Dark times: Selected literature by Hungarians of the last century

Attila József (1905-1937), poet

József was born into an extremely poor family in Budapest. Poverty led to him and his siblings ending up in foster care, which did not make their lives much better. Eventually his education was provided for by his well-to-do brother-in-law. He published his first poems at the age of 17. He was expelled from University of Szeged for writing the poem Tiszta szívvel (With A Pure Heart), which was deemed to be provocative. In 1930 he joined the Hungarian Communist Party, and developed his own theories about how Marxism should be supplemented with Freudian ideas. In 1934 he was kicked out for an unknown reason. After a long period of mental troubles, he committed suicide at the young age of 32 by crawling through the railway tracks and being crushed by a train.

Two of his poems have been selected below, with a video of a poem recital each. Tiszta szívvel has a simple and elegant structure; it is made up of 4 stanzas, each stanza being 4 lines long, and each line 7 syllables long. The provocative poem speaks to me of a pure-hearted man who has been cast aside by society and forced to resort to immoral acts to survive before dying in a toxic world. Ime, hát megleltem hazámat is the last poem that József wrote in November 1937, just less than a month before his suicide in early December. It speaks to me of a man who believes his life of preaching social ideals is for naught, as in the last stanza (‘…winter the best, when you leave your hopes for family and hearth to other men at last’) he welcomes death.


Selected poems:

Tiszta szívvel (1925)


Nincsen apám, se anyám,

se istenem, se hazám,

se bölcsőm, se szemfedőm,

se csókom, se szeretőm.


Harmadnapja nem eszek,

se sokat, se keveset.

Húsz esztendőm hatalom,

húsz esztendőm eladom.


Hogyha nem kell senkinek,

hát az ördög veszi meg.

Tiszta szívvel betörök,

ha kell, embert is ölök.


Elfognak és felkötnek,

áldott földdel elfödnek

s halált hozó fű terem

gyönyörűszép szívemen.

With a pure heart

(as translated by Thomas Kabdebo)

Without father without mother

without God or homeland either

without crib or coffin-cover

without kisses or a lover


for the third day – without fussing

I have eaten next to nothing.

My store of power are my years

I sell all my twenty years.


Perhaps, if no else will

the buyer will be the devil.

With a pure heart – that’s a job:

I may kill and I shall rob.


They’ll catch me, hang me high

in blessed earth I shall lie,

and poisonous grass will start

to grow on my beautiful heart.


Recitation of the Hungarian poem (Youtube):

In this recitation the poem is recited three times – each time more agitated than the last.


Ime, hát megleltem hazámat (1937)


Ime, hát megleltem hazámat,

a földet, ahol nevemet

hibátlanul irják fölébem,

ha eltemet, ki eltemet.


E föld befogad, mint a persely.

Mert nem kell (mily sajnálatos!)

a háborúból visszamaradt

húszfilléres, a vashatos.


Sem a vasgyűrű, melybe vésve

a szép szó áll, hogy uj világ,

jog, föld. – Törvényünk háborús még

s szebbek az arany karikák.


Egyedül voltam én sokáig.

Majd eljöttek hozzám sokan.

Magad vagy, mondták; bár velük

voltam volna én boldogan.


Igy éltem s voltam én hiába,

megállapithatom magam.

Bolondot játszottak velem

s már halálom is hasztalan.


Mióta éltem, forgószélben

próbáltam állni helyemen.

Nagy nevetség, hogy nem vétettem

többet, mint vétettek nekem.


Szép a tavasz és szép a nyár is,

de szebb az ősz s legszebb a tél,

annak, ki tűzhelyet, családot,

már végképp másoknak remél.

(Less literal and more contextual translation by Edwin Morgan)

Well, in the end I have found my home,

the land where flawless chiselled letters

guard my name above the grave

where I’m buried, if I have buriers.


It will take me like a collecting-box,

this earth. For no one (sadly) wants

wartime leftovers of base metal,

wretched devalued iron coins.


Or an iron ring engraved

with noble words: new world, rights, land.

Our laws are still the fruit of war;

gold rings shine finer on the hand.


For many years I was alone.

Then all about me was a crowd.

It’s up to you, they said, although

I’d have loved to follow them round.


It was like that, empty, the way I lived:

no one has to tell me it was.

I was compelled to play the fool

and now I die without a cause.


In that whole whirlwind of my life

I have tried to stand my ground.

More sinned against than sinning, I

leave that thought and laugh aloud.


Spring is beautiful, summer too,

autumn better, winter the best

when you leave your hopes for family

and hearth to other men at last.


Recitation of the Hungarian poem (Youtube): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fghQ9qYgFr4


Imre Kertész (1929- ), Holocaust writer

Having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, and the only Hungarian to have won the prize thus far, Kertész has become much more internationally recognised. Back in Hungary, however, there remains some controversy as Kertész currently resides in Berlin. All of his works, fiction or not, have dealt with the Holocaust.

Born in 1929, Kertész was a young Jewish boy when he was sent off to concentration camps, first in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, before he was liberated at the end of the war. His very first novel, Sorstalanság (‘Fatelessness’), was published in 1975. It draws from his own experiences and is centred on a Jewish boy named György who was sent to concentration camps. György’s experiences were recounted in a very detached manner as the young boy tried to make sense of the happenings around him with his limited understanding as a youth. When György was freed and sent back to Budapest, his emotions finally surfaced and he comments that those who believe in fate cannot be freed. Sorstalanság is the first in a trilogy with the same protagonist and is followed with A kudarc (‘Fiasco’) and Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért (‘Kaddish for a Child Not Born’). In Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért, the protagonist explains that he cannot bear the idea of bringing his (hypothetical) child into this world that allowed Auschwitz to happen.

(For a more detailed analysis of the subject present in the trilogy, please refer to this article on the Nobel Prize website: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2002/kertesz-article.html)




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