This book is a very vivid and candid memoir of the war years by a secular Hungarian Jew. Zsolt wrote for the liberal press before the war and was strongly opposed to fascism in all its forms. He paid for this and for his Jewish heritage during the anti-Semitic persecutions of World War II. Later, when Hungary became communist, Zsolt once again found himself at odds with his own government. After the incoming of communism Zsolt’s health was declining rapidly and he died in 1949, so by far most of his work was done before the communist period in Hungary.
Nine Suitcases, according to the introduction, is one of the first Holocaust memoirs. It was originally published in weekly installments and it has the feel of an unfinished work—because it was, in fact, unfinished. It first appeared in book form in Hungary in 1980 (posthumously, about 30 years after Zsolt’s death) and was published in English in 2004. The English translation by Ladislaus Löb is excellent. I don’t know Hungarian, but as I read the book, I was constantly struck by how well this translation conveyed the power and lucidity that had to have been there in Zsolt’s original.
One of Zsolt’s strengths as a writer is the candor of his observations. Nine Suitcases is a vigorous portrayal of not only the wartime brutalities of Hungarian fascism, but also the confusion, denial and sometimes selfishness of its victims—including himself. There is a truthfulness about this that is distinctly unsentimental. I found myself reading the book not only for its gripping story but for Zsolt’s perspective on human weakness. I strongly recommend this book.
Next post: A summary of one of the stories in Nine Suitcases and a few musings on it.