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Thursday 26th February 2004
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REVIEWS   BY EVA TUCKER

The barracks at Aushwitz


A drawing of Bela Zsolt published in a Hungarian newspaper during the 1930s


A Jewish Hungarian baby with a tattooed arm
Suitcases of despair in the battle for life
Bela Zsolt’s nightmarish chronicle of the atrocities of the Holocuast is as riveting as it is terrifying, writes Eva Tucker

Bela Zsolt: Nine Suitcases
Translated by Ladislaus Lob
Jonathan Cape, £17.99


Since I came to the ghetto my attitude to the question of life and death has varied. When I was first brought in I had two years’ forced labour and military prison behind me followed by a few days of freedom before the German occupation. At this point I felt I’d had enough, that that was it. I wasn’t just indifferent to life but I was rejecting it outright.”
That is the frame of mind the central character, a political journalist, in Bela Zsolt’s harrowing autobiographical novel, Nine Suitcases, has reached two thirds of the way through the book.
The year is 1944, the place is the Nagyvarad ghetto in Hungary. But when a possible plan of escape by feigning infection with typhoid to avoid being put on the train to Auschwitz begins to take shape, a spark of hope returns reinforced by the sound of British and American planes flying overhead.
However, life could have taken an altogether different turn. As early as August 1939 he and his wife with their nine suitcases had sought refuge in Paris. From there it was open to him to move on to various other parts of the world but his wife was more firmly wedded to those suitcases than to him.
During the wartime disruption there was only one train which would accommodate that amount of luggage – namely the train back to Budapest.
Throughout the novel, these suitcases haunt his wife – even among the piles of luggage brought into the ghetto by other deportees.
The unspeakable cruelties witnessed and experienced in the forced labour camp in the Ukraine – told in a series of graphic flashbacks – and now in the ghetto, have divided the man from himself. He listens to what goes on as if it were a radio play, unable to believe that what is happening is actually happening.
This state of mind echoes what, in totally different circumstances, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina asks herself: “Am I myself or someone else?”
He can no longer trust his own beliefs and motives. Is it because he really loves his wife that he refuses to escape from the ghetto without her or is it pseudo-heroic posturing? Can he believe in any kind of god when the only miracle the Chassidic wonder-rabbi has achieved is an escape for himself, when the Christian nuns have not exerted themselves on behalf of their Jewish protégés?
He reflects that he has always felt a godless and profane deep genuine sympathy for Jesus and for what the Gospels reveal about his objectives.
“On the other hand…having railed against God I suddenly became frightened because death was far too close and I also felt that God was too close, as if He were sitting on the edge of my bed, like a fanatical party leader whose stubborn sectarian determination is impervious to any argument.” Not the kind of god that can comfort in extreme situations.
How this writer who has all but lost his own identity nevertheless summons up enough energy to escape the ghetto with his wife at the eleventh hour helped by one or two loyal non-Jewish friends takes up the final third of the novel.
Bela Zsolt was born in Northern Hungary in 1895. During World War I he served in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Russian front.
In 1920 he moved to Budapest and between 1925 and 1943 produced ten novels, four plays and was a prolific literary and political journalist. He escaped from the ghetto in Nagyyarad to Switzerland in 1944 as part of the Kasztner Group who were planning to exchange trucks and goods for surviving Jews in Hungary. Though the deal came to nothing, 1,686 lives were saved during negotiations.
Zsolt returned to Budapest in 1945 to play a leading part in the formation of the Hungarian Radical Party and lived there until his death in 1949. His wife committed suicide in 1948 never having got over the death in Auschwitz of her daughter by a first marriage.
The translator Ladislaus Lob, Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Sussex, met Zsolt briefly as a boy of 11 when they were both prisoners in the Belsen concentration camp.
His translation captures the nuances of the fluctuating moods of these tense and horrifying years, including the occasional flashes of a kind of gallows humour, with the sympathetic insight of one who knows what it is to balance in the razor’s edge of a constantly threatened existence.