Red, Not Dead

Hungarian novelist Szanto's fiction is a courageous attempt to use literary tools to handle the Jewish shadows of the past

"Keleti palyaudvar - vegallomas" ("The Eastern Train Station - The Final Stop") by Gabor T. Szanto, Magveto, 720 pages

"Moszer, ket kisregeny" ("Moszer, Two Short Stories") by Gabor T. Szanto, Magveto, 150 pages

Jewish literature in Hungary is blossoming. At the Jewish book fair recently held in Budapest in the plaza of the city's Central Synagogue and in front of the building where the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was born, Jewish and non-Jewish publishers offered a cornucopia of books, written by Jewish and non-Jewish authors about Jewish life, Jewish subjects and Jewish history. Many of the books reflected a uniquely Jewish perspective on issues relevant to Hungarian society in general or on the integration of Jews into Hungarian society. Special mention should be made here of one of those books: Rabbi Tamas Raj's "This is Not Alien to Us: Judaism for Non-Jews" (in Hungarian), which describes Jewish customs and the traditional Jewish way of life. Rabbi Raj is addressing here gentile readers interested in learning about Judaism and is trying to provide them with a clearer picture of the Jewish religion.

Among the literary creations at the book fair, two works of fiction by a young author, Gabor T. Szanto, stood out: "Keleti palyaudvar - vegallomas" ("The Eastern Train Station - The Final Stop") and an earlier book, "Moszer, ket kisregeny" ("Moszer, Two Stories" - "mosser," the Hebrew word meaning "informer," is part of the title in Hungarian).

The editor of the Jewish monthly, Szombat (Sabbath), Szanto represents, in his opinions and in his literary works, the new generation of Hungarian Jews - people who were born after the Second World War and whose only contact with the Holocaust was either the stories they were told by their parents or history books. The members of this generation consider themselves a part of the Jewish people but they do not identify with the earlier generations of Hungarian Jews. Instead, they cast a critical glance at the past and at the surviving representatives of the previous generation.

It is perfectly natural that Szanto and the members of his generation are particularly fascinated by the immediate post-war period, by the struggle to "make a fresh start," and by the attempts of those who returned from the death camps or the forced labor platoons to re integrate into Hungarian society. To this very day, that chapter in the history of Hungarian Jewry is shrouded in mystery. The parents of the members of Szanto's generation generally avoided telling their children about their pre-war past and about their wartime experiences.

After the war, many Jews joined the Communist Party. Some Jews worked for the political police and, at a later stage in their lives, were ashamed of those chapters in their past, although, in most cases, they were forced into situations that they themselves had not initiated. Thus, many young Hungarian Jews learned, only after several decades, of their parents' experiences and, in some instances, of their own Jewish identity.

Tragic heroes

For example, in one book that appeared a short while after the war, the mayor of a Hungarian city who had recently been appointed to his post by a Soviet garrison describes how he tried to organize the new police force. He was delighted to recruit into his police force former members of the Jewish labor platoon, who had hidden in basements during the last phase of the war, because "these young Jews were the only ones who could be trusted not to betray the regime and not to serve the fascists."

The two chief protagonists of "The Eastern Train Station" are Jews: One of them joins the secret police, while the other is a member of the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement who is actively involved in clandestinely transferring Jews to the Holy Land. Both individuals are tragic heroes. The officer joins the secret police for idealistic reasons: He wants to help the new regime overcome its (true) enemies. Yet, because of the massive, ruthless force of the apparatus he has become a part of, he is dragged into acts that he himself is disgusted with. The Bnei Akiva immigration worker manages to bring other people to the Holy Land while he himself remains in Hungary: His wife simply refuses to leave her native country.

Both men are therefore flawed characters who lack a backbone. The immigration activist tries to evade his pursuers; however, in the end, he breaks down and admits to everything he has been accused of doing. The two heroes know one another. During the Nazi occupation, they were both active in the Zionist underground. They now stand on opposite sides of the barricade, yet both of them - and their families - are victims who are crushed under the wheels of history. Not surprisingly, the secret police officer in the end is also arrested and murdered.

The chief protagonist of the short story entitled "Moszer" is the rabbi of a Jewish community who was an informer employed by the communist regime. He becomes enmeshed in the spiderwebs that he and his handlers weave and, although he suffers acute pangs of conscience, he continues his activities, burdened with the feeling that there is no way out.

Also in the same book with "Mozser" is one other short story - the monologue of a woman about what could be called the "marital wars." She describes a love-hate relationship in which all attempts to escape end in failure, and which culminates with her coming to terms with her situation. The second story is completely different from the first, and may have been included for purely technical reasons: Had the short story "Moszer" been published separately, it would have been too thin a volume - although the story itself is full of subtle, sensitive delineations and readers will, with few exceptions, discover elements that they have encountered in their own lives.

Szanto's fiction is undoubtedly a courageous attempt to use literary tools to handle the shadows of the past. Israeli readers who take a profound interest in the fate of Jews in different countries and under different regimes, should be given the opportunity to become acquainted with Szanto's literary output.

Since Szanto's works represent a pioneering endeavor, they have certain flaws. In my mind, the main one is the depiction of the chief protagonists and their lives as if they were enclosed within a hermetically sealed cube and as if they were almost totally cut off from the outer world and from the real figures operating in that world. All of the "extras" in Szanto's "films" - that is, the gentiles - have blurry personalities and no discernible motives, positive or negative, for their actions.

Without substantive, multi faceted historical background to the narrative, any attempt to understand the souls and motives of the Jewish central figures is doomed to failure and ironically helps reinforce the stereotypes that anti-Semites promote regarding the "intrinsically evil" Jews who conspired to enslave the Hungarian people to a communist regime. Nevertheless, this pioneering initiative could be the right step in the direction of a more profound understanding.