Miklós Radnóti
War Diary (1935-36) 

Radnoti and Fifi

Miklós Radnóti and his wife Fifi

The original author of these pieces was one of the great poets of the Holocaust. His work will take centre place in a varied and energetic programme of literary and educational events in 2014 marking his country’s Holocaust Memorial Year. The project just announced by the government in Budapest will commemorate the murder of hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilian captives including Radnóti – mostly Jews but also Roma, homosexuals and political dissidents – perpetrated by the Hungarian state in collaboration with Nazi Germany. This happened during the final and most intensive phase of the Holocaust at the close of WWII when an Allied victory was already obvious. These new translations will be included in The Survivors: Holocaust Poetry for Our Time by Thomas Land to be published by Smokestack Press in 2014.

1 Monday Evening
These days the distant news dissolves the world
and often brings your heart to miss a beat – but
the trees of old still hold your childhood secrets
in their widening memory rings.

Between suspicious mornings and furious nights,
you have spent half your life corralled by war.
Upon the glinting points of the bayonets, striding
repression encircles you.

The land of your poetry may appear in your dreams
with the wings of freedom gliding above the meadows,
still sensed through the mist, and when the magic breaks
the elation may persist.

But you half-sit on your chair when you rarely dare
to work... restrained in grey and fearful mire.
Your hand still dignified by the pen moves forward,
more burdened day by day.

View the tide of clouds: the ravenous thunderhead
of the war is devouring the gentle blue of the sky.
With her loving, protective arms around you
sobs your anxious bride. 

2 Tuesday Evening

I can sleep calmly now, and methodically
I go about my business... despite the gas,
grenades and bombs and aircraft made to kill me.
I’m past the fear, the rage. I cannot cry.
So I have come to live as hard as teams
of road-builders high among the windy hills:
when their light shelters
decay with age,
they build new shelters
and soundly sleep in beds of fragrant wood-shavings
and splash and dip their faces at dawn in cool
and radiant streams. 

* * *
I spy out from this hilltop where I live:
the clouds are crowding.
As the watch on the mainmast over stormy seas
will bellow when, by a lightning’s flash, at last
he thinks he sees
a distant land,
I also can discern from here the shores of peace:
I shout: Compassion!
...My voice is light.

The chilly stars respond with a brightening light,
my word is carried far by the chilly breeze
of the deepening night.

3 Weary Afternoon

A slowly dying wasp flies through the window.
My woman dreaming... muttering in her sleep.
The clouds are turning brown. Along their edges
caressed by the breeze, white ripples teem.

What can I say?... The winter comes and war comes.
I shall fall broken, abandoned without any reason
and worm-ridden earth will fill my mouth and eye-pits
and through my corpse, fresh roots will sprout.

* * *
Oh, peaceful, swaying afternoon, lend me your calm!
I too must rest for a while, I will work later.
Your sunrays hang suspended from the shrubs
as the evening saunters across the hill.

The blood of a fine fat cloud has smeared the sky.
And beneath the burning leaves, the scented yellow
berries are ripening, swelling with wine.

4 Evening Approaches

The sun is descending down a slippery sky.
The evening is approaching early, sprawling
along the road. The watchful moon has missed it.
Pools of mist are falling.

The evening’s whirling sounds among the branches
grow louder. The hedges wake to turn and tilt
at weary travellers. These lines clasp one another
as they are slowly built.

And now!.. a squirrel invades my quiet room
and runs two brown iambic lines, a race
of terror between my window and the wall
and flees without a trace.

My fleeting peace has vanished with the squirrel.
Outside in the fields, the vermin silently spread,
digesting slowly the endless, regimented,
reclining rows of the dead. 

Translated from the Hungarian and edited by
Thomas Land

If you have any comments on this poem,
Thomas Land would be pleased to hear from you.

Deathmarch, Thomas Land's translation of poetry by Miklós Radnóti, was published by Snakeskin in 2009.