Author's page

Béla ZSOLT
( 1895 - 1949 )

Biography

1895 born in Komárom, then in the Hungarian-Austrian Monarchy (today Komárno, Serbia)
1918 journalist in Nagyvárad, Transylvania (today Oradea, Romania)
1920 left-wing journalist of the opposition in Budapest
1925 contributes to liberal papers Világ, Magyar Hírlap and Újság
1929-38 editor, from 1930 senior editor, of the literary journal A Toll (The Pen)
1942-43 classified a Jew and inducted into a labour battalion, spends 19 months in the Ukraine
1944 taken to the Nagyvárad Ghetto, escapes by forged documents
1945 taken to Bergen-Belsen, later manages to emigrate to Switzerland
1945 as a leading figure in the Hungarian Radical Party, becomes editor-in-chief for its weekly Haladás (Progress)
1947 elected a member of parliament for the Civil Radical Party (in opposition)
1949 dies in Budapest

An Embarrassing Situation
1935

In this novel, Doctor Hell (whose name is suggestive in the German sense of the word), is the ironically drawn double of Zsolt. Café-society opposition drowns out his appeal for a better world.

Stroke of Lightening
1937

Here Zsolt explores the roots of his own personal and social disappointment. Coming from and disgusted by aggressive enterprise-oriented, politically servile petty bourgeois families, his generation seeks remedy for their sense of political, social and economic guilt in the left wing, in both radical and socialist politics. The experience they undergo, however, is embarrassing. As middle class intellectuals, they cannot approach the peasants and workers they aim to help. Being Jewish, they are alienated even within the middle classes into which their fathers meant to assimilate. And finally they are disappointed in themselves, as their opposition turns out to be romantic adolescent fantasy; when in danger they return to petty bourgeois responses.

Nine Suitcases
1980

Zsolt's last and unfinished novel documents the life in the Nagyvárad Ghetto and is intermingled with the writer's memories of forced labour in the Ukraine. Zsolt never wrote the second part about his escape from Belsen-Bergen to Switzerland and about the Kasztner plot, the much-debated scheme that saved at least some of the wealthy or well-known Hungarian Jews. His paper, Haladás, started a documentary series on the subject, and the novel remained a fragment, perhaps because Zsolt was more interested in the time he spent in Hungary. It is hard to determine the boundary between autobiography and the autobiographical novel. In Béla Zsolt's case the careful reader will notice a sort of apologia towards the end of the book, where a journey is being described in great detail. The story was, however, written in serial form, and the author died without having the chance to revise it. The narrator has just been brought into the Nagyvárad Ghetto. As he is lying on his mattress, he sums up the losses. The country has been lost in the course of consolidation. His mother must by now be dead. All their property has been taken or destroyed. And those trapped in the ghetto are waiting for their unavoidable deaths. The town is being bombed, in the ghetto no one fears death. Stiff bodies with waxen ankles lie in a pile near him. The narrator finds it is most improbable that he should be lying on the floor of the Chassid in the rabbi's synagogue, under the Arc of the Covenant. He is examining his situation with keen detachment, something he can later identify with the split mind of the deported. He cannot help but realise that it was his own free will that has brought him here: his so-called fate was decided in Paris, rue de Grenelle, in 1939, when he failed to oppose his wife's wish to return home to the war-time, fascist Hungary. Or was it the nine suitcases? The luggage was almost lost one day before the war broke out, and two months later the only train that accepted it all was the one that took them home to Hungary. The suitcases become the emblem of men's illogical clinging to objects, and turn up with a grim irony towards the end of the novel, when they carry "the Present of the Hungarian Nation to the Suffering German Brethren". How is it possible that while the elderly and the weak rebel against the rules of the ghetto and attempt an escape, the narrator himself, a member of the Resistance since 1939, is lying impassively on the mattress? Indeed, he could have led these unlikely rebels, could have mobilized all of the suffering and the dying, and armed with the planks of the synagogue, with bedpans and crutches, they could have defied the gendarmes. The macabre effect is bitter. Zsolt analyses ghetto life with a sociographic eye for detail. He notices how the children accuse their parents for bringing them into this terrible situation, or, for that matter, for bringing them into the world. The adults repeat the patterns of the outside world. They grab the opportunity to prove their superiority to one another but are basically apathetic. Those who can, commit suicide. Elements of the outside world occasionally break into the bleak scene of the ghetto. A registrar becomes a hero because he will not leave before he has listed all the diseased. That is, until the gendarme makes the man's superior order him to. The madam of the brothel calls on the guards, and freezing them with cheerful remarks, takes her two Jewish girls. Some sympathetic workers demonstrate in front of the ghetto. Most are shot. But these are the exceptions. The outside world is alien and indifferent. There are ethical questions to be solved. A pretty girl asks the writer whether she should yield to a gendarme in return for his promise that he will not beat up her father. The writer has seen pregnant Jewish girls working in a railway station in Poland, waiting for the end of their term, which inevitably means they will be shot and buried in a ditch for miscegenation. Moreover, he knows that a gendarme's promise means nothing. He is not willing to decide the girl's dilemma. Again, when the question of the transportation is final, the Jewish doctor mentions euthanasia, since the dying would otherwise be killed mercilessly. This time the writer agrees and bears the burden of 49 deaths. The dead have to be buried, and the sight of the burial is so horrible that even the gendarme breaks and suggests that the men should escape. But only one of the exhausted people tries to get away, and even he comes back running, because it is remain in place. The following day in the cemetery, however, a man who has buried one of his sons helps the other to escape. He kills himself in the ghetto with an easier mind. Escape, humiliation, digging common graves, all evoke the memories of the forced labour gang the narrator served in Ukraine. Even there he had seen such horror as he thought would defy a writer's credibility. But he tells the story of his life there, and how he escaped, contracted with typhus but somehow he survived among the Ukrainians. Less then a week has passed since the beginning of the novel; the first trains of prisoners are sent to Auschwitz. Before the entrainment, the people are searched for hidden valuables. At the sight of the defenceless old women, even the detached writer is gnawing at his fist. But meanwhile a doctor in the ghetto sets up a plan for saving some of the people. While the second and third transport is sent on, taking the writer's step-daughter who could not be saved, a group of the people pretend to be infected with typhus, and the transport is delayed for nearly two weeks. (The Anglo-Allies begin the invasion of France during this time.) The last chapters describe the narrator's escape home. A lady friend arrives with forged documents completed for a waiter and a waitress from a Budapest hotel, and the couple leave on a train. Their journey home is made all the more frightening when a gendarme sits next to them in the carriage and starts to converse. Playing his role of the waiter, the narrator cannot decline the man's offer of a drink at a station, in broad daylight. But his presence of mind saves him and they arrive in Budapest safely, in the company of the same gendarme.

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