VERY, VERY RARELY you read something that knocks the breath out of you. The last book that hit me so hard was Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, which exposed the poison that had been brewing in prewar Europe like no other I know. Now this masterpiece does the same for its consequences. I hope it has not come too late; that impatience with the old Jewish Problem and anger at the new one will not stop Bkla Zsolt from taking his rightful place with Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski and Rezzori himself among the supreme artist-historians of twentieth-century evil.
It is only the English version of Nine Suitcases that has taken nearly sixty years to arrive. But the publishing history of the original too was as dogged by bad timing as its author himself. Béla Zsolt was born in 1895, in time for both world wars, and – as a left-liberal journalist and writer, both anti-fascist and anti-communist – for extreme political and racial persecution before, after and in between. He published forty-odd chapters of Nine Suitcases in his weekly journal Haladds (‘Progress’) in 1946-7; but he never finished it, and never saw it published in book form. His wife committed suicide in 1948, and he died in 1949 aged only %-four, worn out, one imagines, by his extraordinary sufferings.
That was that for a writer out of favour with the regime, whose subject was taboo in the Communist bloc; until 1980, when the first Hungarian edition finally appeared. So the translator, Ladislaus Lob, tells us. He also mentions that he himself, as a child of eleven, met Zsolt at Bergen Belsen in 1944. He is too self-effacing to say whether it was his own championship of Zsolt which has finally brought the book to the English-speaking world. If it was, we owe him a great debt of gratitude, both for this and for the translation itself, which is similarly self-effacing, and appallingly clear.
Zsolt’s masterpiece is closer to Borowski’s than to Primo Levi’s. Levi is entirely honest about the ‘grey zone’: those who will survive at any cost, who are always a majority; but his powerful portraits of the uncorrupted allow us to live through Auschwitz with him without an ultimate loss of faith. Nine Suitcases, like Borowski’s This Wayfor the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, leaves us no saving grace, except in the sma indignatio of its writing. Zsolt is as truthful about the rare kind and brave helper as Levi is about the others: a few peasants, a few doctors, a teacher who hides him in her house, a brothel keeper who marches into the ghetto to reclaim her two Jewish girls – ‘Whores aren’t a race!’ she yells. But Zsolt’s emphasis is on the other side. He was never in Auschwitz: his story takes lace entirely in the outside, if not Bolt: an unsurpassable witness ordinary, world. And yet – or as a consequence – it is incomparably more horrifying, and (I warn you) may often convince you, as it often convinced the author, that life is not worth living.
The story looks both backward and forward from the ghetto of Nagyvárad, into which Zsolt and his family were thrown in March 1944: backward to his long torment as a forced labourer with the Hungarian Army in the Ukraine, and further, to the First World War (a shell splinter crushed his nose and shoved his teeth down his throat,): forward from his and his wife’s escape from the ghetto, helped by two doctors, a footballer, and the writer István Szabó and his wife Lili. And everywhere – except for such rare cases – there is cruelty, greed, torture, betrayal. These he plumbs to their depths. Over and over, he shows how quickly man becomes wolf to man, neighbours to neighbours, friends to friends, even children to their own parents: for (as no one else, I think, has ever dared to tell) children were cruellest of all in the ghetto, more maddened by hunger than adults, convinced by their captors that only criminals could be punished so cruelly. Even when the last Jew had vanished into the last cattle car, the people of Nagyvárad still complained that they were stealing the milk from their chlidren. Over and over people drop the moral structures that contain them like chains, exulting in the unlimited power to hurt those they have envied and feared: the rich, even the only slightly richer; above all, the intellectuals, like Zsolt himself. This is something Primo Levi noticed in Auschwitz as well: the special hatred of the SS and their lackeys for the educated prisoners, who were reviled – ‘Ihr Doktoren! Ihr Akademikek – and assigned to the most deadly commandos. It was the same outside. ‘I want to see people with doctorates attending to the horses,’ Zsolt’s commanding officer said in the Ukraine. ‘Not bankers, manufacturers or even currency dealers,’ Zsolt recalls, ‘but people with doctorates.’ ‘It’s not so much Jews these people want to kill,’ he says, ‘but civilisation itself’: the attempt to make us think.
Fortunately, Zsolt thinks. His analysis of how and why it could happen, from the victims’ point of view, is the best part of this book. It happened because people could not believe it could happen, or that it was happening, even as it did: that a state could cease to protect its citizens, that laws could turn against those who obeyed them. The Jews of Europe were destroyed by their respect for the law. Zsolt describes this better than anyone I have ever read, even Primo Levi:
‘White people with fixed addresses, carrying documents of domicile and nationality and wearing European clothes [were] crammed into cattle wagons . . . and transported to some region inhabited by other white people where, not long ago, if somebody was hit by a tram, voluntary ambulance men sped through the streets, sirens blaring, . . . and where the government awarded a medal to anyone who rescued a ragged travelling journeyman caught in a current while bathing in the Bug or the Vistula.
And he describes something else, too, better than anyone I have ever read: the matter of the nine suitcases. He and his wife did escape, at the very beginning: in August 1939, just before war broke out. But his wife took their whole life with her, in those nine suitcases; and two months later they were back in Hungary, because they had been unable to take the most important things, her daughter and her parents. They and their nine suitcases returned, because at the moment of danger she wanted to be home. Zsolt knows that that is the most dangerous place to be: you must do the impossible and dangerous that home has turned against you; the whole family’s best chance is to leave all objects, to leave each other, and separately flee. His wife cannot do it; she is unable to leave not only her daughter, whom she cannot save, but her nine suitcases of precious objects, which follow them like a Greek chorus. And ultimately Zsolt cannot either. He can cut himself free from objects, ‘the gods of the bourgeoisie’; but he too is drawn at the moment of danger to the most dangerous place, home. Nine Suitcases is full of brilliant passages. But Zsolt’s writing about his central theme is unsurpassable. I leave you with one last example:
I tell you, after what has happened to them in this war, people should remain nomads for at least a hundred years, ready to move on at any moment. They shouldn’t let their homes and furniture worm their way into their petty-bourgeois sentiments and paralyse them. I’ll never have a library again. I had three thousand books, … but if I survive, against all the odds, I’ll read like the eccentric Professor Friedmann, whom I considered a vandal and a madman because whenever he had read a page in a book he tore it out and threw it on the ground.