcame the cafés, and most of the press also fell into provincial hands. Almost everything now belonged to the provinces, but they hated the city as much as ever, even though it came to resemble them more closely each year. Each year it looked more and more like Cegléd, Kaba or Rimaszombat, rather than the Athens on the Danube that Csokonai had dreamt of. And we, the proper denizens of this city, were together more and more and forced to give way to strident types sporting sweaty hats, toothbrush moustaches and plus-fours, to provincial officers and resolute soldiers’ wives. On the promenade in Váci Street, German shepherd dogs strained on their leashes, and dolled-up nursery school teachers from the country flirted with the village schoolmasters’ sons who were studying at the Ludovika Military Academy. The great concert hall of the Academy of Music was dominated by popular songs, the opera by operettas, and everybody was proud to have destroyed a garden of European culture and to have planted a bit of Hungarian nationalism in its place. What did these people know of our emotional attachment to our bridges, to a new house built on a vacant plot, to an old building with a history and artistic value, or even to our mean petty-bourgeois districts and miserable suburbs, to everything in Budapest that we loved, as we loved a woman? Step by step, the strangers from the provinces took all this away from us, without knowing how to treat or how to appreciate it – and now, to make the city look even more like the village, the gendarmes were also here. Yes, the gendarmes had followed them and were now catching us, the locals, one by one – not only the Jews, but anybody who wanted this city to resemble the world’s great, beautiful, cultured cities in every way, except where being different was really worth something.
Now I could set out with Mrs. Szabó and my wife to Aggteleki Street, where the Szabós lived. In Rákóczi Road it seems as if all the natives had vanished – I didn’t see a single Budapest face. I stared provocatively at the people coming in the opposite direction, but nobody looked at me. It was a nervous, bad-tempered day, and all the passers-by were in a hurry to join their families in the cellars – not only had the British heavily bombed Ferencváros in the morning and Csepel as little as a quarter of an hour ago, but the day wasn’t over yet, and the night was still to come. At the corner of Berzsenyi Street I saw the first building with a star, where the Jews were being rehoused. A small group was just coming round the corner – an elderly man and a little boy of eight or nine pulling a handcart loaded with suitcases, and a stout middle-aged lady and her daughter, aged about twenty, walking on either side, to prevent the suitcases falling off. As we continued along Rákóczi Road, we met more people with handcars and suitcases – nine, ninety, nine hundred – stuffed with all kinds of necessary and unnecessary things. Having reached the final stage, they had still packed the suitcases in the optimistic belief that they might need the necessary things and even some of the things that were not absolutely necessary. My wife, sadly clutching the battered vanity bag, whispered to me:
“You see, even these people are better off than we are, at least they can save some of their stuff.”
We turned into Aggteleki Street. When we reached the front door of the second house, Dr. B. was just coming out. In this past I had been on friendly terms with this doctor, who was married to a popular comedienne, the niece of a gentle pre-war archbishop. At least once a week we used to meet at the house of my unforgettable friend, the pianist Imre Kéri Szántó, who liked the archbishop’s droll niece and put up with her pushy, humorless, insignificant doctor husband for her sake. The company included Béla Reinitz, the composer; Lipót Herman, the painter; Kálmán Csathó, the dramatist; and others. It was a good crowd – a circle of friends who held different views, but who argued good-naturedly and honestly – and we usually had a great chinwag with a lot of witty, malicious gossip about public affairs, high society and the theatre. We had dispersed in the early thirties. The host and Reinitz died, others ended up in Margit Boulevard [prison] or in the Ukraine, and some withdrew into themselves, disgusted with public life – but the doctor and his comedienne joined the Arrow Cross party. Of course he immediately recognized me in spite of my moustache and my clothes:
“I’m so glad to see you,” he said. “I read in one of the papers that you’d been caught. I didn’t think you were still alive.”
“I am. But how much longer … depends on you, among others,” and I pointed to the Arrow Cross badge on his lapel.
“What do you think I am, an informer? In any case I don’t deal with individual cases, particularly if it concerns you … I know you’re a man of good faith in your own way, just as I am.”
“Then good-bye. You’re very kind, but I don’t want to hang around in the street too long.”
“You must believe me, I’m sorry for you,” he continued. “But you must understand what’s happening here. You Jews are in the way of a development that has had to happen. Now the strong are pushing the weak for the sake of that development.”
“That’s possible. I’m not going to argue with you, as we used to do at Imre’s. But if that is true, then I seem to have double bad luck.”
“First as a Jew and second as a Hungarian. Don’t forget, I'm one of the weak not only as a Jew but also as a Hungarian. The Hungarians are also supposed to be in the way of that so-called development. You may have heard that the small isolated Hungarian nation is an obstacle to the ultimate development of large homogeneous racial blocks. In fact there are two of those in the neighborhood, each with at least a hundred million people. If your thesis is correct, each would sooner or later eliminate me as a Hungarian who is obstructing that development. As a Jew I would simply get it over with sooner.”
For a moment he was puzzled. Then he retorted:
“That’s different. The most we Hungarians have to forfeit is our linguistic isolation, but we’ll be able to save our lives and our masses. What matters is not having a language, but being a uniform race. You Jews forgot how to speak Hebrew, but you still haven’t been able to assimilate.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “If you want to forget how to speak Hungarian, that’s of course a different story. Good-bye, pal. Thank you again.”
Feeling that he had gone too far and given too much away, he took his leave with greater warmth:
“I wish you the best of luck. I hope you get out of here safely.”
Yes. It was from the fatherland of this Dr. B. that they were trying to deport me in a wagon to Poland and throw me in the fire for being an alien, a non-Hungarian. And it was this Dr. B. who now called the tune in my city, while I had to hide, and anybody who recognized me could club me down like a rabid dog without further ado.
The women, who had listened to the conversation petrified, started running towards the Szabós’ front door without a word. Inside, my friend István Szabó awaited us. I collapsed in an armchair. For the first time in months I was in a proper home, where the bookshelves really held books and not bedpans, trusses, enemas and greasy paper parcels, and where people slept in beds and on sofas, not on the floor or on chairs pushed together or on window sills. I sat in the armchair for a long time, saying nothing. My wife burst into tears and was made to lie down in the next room.
István Szabó was the first to speak. He asked:
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“I think I am.”
He brought in a dish piled with cold meats and another with fruit. I pitched into the food and devoured everything.
“That’ll keep me going,” I said. “Now I’d like to let our friends know I’m here. I’d like to do something,”
I mentioned two names. One was in prison, the other had gone underground without leaving a trace. Szabó tried to reassure me:
“Wait a little. I’ll have a look in town in the afternoon. First you’ll have a bath and a little sleep. Then we’ll talk.”
He turned on the radio to listen to the lunchtime news from Britain. When he noticed that I wasn’t interested, he turned it off again. And yet I hadn’t heard the radio for four months.
I stood up from the armchair and walked to the balcony window. I looked out into the street through the net curtain. The house opposite had a star. The Jews with the handcarts were just walking in through the gate. On the handcarts were suitcases – nine, ninety suitcases. I stood at the window, drained of hatred but also of compassion for my fellows. I felt nothing. My heart and brain were empty, and my nerves had lost all their tension. I stood there in total apathy. I don’t think I would have winced if somebody had driven thorns under my nails.
Some children on their way home from school gathered in front of the Jewish house, forming a semi-circle and sniggering at the Jews. It was only when I caught sight of Dr. K., the minuscule high-school teacher with the Henry IV beard and the slight limp, following one of the handcarts, that I bothered to crane my neck a little. Dr. K. had been in my year at university and had converted to Christianity while still a student. He was a devout Roman Catholic, who regarded Neo-Catholicism as subversion. He was a friend of Négyessy and a confidant of Count Klebelsberg and the Bishop of Csanád. At first I had fiercely argued with him because I thought he was on the make and a snob. Later, realizing he was sincere in his dreary simple-mindedness, I merely despised him. In spite of his primitive Christomania he married a Jewish woman, after converting her. But he hadn’t reckoned with the laws that would one day classify converted Jews as still Jews. Now a man who looked like a worker was pulling his cart from the front, and his wife was watching the suitcases from the side, and Dr. K. himself was limping behind them with a small leather bag under his arm.
“What do you think he’s got in his bag?” Szabó asked.
“Books, I guess.”
When the school children saw the tiny, bearded teacher, who was lame into the bargain, they jeered even louder. Dr. K. had always been a timid little man. He overtook the handcart and started running towards the gate. As he fled, leaving his wife behind, his bag opened and its contents poured out into the street. There had indeed been books in the bag. Now they were scattered on the ground, with the wind snatching at the pages. The school children, pushing and shoving, picked them up, opened them and inspected the titles.
At this point the relocation of the Jews seemed to be temporarily halted by the lunch hour. The school children went home. I remained at the window with Szabó, while the table was set behind us for lunch. Returning to an old topic, we were debating which ten books of world literature we would take with us, if we had to spend the rest of our lives on a desert island.
I was talking, when Szabó interrupted me:
“Wait a moment. He’s left one book behind. Look! Can you see it? Near the grille in the gutter.”
With my weak eyes I couldn’t see it.
“I’ll go down and get it,” Szabó said excitedly.
I saw him cross the road, bend down and, in disgust, pick the book out of the muck in the gutter. When he glanced at the title, an expression of scornful and angry surprise appeared on his face. He came running back and almost fell into the room.
“Unbelievable. How corny can things get? This could have been put there by a tasteless director, to make sure that the last moron in the gallery got the message. Such vulgar symbolism! What do you think it is?”
“Diabolical,” he said grinning. “The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.”
“Typical of Dr. K. But you’re right. What a cheap effect: The Imitation of Christ in the gutter.”
Mrs. Szabó brought the lunch. My wife had also recovered a little and sat down at the table. While we ate we mulled over what to do. Obviously, having met the Arrow Cross doctor, we couldn’t stay with the Szabós very long. After lunch we continued deliberating for hours, but didn’t come up with any firm plan. Frankly, I wasn’t very interested.