05 October 2009

28. The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary

The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary by Erno Szep and translated by John Batki covers only one small period of time and life as it was lived by only one man of fifty. The war was nearing its end and the bulk of Hungarian Jews had already been deported. In October 1944, Szep , a sixty year old Hungarian Jewish poet, and 49 other older men were rounded up by young Arrow Cross Youths. Just days before Governor Horthy declared a unilateral cessation of hostilities - for which he was deposed. The Germans and their Hungarian allies used these last Jewish men to dig and build an earthworks around their city of Budapest to protect the city from the oncoming Russians. Szep was released on November 6 when the Russians reached the perimeter of the city and managed to live while many others did not. This is a story of only 19 days. But we learn many things from the attitudes of the author, his eye for details, and the brilliance of his thoughts. I would like to share a few passages that struck me as very important to the understanding of his writings:

A man's biography consists of his thoughts. Everything else that happens to me is something alien. As we slipped and slid around in that mud the work was slowed down, providing an occassion for more conscious reflection. We are always thinking about something, although we may not pay attention to our thoughts. Now, writing ten months after the events, I cannot recall a speck of what I had been thinking then. But I do remember trying to recall the thoughts of that day on the march back. And I was unable to recover a single snippet of what my mind had dug up during that day. Thoughts sink into forgetfulness as quickly as rain into the earth. (p. 130)

With bombs falling all around the area where the men slept and worked, Szep wrote about his feelings:

I saw, not for the first time, that one did not fear death in its immediate presence. Thinking stops at such times. Within seconds a process of shutting off takes over within the brain, so that the mind (and, we might say, the soul) rejects, refuses to acknowledge all the horrors accosting us. There is a beautiful wisdom in this built-in self-defence. (p. 142)

Much like shock perhaps. Or the disbelief that something so horrible could happen. I have often hoped that people faced with these tragic endings might believe to the end that there is truth and beauty just on the other side of the river or hill. And then be surprised by death, maybe bewildered. And sanctified. I have often said that while I do not want to die, I am in no way afraid of death. So many people have faced it before me and in less gentle ways perhaps, that I should follow them with delight in our spiritual reawakening.

TITLE: The Smell of Humans: A Memoir of the Holocaust in Hungary

AUTHOR: Erno Szep

COPYRIGHT: 1945 in Hungary, 1994 in English

TYPE: memoir Holocaust

RECOMMEND: a work of great interest

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