Miklos Radnoti translation of "Letter to My Wife"

Miklos Radnoti translation of "Letter to My Wife"

A Poem by Michael R. Burch

Letter to My Wife
by Miklos Radnoti
translated by Michael R. Burch

A poem written during the Holocaust in Lager Heidenau, in the mountains above Zagubica, August-September, 1944

Deep down in the darkness hell awaits―silent, mute.
Silence screams in my ears, so I shout,
but no one hears or answers, wherever they are;
while sad Serbia, astounded by war,
and you are so far,
so incredibly distant.

Still my heart encounters yours in my dreams
and by day I hear yours sound in my heart again;
and so I am still, even as the great mountain
ferns slowly stir and murmur around me,
coldly surrounding me.

When will I see you? How can I know?
You who were calm and weighty as a Psalm,
beautiful as a shadow, more beautiful than light,
the One I could always find, whether deaf, mute, blind,
lie hidden now by this landscape; yet from within
you flash on my sight like flickering images on film.

You once seemed real but now have become a dream;
you have tumbled back into the well of teenage fantasy.
I jealously question whether you'll ever adore me;
whether―speak!―
from youth's highest peak
you will yet be my wife.

I become hopeful again,
as I awaken on this road where I formerly had fallen.
I know now that you are my wife, my friend, my peer ...
but, alas, so far! Beyond these three wild frontiers,
fall returns. Will you then depart me?
Yet the memory of our kisses remains clear.

Now sunshine and miracles seem disconnected things.
Above me I see a bomber squadron's wings.
Skies that once matched your eyes' blue sheen
have clouded over, and in each infernal machine
the bombs writhe with their lust to dive.
Despite them, somehow I remain alive.

Miklós Radnóti [1909-1944], a Hungarian Jew and fierce anti-fascist, was perhaps the greatest of the Holocaust poets. Before Radnóti was murdered by the Nazis, he was known for his eclogues, romantic poems and translations. He was born in Budapest in 1909. In 1930, at the age of 21, he published his first collection of poems, Pogány köszönto (Pagan Salute). His next book, Újmódi pásztorok éneke (Modern Shepherd's Song) was confiscated on grounds of "indecency," earning him a light jail sentence. In 1931 he spent two months in Paris, where he visited the "Exposition coloniale" and began translating African poems and folk tales into Hungarian. In 1934 he obtained his Ph.D. in Hungarian literature. The following year he married Fanni (Fifi) Gyarmati and they settled in Budapest. His book Járkálj csa, halálraítélt! (Walk On, Condemned!) won the prestigious Baumgarten Prize in 1937. Also in 1937 he wrote his Cartes Postales (Postcards from France); these poetic "snapshots" were precursors to his darker images of war, Razglednicas (Picture Postcards). During World War II, Radnóti published translations of Virgil, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Eluard, Apollinare and Blaise Cendras in Orpheus nyomában (In the Footsteps of Orpheus). Conscripted into the Hungarian army, he was forced to serve on forced labor battalions, at times arming and disarming explosives on the Ukrainian front. In 1944 he was deported to a compulsory labor camp near Bor, Yugoslavia. As the Nazis retreated from the approaching Russian army, the Bor concentration camp was evacuated and its internees were led on a forced march through Yugoslavia and Hungary. During what became his death march, Radnóti recorded images of what he saw and experienced. After writing his fourth and final postcard, Radnóti was badly beaten by a soldier annoyed by his scribblings. Soon thereafter, the weakened poet was shot to death, murdered on November 9, 1944, along with 21 other prisoners who were unable to walk. Their mass grave was exhumed after the war and Radnóti's poems were found on his body by his wife, inscribed in pencil in a small Serbian exercise book. Radnóti's posthumous collection, Tajtékos ég (Clouded Sky or Foaming Sky) contains odes to his wife, letters, poetic fragments and his final Postcards. Unlike his murderers, Miklós Radnóti never lost his humanity, and his empathy continues to live on through his work. Beside his postcards and other poems and translations previously mentioned, Radnóti's "Letter to My Wife" is an especially touching poem that deserves to be read and remembered. So I have also included my translation of one of Radnóti's most intimate poems.―Michael R. Burch

© 2020 Michael R. Burch


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Added on January 15, 2020
Last Updated on January 15, 2020
Tags: Holocaust Poems, Holocaust Poetry, Concentration Camp, Death Camp, Death March, Miklos Radnoti, Wife, Letter, Hell, Serbia, Dreams, Psalm, Light, Shadow, Fantasy, Miracle, Miracles, Bombs