Some Comments on “Nine Suitcases” by Bela Zsolt

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.

Something to Read, Something to Think About, Whether You’re Hungarian or Not

For the last five years I have been doing historical research, centering on Hungary during World War II and into the 1950’s, for some novels I’ve been writing.  One of my novels is set in Budapest in 1944-45 at the terrible culmination of the war there.  The other takes place in 1951, at the height of Stalinist oppression in Hungary.  My research has been a long study in conflict and suffering–painful but fascinating reading, and at times inspiring as well.  I have read some poignant memoirs and novels in the course of this research that I would never have known about otherwise, and they have deeply affected my understanding of European hardship and strength.  I’ve decided to devote some blog space to these books because they are worth not only reading but pondering.  I’m not going to deal with the governmental questions they raise: that kind of commentary belongs to people far more politically knowledgeable than I am.  But I want to look at what these books say about the human heart.  (And that subject I have learned something about . . .)

Here is a quick list of some absorbing books I came across in my research.  These are all set in 20th– century Hungary in the years of war and communism, but you don’t have to be Hungarian to appreciate these stories.  They are thought-provoking in their own right and often touching.

Nine Suitcases by Bela Zsolt.  A powerful Holocaust memoir, different in focus than most Holocaust stories more well known in America.

Swimming Across by Andrew Grove.  Memoir of growing up in Budapest during the years of World War II and through the 1956 Hungarian revolution.  Written by the founder of Intel.

Castles Burning by Magda Denes.  Memoir of a Jewish childhood in war-torn Hungary.  (This is the only one of these books that I didn’t “like,” but it’s still worth reading.)

Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer.  A satirical but ultimately sad novel of Hungary from 1944 to 1956.

Embers by Sandor Marai.  Beautifully written novel of betrayal, taking place between the wars.

Memoir of Hungary by Sandor Marai.  The author’s recollections of Hungary and his commentary on what went wrong, politically and culturally.  Interesting and in places angry and morose, it’s by no means light reading.  (My husband read the book, too.  He could never remember the name Marai, so when he referred to the author he called him “the depressed guy” or—facetiously—“Mr. Party Animal.”)

The Siege of Budapest by Krisztian Ungvary.  This is a history book detailing the World War II siege on Budapest in the winter of 1944-45.  Some portions will seem dry unless you like meter-by-meter blattle descriptions, but the book also contains many poignant eye-witness accounts and stories from survivers.

Enemies of the People by Kati Marton.  A Budapest-born American journalist tells the story of her Hungarian journalist parents and their imprisonment by the communist government.

The Bridge at Andau by James Michener.  Written from interviews with escapees after the 1956 revolution.  Michener’s strident anti-communist rhetoric makes the book sound dated, but this is still an interesting and eye-opening book.

With the next post I’ll jump into some thoughts on Bela Zsolt’s Nine Suitcases. That is, unless my daughter-in-law gives birth before then, in which case you know the subject of my next post.  (Sorry, Bela.)