Miklós Radnóti’s Bor Notebook
March 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
The bullocks’ mouths are drooling bloody spittle,
all the men are pissing blood,
our squadron stands in rough and stinking clumps,
a foul death blows overhead.
Mohács, 24th Oct. 1944
translation by Francis Jones, Camp Notebook (2000)
The mass grave near the village of Abda, Hungary, where the poet Miklós Radnóti was buried on 4 November 1944 after a horrific forced march from the Bor labour camp, was exhumed after the war, in June of 1946. Radnóti’s body was identified by a notebook, along with several identification papers, carried in his clothes. From the “Coroner’s Report on Corpse No.12”:
A visiting card with the name Dr. Miklós Radnóti printed on it. An ID card stating the mother’s name as Ilona Grosz. Father’s name illegible. Born in Budapest, May 5, 1909. Cause of death: shot in the nape. In the back pocket of the trousers a small notebook was found soaked in the fluids of the body and blackened by wet earth. This was cleaned and dried in the sun.
— Cited in the introduction to Under Gemini, a selection of the poetry and prose of Miklós Radnóti.
The notebook measures 14.5 x 10 cm; it is square-ruled, with 30 leaves. A facsimile of the notebook, known as the Bori Notesz or Bor Notebook, can be seen online (Bor Notebook): each page has been reproduced, showing the slightly blurred, black-inked letters which fade almost to a blue mist towards the bottom of the notebook where it seems to have been most badly soaked in fluids.
The final razglednica or postcard poem (‘razglednica’ is Serbian for ‘postcard’) was written by Radnóti on the back of a medicine label for cod liver oil: the label is a striking white circle within a rust-coloured rectangle; within the white circle the image of X-rayed finger and wrist bones appear. The label itself was then inserted by Radnóti into two pages of the notebook, which, once wet, also transferred a faint stain of the label’s image onto those pages, so that it creates a ghostly palimpsest of the X-rayed hand and the third razglednica where he describes the men “pissing blood” and death carried on the wind.
Images from Camp Notebook. Arc Publications, 2000.
Emory George tells us in his introduction to the Collected Poems that Radnóti acquired the notebook in the Bor camp from a local farmer who was allowed to sell food and cigarettes to the prisoners at the work sites, and argues that Radnóti used the notebook sparingly — that he must have composed most of the lines in his head as he laboured through the day, or at night in the barracks, only writing down a line or a poem once it was complete. You can see this in that the poems seem to be neatly copied out; there are no words crossed out or lines revised, beyond the insertion of whole stanzas by means of arrows or stars. Several of the poems in the notebook he managed to pass along on a separate sheet of paper to another prisoner in the camp, Sándor Szalai; the poems he gave to Szalai were “The Seventh Eclogue,” “The Eighth Eclogue,” “À la recherche…,” “Letter to My Wife,” and “Forced March.”
When the camp was disbanded, and prisoners were being divided up into two groups, the first column to leave immediately, Radnóti was placed with Szalai in the second column. There were rumours that those in the second column would simply be killed outright. Radnóti entreated the guards to be allowed to go with the first column. As Zsuzsanna Ozsváth observes in In the Footsteps of Orpheus, “That was his tragedy. For the second column stayed in Bor until September 29, and when it finally set out, it was attacked by a group of partisans who liberated the servicemen” (p.213). Szalai, being in the second column, then arrived in Temesvár and in fact managed to have two of Radnóti’s poems (“Seventh Eclogue” and “À la recherche”) published in October 1944, when Radnóti was still alive and enduring the final forced march of the first column which would end in his death.
Here is the last postcard, in which he describes the execution of the musician Miklós Lorsi:
I tumbled beside him, his body twisted and then,
like a snapped string, up it sprang again.
Neck shot. “This is how you’ll be going too”,
I whispered to myself, “just lie easy now”.
Patience is blossoming into death.
“Der springt noch auf,” rang out above me. Mud
dried on my ear, mingled with blood.
Szentkirályszabadja, 31st Oct. 1944
Translation by Francis Jones, Camp Notebook
This final razglednica was only recovered and published after his body was exhumed in 1946.
Radnóti had made some provision for preserving these last poems. On the first two pages of the notebook, repeated in Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, German, French, and English, he had written the following:
This notebook contains the lyrics of the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti. Please send it to Hungary to the address of Dr. Gyula Ortutay, University Lecturer, Budapest, VII, Horánszki utca 1.I.