prof. dr John Neubauer
Literature and the Unspeakable
Novi Sad/Újvidék 1942
prof. dr John Neubauer
At the end of Aleksandar Tišma’s The Book of Blam (1971), the protagonist attends a concert in the imposing Novi Sad synagogue, which had been converted into a concert hall because the decimated Jewish community could no longer deliver the required quorum. Listening to the music before the intermission, Miroslav Blam is carried away by playful sounds that evoke images that are not irrevocable or fated (210). In the intermission, he encounters, however, the old Funkenstein, who survived Bergen-Belsen by playing music for those taken to their execution, upon the camp commander’s order,. After the intermission, Blam can no longer listen to Dvořák’s Serenade: constantly feeling observed by an invisible eye, he finds the music, the people, the converted synagogue, and himself a sham. All these lies try to cover up the truth of existence. Once outside, he foresees his future execution, which, in contrast to his Holocaust attitude, he will not try to escape (226).
For Blam, music can no longer be what it was for many romantics, namely a divine language that speaks of an unspeakable divine world. His father Wilim, who adhered to an “enlightened atheism,” preferred the cosmopolitan “incense” of cafés to the tradition-laden synagogue music. Like the rest of the family except for Miroslav, Wilim was murdered by Hungarian soldiers in the Novi Sad “razzia” of 1942. In the post-war world, Miroslav is unable to find companions with whom he could communicate. His inability to speak about his self-contempt and the unspeakable horrors of his experiences, imposes upon the novel an omniscient narrator, who tells the stories of the Jews and the Serbs of Novi Sad, focusing on the 1942 razzia.
Miroslav Blam’s inability to talk emblematically expresses the problems of everybody who wishes to evoke and consider the horrors of the Holocaust. Though we have developed by now many verbal and non-verbal modes of communication to let the unspeakable speak to us via Holocaust effects (see Ernst van Alphen), I am personally skeptical about most of them, and this is one reason why I tried to avoid writing about the Holocaust. Though I have seen the German tanks roll down along the Danube towards Yugoslavia in 1941, and I survived by going underground in 1944, I have not written about the Holocaust until now. I agree with Blam that even music is unable to convey authentically the horrors of the Holocaust, and while I admit that music with filmic or other images that can be heart-rending, I often feel that such representations manipulate the audience.
Still, as Tišma seems to suggest in his Pre mita, the imagination may be given a limited freedom in poetic and novelistic attempts to speak about the Holocaust:
The evil that has accumulated in our days can be cleansed only by means of extended catharses, for which art is an excellent area?, and the artist, who has the ability to activate and motivate evil, is an excellent mediator … to muffle evil with silence, or with black-and-white declarations (which is the same), amounts to sweeping it under the rug, enabling it to survive latently, to kill, and to wait for the moment to break out. (6-7 quoted in Gvozden 97; my translation)
I hope to show in this article the emotive and intellectual power of fiction about the Holocaust, with two novels on the Novi-Sad razzia of 1942. The first is Tišma’s mentioned The Book of Blam, while the second one is Tibor Cseres’s Hideg napok (1964). Unfortunately, I have not seen the film that András Kovács made in 1966 of Cseres’s novel, which would have offered opportunities to compare novelistic and filmic representations. (No film exists of The Book of Blam; six other works of Tišma have been adapted to the screen, and one is in the making).
A few preliminary words ought to be said about the much-discussed differences between fiction and historical studies. Archival academic research, family histories, personal recollections, witness accounts, and other forms of historical documentation are indispensable for any kind of discourse on the Holocaust. Recollections — as opposed to documents from the time of the events — are not purely factual, for time wreaks havoc with memory. Indeed, it has become so difficult to separate neatly facts and fiction that many relevant works consciously characterize themselves now with terms that merge the two. “Autofiction,” for instance, is a term that writers use for hybrid texts that fuse autobiography and fiction. Such texts admit that autobiographical narratives are hardly ever purely factual, for they are produced by a personal consciousness that often records, voluntarily or involuntarily, factual inaccuracies. Even the Nobel-Prize-winning Elie Wiesel had to revise some of his Holocaust recollections in later editions.
Looking at historical studies, we should note a major restriction: historians may enter into the thoughts of their historical characters if these have somehow been made public. However, the moment they present undocumentable psychological attitudes and opinions, they engage in fiction. Dan Porat’s recently published The Boy: A Holocaust Story (2010), contains, for instance, dozens of authentic photographs, of which the most famous one shows a little Jewish boy facing SS guns with hands up. This, and many other ones, was taken from the report Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr! (published in English in 1979 as The Stroop Report: The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More!) that Jürgen Stroop, the SS leader of the German forces that put down the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, sent to Heinrich Himmler in May 1943. Porat meticulously and conscientiously traced, as far as he could, the stories behind the photos, and he reconstructed the life stories of several victims and perpetrators (including that of Stroop), but he did not shy away from filling some gaps with plausible fiction – which some people resent, for they prefer keeping fact and fiction apart. Publicly recorded statements are reliable facts, but we must always ask how far from the actual events the recording occurred. The speaker may have seen things very differently in other moments of his or her life. Furthermore, we always have to ask whether the documentation adequately presents the full range of relevant materials.
For fiction writers, the minds of fictional characters are “transparent,” as long as their narrator is “omniscient” (to use a traditional term, usually applied to nineteenth-century fiction). Once the narrator participates as a character in the fictional world, if he or she is an “internal” narrator, the minds of the other fictional characters should again become inaccessible – though there are several imaginative devices that can overcome this categorical division. Nevertheless, as a rule, fiction offers to recipients richer material for empathy (or hatred). Fiction can portray unexpressed and inaccessible psychological processes, including pain and suffering, love and hatred.
These all too general and selective introductory remarks are meant to support my suggestion that fictional works can be effective for evoking and discussing the Holocaust. This is particularly true, I believe, in the specific historical case I have chosen, the Novi Sad razzia of January 1942, which is complex and sensitive because it involves Serbs as well as Jews, i.e. nationalism as well as anti-Semitism. It differs, for instance, from Anne Frank’s case, where genocide was operating against Jews but not against the Dutch. The twofold mass murder in Novi Sad partly explains why Hungarian and Serb historians, politicians, and citizens still disagree on crucial matters of responsibility.
The topic has contemporary relevance. In June 2013, the Hungarian President, János Áder, apologized to Serbia’s national assembly for Hungarian crimes committed against innocent Serbs in Vojvodina during World War II. This was a prearranged response to the declaration of the Serbian parliament a few days earlier, which condemned the post-war massacre of Hungarians in Vojvodina. The Serbian retribution is the subject of Vérbosszú Bácskában (1991), another book by Cseres. In Hideg napok, the question whether the Serbs will eventually take revenge is raised twice but only in passing (84, 147).
I know not how these two atrocities were reported in the Serbian media, but I have read the Hungarian language version of the Wikipedia about them, and found that it was obviously written from a Hungarian perspective. The article suggests (what is probably true) that Serbia was pressured by the EU to admit the Serbian post-war revenges, which the Hungarian Wikipedia text characterizes as “a heinous crime” (“mérhetetlen gaztett”) without attaching a comparable adjective to the earlier Hungarian atrocities. The Hungarian text reports that Áder remembered the razzia victims with piety (“kegyelettel”) but does not say that the President excused himself on behalf of his nation for the Hungarian murders. Similarly biased reportings in the Hungarian Wikipedia show that random facts do not yet represent a balanced truth.
Politically motivated formal gestures of reconciliation become valuable only if historical accounts, school texts, and public education become harmonized between different countries, races, and religions. I sincerely hope that the present conference and its follow-ups will take steps to construct a balanced truth about the Novi Sad razzia. Among the many obstacles, the greatest ones are, in my view, the current Hungarian efforts to clean the highest Horthy echelons and Horthy himself of guilt. There are outrageous initiatives in Hungary now to rehabilitate Horthy. Indeed, Hungarian accounts, including the Hungarian-language Wikipedia, always mention with pride that the Horthy regime itself brought to trial the Novi Sad perpetrators in 1943. True, several of them were condemned to death, but only in absentia, because they were allowed to flee to Germany.
Emblematic, is the case of gendarmerie captain Sándor Képíró, who appears in the Cseres novel and has received renewed international attention in recent years. Képíró was condemned by a Hungarian court in 1944 but was released when the German troops marched into Hungary on March 19 of that year. A post-war Hungarian court condemned him to 14-years of prison, but, again, in absentia, for Képíró had already fled to Austria, and then to Argentina. He lived there, presumably under a false name, but returned to Hungary after the political turnover, when he was assured that the court verdict had been annulled.
Sources date Képíró’s post-war trial as 1946 or 1948. The date is important, for if the verdict of 14-years prison was made in 1946, defenders of Képíró cannot claim that János Nagy, a former Hungarian soldier of Képíró’s platoon, provided the decisive evidence under torture by the communist secret service. The communist secret service had no such power in 1946. Képíró himself never admitted that he participated in executions or any illegal activity. Under pressure from the Wiesenthal Center in Vienna he was once more brought to trial in May 2011 in Budapest, at age 97, but a Hungarian court ruled in July of that year that Képíró was not guilty. He died in September 2011, and several YouTube videos about his funeral are accompanied by vicious anti-Semitic blogs. The case is not finished – and perhaps will never be. Talking about 1942 in Novi Sad is not just commemoration but also participation in contemporary politics.
Hideg napok (1964)
Cseres’s novel appeared a year after Hannah Arendt had published her book on the 1961 Eichmann trial in Israel, titled Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. Eichmann resisted the pressure to admit his guilt; Arendt claimed that he enthusiastically joined the Nazis because he was unable to think independently. Her title suggests that perpetrators like Eichmann are subservient rather than bloodthirsty or inhuman. The interpretation is still controversial, especially after the recent film on her and the Eichmann trial.
Trials interrogate perpetrators, but they seldom succeed in finding convincing motivations and personality characterizations. This may be one reason why Cseres includes no interrogation in Hideg napok, contrary, for instance, to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, where interrogations and internal reflections alternate in the life of the jailed protagonist. Cseres puts four fictional Hungarian participants of the Novi Sad razzia in a cell, apparently as part of the trial that took place during World War II. However, there are no interrogations, the four men are ignorant of the accusations against them, and they are puzzled by the decision to put the four of them in one cell. The trial itself is largely irrelevant. The setup is obviously a fictional and hypothetical construction, which should yield information unavailable to judges and historians. Unlike the witnesses in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashômon (1950), the cellmates in Cseres’s novel do not argue, however, with each other about jointly experienced individual events or the meaning of the witnessed razzia as a whole.
The most astonishing jail conversations with a perpetrator are not fictional but historical, recorded by Kazimierz Moczarski in his Rozmowy z katem (Conversations with an Executioner; 1977). Moczarski, the leader of the Western-led Home Army in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, was condemned to ten-years of prison by the communists because of his Western filiation, and with unbelievable maliciousness he was placed in a cell with Jürgen Stroop, the mentioned SS liquidator of the Warsaw Ghetto. Predictably, Stroop never showed any guilt feelings, but driven by an urge to talk about himself, he told his life in installments to Moczarski, who listened without criticism, in order to get Stroop’s filtered “full” story. Stroop was executed in 1952, while Moczarski was released from prison in 1956, and he recalled the conversations subsequently. They appeared as of 1972 in installments and in 1977 as a book. Later researches confirmed the accuracy of what he wrote down.
In contrast to Stroop, the cellmates of Cseres are preoccupied with the atrocities and their role in them. We are watching a group dynamics between four people, all of whom (just like Eichmann) deny any guilt. The fictional figures do not speak under oath, and they incriminate the speaker only in the eyes of those in the cell (including themselves); they speak relatively freely and informally, although they do not like each other and they suspect that one of them is an implanted spy. The dynamics of the conversation is heavily influenced by military and social hierarchies, which are slightly negated by their remarkably similar personalities. All of them are obsessed by sexual violence (79-80), and they have little interest in or empathy with others, including their cellmates. They express no guilt, and their remarks do not lead to meaningful confessions.
The most bloodthirsty fictional figure of the novel, corporal Dorner, is not in the cell. His worst atrocities are told by corporal Szabó, who served under him. Next to Sándor Képíró, the two highest and most vicious historical officers, Major-General József Grassy and Lieutenant General Ferenc Feketehalmy-Czeydner also appear briefly in the novel, but we do not hear what happened to them. They actually fled to Germany to avoid Hungarian prosecution, joined the SS, and returned to Hungary in March 1944. The Americans arrested them after the war, handed them over to the Hungarians, who then turned them over to the Yugoslav authorities. Grassy was executed in Novi Sad and Feketehalmy-Czeydner in Žabalj.
The four fictional cellmates, Ensign Pozdor, lieutenant Tarpataki, major Büky, and corporal Szabó tell about their experience of the razzia but systematically play down their responsibility in it. They seldom respond to the others. The two opposing and most problematic figures are Büky and Szabó. The latter, the only plain soldier in the group, has no money, is of lower-class origin, and unmarried. His extensive reports are in an uneducated language. Büky, in contrast, is a well-to-do married man, who became angry with Major-General Grassy because he was forbidden to bring his wife and child to Novi Sad. This is, however, no proof of his family attachment. Having found comfortable accommodations in the home of a Jewish traveling salesman, he praises his hostess so highly in his letters to his anti-Semitic wife in Győr that she becomes jealous, and not without reason. The hostess invites Büky once for dinner, he keeps inviting himself afterwards, and then becomes sexually aggressive. He tells his cellmates: “She pretended she was afraid to resist” (31), implying that he didn’t really have to rape her. To claim marital loyalty, Büky hypocritically assures his cellmates that his devotion to his wife and son did not diminish thereby. On the first evening of the razzia, the husband was back home. A Hungarian neighbor came to fetch a bucket of water from their well and was shot dead when returning, because he disobeyed the curfew. Büky relates the event to his cellmates with apparent disengagement (34), but telling them about the disznótor, a pig-killing feast, at the house the next day he indicates that he had a growing desire for Milena, the Serbian wife of the concierge.
Büky claims that the inhabitants regarded him as the guarding angel of the house (59-60), but the alleged angel soon became helpless. Next morning, a man with a bloody turban was brought to his office; his family had been murdered the previous day, and, having miraculously survived the deadly bullets, he now wanted a report on the event (which Szabó had described already to his cellmates as Corporal Dorner’s atrocity). Büky refused to believe the story but prepared a draft report. When Grassy dismissively tore it up, Büky angrily accused him, not for the planned murder of the man (which was, indeed, carried out by Dorner; 97-98), but because he considered the separation of husbands and wives as “unlawful.” That thousands of Serbs and Jews are unlawfully killed at the same time leaves him cold.
Szabó’s detailed account of Dorner’s atrocious killings during the cold days heats up the atmosphere in the prison cell. When he relates that he refused to save a little boy of seven in the death row, Büky repeatedly prevents him from continuing (99). According to the narrator (100-101), he desperately murmurs in the cell that they are all murderers, but, as we shall see, this is a very personal matter, no sign of his humanism. When the other cellmates also refuse to listen to Szabó’s account of how Dorner’s unit went berserk, Büky picks up the thread of his story by recalling that during the razzia it suddenly struck him that his wife and son may be in town (101). What would he do with them?
The genocide generates a drama in the cell. Büky speaks of Germans who first participated in the razzia but then moved over to the other side of the Danube with some reliable witnesses who could testify that they were not guilty (111-112). What’s the point? Finally, he is unable to withhold his secret from his puzzled cellmates. Jealousy did drive his wife and child to Novi Sad just before the start of the razzia. His son became a beloved playmate of the girls in the house, and even his wife found a certain bond with the Jewish and Serbian mothers. Büky tried to send away all these women and children with the next train, but they had to return home because trains were no longer leaving. Returning home later, Büky found his dead host in front of the house, dressed in Bücky’s own uniform. Apparently, he was killed while unsuccessfully trying to protect his family with a trick. However, the women were picked up by Hungarian soldiers, only the three children were left behind. Büky started a frantic search around town for his wife, but had to console himself with the meager hope that she may have left with the Germans (125-26).
Szabó knows what really happened and readily pours it out, not in search of “truth” but as a means to hurt Bücky. There were only 15-20 people left to be murdered at the Danube when a high official arrived with the order to stop the massacre. Dorner protested and was shot dead (133-34). The previous hour was even more dramatic. The last killings were so intensive that the machine guns broke down, and Szabó went to fetch from the nearby pub a carriage-pole that would keep the hole in the ice open and help pushing the victims in the icy water. While the machine gunner relaxed in the pub playing with mostly Jewish children, the adults were lined up outside in underwear to march towards the deadly gap. Three women begged for help, claiming that their husbands were Hungarian officers, and one of them could even cite the names of a whole unit, but since one of them spoke no Hungarian she was distrusted. Szabó took pleasure looking at their full bodies, while one of his colleagues dragged the Hungarian-speaking woman to the pub, raped her, and forced her back into the row. When one of the other women was shot, the Hungarian one threw herself unto the rapist’s boots, kissing and hugging them while begging for clemency. When Szabó lustfully describes how the iron hook of the carriage-pole tore her underwear, Büky flares up and delivers a deadly kick to Szabó (138), for he realizes that the infinitely humiliated women was his wife.
Once Büky is led away, the remaining two cellmates, Pozdor and Tarpataki, avoid questions of guilt and engage in trivial chatting. Pozdor notes that blowing holes in a frozen river was neglected in their military training, while Tarpataki wonders how the authorities knew that so many of the 3390 victims were aged (146). Pozdor then wonders whether the highest perpetrators considered that a revenge may come. He cynically adds that if that should happen, the Hungarians will have to face after the razzia fewer potential revengers. Tarpataki can only spit at this (147).
When new cellmates are added, the razzia becomes a non-topic. Did the military commander himself not say at the end of January: “Gentlemen. Not a word about this!” (147)? The razzia remains an unbewältigte Vergangenheit, a past that has not been morally worked through. Indeed, when Cseres wrote his novel in 1964, the term was applicable to much of Europe, especially Eastern Europe. Hideg napok was an early and particularly courageous attempt to initiate a serious Hungarian self-questioning in order to come to terms with the past, because it focused on the country’s perpetrators. As Tišma recommends in the passage quoted above, Cseres avoided a “black and white” story by not putting in the cell the worst criminals, the real historical perpetrators of Képíró, Grassy, and Feketehalmy-Czeydner, and the fictional Dorner. The cellmates share the social prejudices and anti-Semitism of their leaders, and merely go along. In a banal way they reveal the “banality of evil.” Judging by what they say and display in the cell, their greatest sin was indifference, lack of independence, and lacking courage to protest. The only important tension between the leaders and the subordinates is Büky’s hatred of Grassy for not allowing family members to join the officers. Grassy’s apparently capricious deviation from the military rules was obviously part of preparing the razzia, and Büky’s family drama paradoxically justifies the decision.
The educational and commemorative potential of Hideg Napok has not been fully exploited, though the book has been republished several times in Hungarian and was translated into many languages, including Serbian, German, English, and French. The cellmates do not adhere (or do not want to appear to adhere) to inhuman ideologies. Because they are guilty but not the blackest figures, looking at them closely raises questions they themselves themselves suppress. Why did they not exercise any genuine self-criticism? Why did they not feel guilty? Why were they were not ready to come to terms with their own past? These and similar questions should be addressed to all those that fail to resist inhumanity. The novel’s jail cell is a laboratory that fails to produce the medication that would induce proper healing.
Knjiga o blamu (1971)
Moving to Blam’s book, we change from perpetrators to a surviving protagonist who suffers from a guilt feeling that perpetrators ought to have. Though January 1942 in Novi Sad is still in focus, Tišma’s fictional world is radically different. The Hungarian book digs up the events from personal memories in a prison cell that is suspended in a temporal and spatial vacuum, whereas Blam’s book embeds the razzia historically, geographically, socially, and psychologically. The wider context makes things more complex but hardly more transparent.
The opening of Tišma’s novel provides a diagonally opposite setup to Hideg napok, where the cell goads on the characters to speak. Blam has an overview of Novi Sad’s center from the corridor of his building popularly known as “Mercurius.” The narrative present is post-war Yugoslavia, where Blam need not fear razzias and their consequences. In Hideg napok, the perpetrator talk leaves hardly any space for the narrator, whereas the protagonist in Blam’s Book is so reluctant to talk that an external narrator has to speak for him most of the time. He tells us at the outset that Blam is reluctant to give his address as “Mercurius.” Vacillating “between pleasure and annoyance, because he dislikes being pigeonholed” (2), Miroslav correctly but rather misleadingly, gives his address as “Old Boulevard 1” — an outdated name that indicates that he lives in the past rather than the present.
Why this desire to remain incognito, to live behind a mask, to hide away in an mansard apartment that is all but inaccessible? Since Miroslav’s family was wiped out by the Holocaust, one’s first impulse is to ascribe it to his Jewish heritage, and, more concretely, to the German/Hungarian persecution of Jews in the 1933-1945 period. As I read it, however, Blam’s timidity and shyness does not result from his Jewish persecution or of his sense of guilt that he has, unjustifiably, survived. Several scenes show that Blam was nearly autistic already in his early, pre-persecution childhood.
Blam’s only sibling, his young sister Estera, shows that timid inaction was no inherited family trait either. She dies as a resistance fighter, contradicting Hannah Arendt’s view that the Jewish East-European middle-class failed to resist the aggressors. Tišma’s narrator devotes several pages to Estera as a school kid (88-90), to her activities as an underground resistant fighter, and to her death (126-32), yet she dominates Miroslav’s mind only briefly, after her unexpected murder (136). He takes a similar distance from the other victimized action-oriented figures. Next to Estera, the most active figure is Ljubo Čutura, who had initiated Blam as schoolmate to a courageous harvesting of hawthorn fruits (13-15) and defended him against an anti-Semitic teacher (48-49). As a partisan he seeks asylum with Blam shortly before he is caught and murdered (137-44, 184-88). As we shall see, Blam is similarly unable to follow the deadly path of Slobodan Krkljuš, the brother of his childhood friend Aca.
Among the perpetrators, we find, next to the unnamed killers of Estera and Čutura, renters in the Blam house, including the charming philanderer Pedrag Popadić. Helping the family to find a doctor to carry out an abortion on a girl whom Miroslav made pregnant, Pedrag gets into intimate conversations with Miroslav’s mother, and finally seduces her. When he brings to his room another woman, a dramatic confrontation reveals the affair to everybody. Pedrag is allowed to reoccupy his old room after a brief military service, but when he becomes editor of the Naše novine, a new fellow-traveler newspaper under Hungarian rule, he moves to the Mercury and offers a job to Vilim Blam in the advertising section (88). At the end of the war, he tries to change horses but is instantaneously executed for having been a fellow traveler.
Miroslav’s post-war ambling through the former Jewish quarter of Novi Sad offers the narrator the opportunity to describe the neighborhood and the history of its former inhabitants, nearly all of whom were murdered on the spot or transported to death camps (22-26). Miroslav survived the razzia in relative safety and did not witness its worst atrocities. His survival was not due to careful planning but to his ill-considered and malfunctioning marriage to a non-Jewish woman, which he did not plan as a lifesaver. He got to know Janja at a dance school and she consented to go with him to the movies – which she did every time a boy asked her. The sexual desire that ignited in Miroslav when he once saw her in peasant clothes never rekindled later, but he, nevertheless, proposed to her and the parents consented to the marriage in the end for Miroslav had a higher social standing. Still during the war, Miroslav once saw from a tram how Janja and Pedrag Popadić were kissing, but this (and anything else that is important for him) he cannot discuss with her.
Considering the timespan of Tišma’s book, the events of the razzia come relatively late, in in the eleventh of the fourteen chapters. This is the only chapter, in which the narrator mainly adopts perpetrator perspectives, which are broader here than in Hideg napok. The chapter opens with an “objective” topography of the city on the Danube, a horseshoe-shaped spider web (150-51), which is then shown in the hands of the unnamed Hungarian officers preparing the house-to-house razzia. The narrator follows several units combing particular districts. The first one, led by second lieutenant Géczy (152-57), strictly follows the rules the first day and arrests only two Serbs who came for a visit to the city. The narrator tells us that young Géczy brought his wife to Novi Sad and hurried to the first razzia day from a warm conjugal bed (152). Whether bringing his wife was officially authorized remains unclear, but the presence of a wife suggests that Tišma may have been familiar with Cseres’s novel. In any case, Géczy is severely reprimanded in the evening by an unnamed general, presumably József Grassy, who orders him to round up “hundred criminals” the next day (153). To overcome inhibitions, Géczy, as all others, is served rum for breakfast. His murdered innocent victims that day include Vilim Blam and his wife (156). Miroslav, who already lives a baptized life with Janja in the Mercurius building, is checked by police lieutenant Nándor Varga (166-69), who keeps to the rules and gladly takes Pedrag Popadić as his guide through the building. Miroslav comes through “clean.”
The most tragic event of the razzia in Tišma’s book is also at the banks of the frozen Danube at the dramatic moments around the order to stop the killing (161-66). The gendarmerie officer here is a magyarized German, who regards the razzia as a “natural” way to eliminate all non-Hungarian and non-German elements (161). Though the Krkljuš family has the needed papers, the old couple and their son Slobodan is picked up and delivered at a spot from where they, with many others, have to walk to their execution on the Danube. On the way, an older man stumbles and falls into the snow; when Slobodan tries to help him to his feet both are shot dead – just minutes before the higher officer arrives and orders an immediate stop to the killing. All victims are sent home and the Krkljuš parents never get a chance to say good-bye to their dead son in the snow. Blam retains a rather meaningless contact with his childhood friend Aca, the brother of the murdered Slobodan. The parallels and contrasts with the murder of Büky’s wife at the Danube in the Cseres novel are striking.
Since Tišma’s narrator does not tell the story in a continuous chronological line, we shuttle between the present as seen via Blam, fragmentary recollections of his childhood and youth, stories and topographical descriptions supplied by the narrator, and scenes imagined by Blam. Put together, we get something like a temporal and spatial mosaic, which does not congeal into a consistent image. Tišma’s novel, like that of Cseres, remains a puzzle of many pieces that each reader will have to put into some configurations. Precisely this lack of thesis is what offers readers opportunities to reflect and discuss.
Tišma was born to a Serbian father and a Hungarian-speaking Jewish mother. He studied economy and French language and literature in Budapest during World War II, and graduated in German at the University of Belgrade. Like Cseres, he was not in Novi Sad during the razzia. Both of them acquired some (but never fully reliable) documentation for their novels, but their focus is ultimately psychological. Cseres chose dramatic concentration against epic breadth, while Tišma offers within a broader social and geographical representation a still narrower dramatic focus, a deeply disturbing and moving psychological study of Miroslav Blam.
The identity of the authors is related in complex ways to their fictional figure(s), which have the same nationality as their author. By portraying some of his countrymen as perpetrators, Cseres obviously intended to initiate a national self-questioning that could have led to a Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a reconsideration of Hungarian responsibilities for the past. This did not happen, for two reasons: the communist regime did not feel responsible for crimes committed under Horthy, and it had no interest in reconciliation with Tito’s Yugoslavia.
The puzzling fact of Tišma’s novel is that Miroslav, a member of the victimized Jewish community, feels intensely guilty after the war, almost like a perpetrator. We know that Miroslav Blam and his problems were to a considerable degree autobiographical for Tišma. As he wrote in his diary on April 8, 1971, The Book of Blam jolted him out of security into the insecurity of his “most problematic theme, Jewishness” (Dnevnik 535). Further diary entries from September 1972 indicate that writing the novel felt like acquiring a new identity, perhaps comparable to the new identity that Miroslav acquired in the concert hall:
“Like a hermaphrodite, whose organism took a long time to decide between femininity and masculinity, I became a Jew only now” (Dnevnik 562).
The emblem of Tišma’s new Jewish identity became that little Jewish boy on the mentioned famous photo. As he wrote in his diary on September 13, 1975, he was that little boy with the jockey-cap and hands high up, but he escaped his fatality (Dnevnik 596).
The Book of Blam was published with the photo of my bent profile and with the explicit explanation of the publisher; this work finally illuminates my Jewish being” (Dnevnik 563).
The Polish writer Jaroslaw Rymkiewicz explored the historical identity of the boy in his novel titled Umschlagplatz (1988), and also identified with him:
We have the personal data of the kid: Artur Siemitetek, the son of Leon and Saranée Dab, born in Lowicz. Artur is my age, both of us were born in 1935. We stand next to each other, he on the photo made in the Warsaw ghetto, I on the platform of Otwock. … It seems that we wear the same cap. Mine has a brighter shade and is also too big on my head. The boy wears leggings and white socks. I smile nicely on the Otwock platform. The little boy’s face in the photo, taken by an SS commandant, is expressionless. “You are tired” I say to Arthur. Very likely it is difficult to stand with raised arms. I know what we should do. I raise my hand and you should put your one down. Perhaps they don’t notice it. Wait, I have a better idea. We both raise our hands. (quoted in Gvozden 96)
Identifying this way with the little Jewish boy, Rymkiewicz expresses empathy and humanity. The authors of the two discussed books also had their identity at stake: Cseres questions certain heavily ingrained Hungarian identities, while Tišma may be said to be moving towards an identity that was dormant in him. The Holocaust reshaped identities – and continues to do so.
I wrote this article as a scholarly contribution to the plans to develop materials for Holocaust commemorations and recollections in Serbian schools. I feel honored that I was invited to the conference of April 29, 2014 in Belgrade, and greatly regret that due to an illness I could not participate. In the short time at my disposal, I had to restrict my paper to the interpretation of two novels, and could not formulate recommendations concerning the practical use of these texts in the planned school and other programs. However, working on my talk I have learned new things about Tišma that surprised me and linked up with my own family.
Tišma’s and Rymkiewicz’s association with the little Polish boy is formulated in a slightly different way in a poem written by my cousin Peter Fischl, who also called my attention to Dan Porat’s book. The attached photo with Peter’s poem on it, is exhibited in several United States museums, and has been used in classrooms. Nancy Gorrell, who was in 1992 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, wrote an excellent article and prepared a YouTube video to show how effectively the poem can be used, not only to remember the Holocaust but also as an artistically successful poem. I understand that the poem and the picture were at some time also displayed in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I see here opportunities to build a bridge from my essay to the pedagogical plans that are on the agenda of this meeting.
To the Little Polish Boy Standing With His Arms Up
I would like to be an artist
So I could make a Painting of you
Little Polish Boy
Standing with your Little hat on your head
The Star of David on your coat
Standing in the ghetto with your arms up as many Nazi machine guns pointing at you
I would make a monument of you and the world who said nothing
I would like to be a composer so I could write a concerto of you
Little Polish Boy
Standing with your Little hat on your head
The Star of David on your coat Standing in the ghetto with your arms up as many Nazi machine guns pointing at you
I would write a concerto of you and the world who said nothing.
Alphen, Ernst van. Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature and Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
Cseres, Tibor. Hideg napok. Budapest: Magvető, 1964. Adapted by András Kovács in a film with the same title in 1966. Cold Days. Budapest: Corvina, 2003. Hladni dani. Subotica; Beograd: Minerva, 1966.
Cseres, Tibor. Vérbosszú Bácskában. Budapest: Magvetö, 1991. Trans. as Titoist Atrocities in Vojvodina 1944-1945; Serbian Vendetta in Bácska. Buffalo & Ontario: Hunyadi, 1993. Krvna osveta u Bačkoj. Zagreb: AGM, 1993.
Gorrell, Nancy. “Teaching Empathy through Ecphrastic Poetry. Entering a Curriculum of Peace.” English Journal 89.5 (2000): 32-41.
Gorrell, Nancy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IzcAqCrD_kk
Gvozden, Vladimir. “Aleksandar Tišma és a Holocaust-effektus.” Tiszatáj (January 2005): 82-98.
Moczarski, Kazimierz. Rozmowy z katem (Conversations with an Executioner). Warsaw: PIW, 1977.
Porat, Dan. The Boy: A Holocaust Story. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
Rymkiewicz, Jaroslaw. Umschlagplatz. Warsaw: NOWA, 1988.
Stroop, Jürgen. The Stroop Report: The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More! New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.
Takács, Miklós. “Trauma, narrative theory and literature in the interpretation of Tibor Cseres’ Hideg napok.” Orientation in the Occurrence. Ed. István Berszán. Cluj-Napoca: Komp-Press: Korunk, 2009. 391-98.
Tišma, Aleksandar. Dnevnik: 1942-2001 (Diary 1942-2001). Sremski Karlovski: Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića, 2001.
Tišma, Aleksandar. The Book of Blam. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York etc.: Harvest Books, 1998. Trans. of Knjiga o blamu. Belgrade: Nolit, 1971.
Tišma, Aleksandar. Pre mita. Banjaluka: Glas, 1989.
Zločini okupatora u Vojvodini, 1941-1944 (Crimes of the Occupational Forces in Vojvodina 1941-1944). Belgrade: Napredak, 1946.