An affecting memoir of the Holocaust by a noted Hungarian author, with many an unusual twist.
Born in 1895, Zsolt had published ten novels and four plays by the time a right-wing government came to power in Hungary, the product of “folksy populists . . . who decried urban Western civilization and championed a chauvinistic system based on the alleged strength and purity of an unspoiled Magyar race rooted in the Hungarian countryside.” Regrettably, Zsolt was an urban Jew, and though he had served the emperor with distinction in WWI, he found himself a target. Because it was, at least superficially, a full partner with Nazi Germany, Hungary got to set its own rules, which did not include exterminating its Jews—at least at first. Zsolt was thus sent to the countryside, and then into Ukraine, as a laborer. “I was thoroughly trained in gravedigging out there,” he writes, waiting with his fellow prisoners to clean up after Hungarian soldiers, White Ukrainian commandos, and Nazi troops as they burned villages and gunned down the fleeing inhabitants, who “tumble all over the ground, into the glowing ashes.” Zsolt writes of the daily torments of the region’s Jews, who sensed that something worse was on the way but for the time being had to withstand the greedy scheming of neighbors outside the shtetls and ghettos and, as the author recounts it, the excesses of Nazi martinets and fascist petty officials; as one SS officer berates a young rabbi, in one memorable scene, a Hungarian police captain watches “with the expression of a pedantic official, who is not responsible for the matter in hand, but who doesn’t disapprove of what’s going on.” But the victim refuses to relent, and, as Zsolt writes, “It made no difference, but the rabbi won,” which sends the Nazi officer into a foul humor: “He felt as uncomfortable about looking his audience in the eye as an actor who feels everything has gone wrong that day.”
Vignettes of hell: a valuable account of daily life under Hungarian fascism—banned for four decades even under Communist rule.