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Hungarians revere their poets. Perhaps it is because their language is so idiosyncratic and the linguistic community relatively small that it is the poets who best preserve the link between language and cultural identity. Poets, even more than military heroes and politicians, are remembered through street names, squares, metro stops, and memorials. Our apartment is on the corner of Radnóti Miklós, named for the poet, and the building carries a memorial to him.

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Sándor Petőfi is the most beloved poet in Hungary. He was a leader of the ill fated revolution of 1848 against the Austrian occupation — the author of “The 12 Points” spelling out demands of the revolutionaries, and his reading of his poem “Nemzeti dal” (The National Song) on March 15, 1848 on the steps of the National History Museum was the call to arms of revolution. Every school child in Hungary memorizes the poem. Here is the opening verse:

RISE, Magyar! is the country’s call!

The time has come, say one and all:

Shall we be slaves, shall we be free?

This is the question, now agree!

For by the Magyar’s God above

We truly swear,

We truly swear the tyrant’s yoke

No more to bear!

He was killed during the revolution; his body was never recovered, presumed buried in a mass grave with other revolutionaries. March 15 is Hungary’s major national holiday and it includes a reading of the National Song at the National History Museum. In Budapest there are fifteen streets and squares as well as a bridge that carry his name.

Miklós Radnóti, the namesake of our street, is the best know “Holocaust poet” of Hungary. He was an assimilated Jew who converted to Catholicism in the early 1940s as many Jews did in the face of intense anti-Semitism. He was drafted into the Hungarian Army but because he was nonetheless a Jew he was put in a labor battalion serving in Ukraine and then in a copper mine in Serbia. In 1944 his battalion of over 3000 men was captured by Yugoslav soldiers (led by Tito) and force-marched to central Hungary; a death march in which most, including Radnóti died. It is reported that he was beaten severely and shot into a mass grave. During the march, he continued to write poems and “postcards” in a notebook that was recovered. Here are his final poems:

Postcard 3
written October 24, 1944 near Mohács, Hungary

The oxen dribble bloody spittle;
the men pass blood in their piss.
Our stinking regiment halts, a horde of perspiring savages,
adding our aroma to death’s repulsive stench.

Postcard 4
his final poem, written October 31, 1944 near Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary

I toppled beside him — his body already taut,
tight as a string just before it snaps,
shot in the back of the head.
“This is how you’ll end too; just lie quietly here,”
I whispered to myself, patience blossoming from dread.
“Der springt noch auf,” the voice above me said
but I could only dimly hear
through the filthy blood slowly sealing my ear.

I especially liked this little sculpture of Radnóti (only a few inches tall) that we saw in the Kiscelli Museum last week.

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