Book Review: When Even The Poets Were Silent
With war and Communism as a backdrop, George Pogany’s memoir finds humour and happiness in the little things of life
When you pick up When Even the Poets were Silent, the weight of this elegant memoir might slide right past. George Pogany has a light touch for his story of hardship, a Jewish Hungarian’s journey from rural Orosháza to war-ridden Vienna and back, as Communism engulfs the country and flight becomes the only option. It is told with disarming simplicity, and is utterly captivating.
In Pogany’s wry narrative, gruesome details remain off stage, left to the readers imagination. Combining unforgiving hindsight ("It never crossed my mind that I would one day try, and fail, to save his life.") with light-hearted descriptions of life’s little pleasures, this memoir becomes a powerful testament to the possibility of endurance, while still finding happiness along the way: "The noodles were made of white flour, by itself a great luxury in wartime," he writes.
"But it was the sugar that pleased me most, because I hadn’t had any since leaving my home."
Bread and circuses
During the 19th century tens of thousands of Jews settled and integrated into Hungarian society, and by the 20th century, most thought of themselves as Hungarian first and Jewish second. Pogany’s family attended synagogue sporadically, observed the high holidays, but weren’t overly religious.
They didn’t speak Hebrew and ate pork along with everyone else. It was a happy childhood, spending afternoons swimming in a nearby lake and selling the fur of his pet angora rabbits to earn some pocket money.
The outbreak of the war didn’t affect Pogany’s life at first. But with the appointment of a Nazi-sympathizing Prime Minister, anti-Semitism became real, even in rural Orosháza.
Jews had to wear a yellow star stitched to their clothes, setting them apart from the "gentile Hungarians". There were raids of Jewish homes by Nazi soldiers and finally, deportation to Jewish ghettos, then labour and concentration camps.
Pogany’s family was scheduled for deportation to a concentration camp, but the Jewish-Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee purchased the option of labour camps instead. They were taken to Vienna to a camp on Hafenzufahrtsstraße No. 4, then still in the 2nd District, where they would remain for the remainder of the war.
For Pogany, living in the labour camp was oddly reminiscent of his old life in Orosháza. He had to work hard, yes, and air raids were frequent, but his movements weren’t nearly as restricted as in the ghetto.
During the last days of the war, with food nearly gone and bombs raining down on the city, some of the Jews at Hafenzufahrtsstraße were hiding in a nearby basement, when Russian soldiers suddenly arrived and told them it was over: It was save to go back home now, their lives had been spared. Their decision to trust the Russians soldiers turned out to be right; despite the Nazi’s surrender, SS patrols shot those who remained behind.
Pogany’s style is unpretentious, wry like a conversation between friends, describing the incredible luck his family had had:
"By meekly doing whatever we were told, my family and I had escaped being sent to the gas chambers; hundreds of thousands of others, by doing whatever they in turn were told to do, had been murdered."
The weight of this life and death tale is peppered with anecdotes that take pleasure in the absurdity of things: George Pogany’s father, a science teacher, knew of course that heat travels upwards, so on especially cold winter days, he would climb up on top of the wardrobe to read.
Telling jokes was a form of protest, skewering their oppressors with the delicious sabotage of humour. "Hitler died and tried to get into heaven…" one began, and another: "Goering flew his own plane and crashed…" Pogany couldn’t remember anymore how they concluded.
"Nobody was interested in the ending," he wrote. "Just picturing the beginning gave us such long lasting pleasure."
After finishing high school, George Pogany settled in Budapest to study chemistry. He struggled to raise a family and started working as an industrial chemist under the new Communist regime. In the retelling, he skilfully explains a political climate not familiar to everyone, without cluttering the pages with unnecessary or ponderous details.
While Nazism took away people’s dignity, Communism undermined dignity’s very foundation. Reading about the sheer senseless oppression of thought, it is impossible not to feel a surge of anger and resentment at the Communists who, prising logic, should have known better, especially in the devastating after-effects of the war.
It is the little things that Hungarian men and women did to resist that raises hope and makes the book a funny and fulfilling read – tricking a quality control representative to keep the little of what they had earned; selling handmade perfume on the black market; and simply taking long hikes in the countryside, finding refuge in nature.
Still, you don’t get away unscathed. When Even the Poets were Silent stresses the cruelties of man by focusing on unexpected kindness, mind-boggling luck and the tireless determination to live a life worth living.
As we follow Pogany’s final steps of his escape to Austria, and ultimately the UK, we too, find ourselves breathing easier.
When Even the Poets were Silent
by George Pogany