translated by Paul Sohar
Hungarian Poetry from Transylvania
A Brief Historical Note by Csaba Polony
To most westerners, Transylvania is known through Brian Stoker’s late 19th century novel, Dracula, and its many 20th century Hollywood adaptations, as the land of vampires. As is often the case, life and historical reality have very little or nothing to do with Hollywood-generated spectacles. Rather, the region has a unique cultural and ethnic heritage with a long and often tragic historical legacy which--apart from a few folk tales and recent attempts to exploit the “Dracula” image for the hard-currency tourist trade--has nothing to do with vampires. So to acquaint readers unfamiliar with Transylvania, I just want to give a very brief, necessarily inadequate, sketch of the region’s complex history.
The earliest records show the Transylvania region as being part of Dacia, a colony of the Roman Empire established at the north-east frontiers of the Empire through the conquests (101-106 AD) of the Emperor Trajan. Under pressure from mostly Germanic tribes, Rome abandoned the province in 271 AD. The area was subsequently overrun by successive waves of invaders, the Ostrogoths, Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, etc., and finally by the Hungarians in the late 9th century. During the medieval period, Transylvania was a semiautonomous duchy of the Kingdom of Hungary, ruled by Hungarian princes and nobles in allegiance to the King of Hungary. Besides Romanians and Hungarians, the “ethnic mix” was further flavored by the arrival, at the invitation of the King of Hungary, of Saxon (German) settlers (13th century), who established autonomous German cultural urban communities. Large numbers of Gypsies and Jews also came to live in Transylvania during this period. With the expansion of the Ottoman Turks north of the Balkans in the 16th century, the Hungarian Kingdom was torn into three parts: the northwest areas (roughly the western edge of Transdunabia and Slovakia) was ruled as “Royal Hungary” by the Austrian Habsburgs; parts of Transdunabia and the central plains, including the capital city of Buda, were controlled by the Ottoman Turks; whereas Transylvania became a semiindependent state ruled by Hungarian princes who balanced on a tenuous tightrope between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. The rulers of Transylvania saw themselves as the legitimate heirs to the old national
Hungarian Kingdom, which they sought to re-establish. After the Ottomans were driven out of Hungary by the end of the 17th century, Transylvania again became an autonomous province of Hungary ruled by Hungarian princes appointed by the Habsburgs, and was incorporated as an integral part of Hungary after the 1867 compromise, which reorganized the Austrian Empire as the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Up until the modern era, Transylvania was a very ethnically and culturally mixed region in which the different groups, by and large, lived together without conflict. Conflict that periodically broke out were uprisings of the downtrodden serfs (regardless of ethnicity) against their noble masters. It is also important to mention the religious make-up of the region. The period of Transylvania’s semi-independence (16th to late 17th centuries) coincided with the Protestent Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Hungarian nobility, as a response to the Catholic Habsburgs, embraced Protestantism in large numbers. More radical sects, such as Unitarianism, also were born at that time in Transylvania. Meanwhile, the Romanian serfs professed the Byzantine Greek Orthodox faith, as they had been converted to Christianity during the period of Byzantine rule. Romanians, however, never had an official political role in the province, as the Diet was composed of representatives of the three “official nations”: Hungarians, Saxons and Szelkers (an “ethnographically distinct” Hungarian-speaking group who were given a measure of feudal autonomy as frontier guards of the eastern borders.)
The rise of 19th century nationalism, however, significantly fanned ethnic antagonisms. National consciousness was awakened and Romanians began to demand their rights. Also, after the 1867 Compromise, the Hungarian state’s drive for rapid industrialization was accompanied by a policy of building a more centralized state, a tactic of which was to promote assimilation by declaring Hungarian as the official language of the country. This naturally created much hostility on the part of national minorities. After WWI, in keeping with promises made by the Entente to Romania concerning Transylvania if the latter joined the Entente’s war effort, Translyvania was detached from Hungary and annexed by Romania and ratified by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. As a result some two million Hungarians became minorities and were subjected to discrimination and repression. The issue of Transylvania was the cause of bitter animosity between Hungary and Romania during the inter-war years, and in applying the
classical “divide and conquer” tactic Nazi Germany, “arbitrated” (dictated would be more accurate) a division of the region in 1940, with the northern part going to Hungary and the southern to Romania. There ensued forced mutual expulsions (on occasion accompanied by atrocities) of populations on both sides, which only further fanned mutual antagonisms and hatred. After WWII, the Paris Treaty of 1947 returned all of Transylvania to Romania. During the period of communist rule, the “national question” was declared “solved” and any mention of ethnic grievances were dubbed “chauvanistic” and “counter-revolutionary.” The repression of minority rights became particularly acute during the Ceausescu dictatorship (1965-1989). The Helsinki Watch report, published in 1993, summarized the situation as follows: Under Ceausescu, all Romanian citizens suffered from repression and gross violations of human rights. However, minority groups suffered, not only from the government’s generally repressive policies, but also from a specific campaign of forced assimilation. Due to its size and strong sense of ethnic identity, the Hungarian minority in Romania was a specific target of this policy. The report then goes on to quote from its early report in 1989 ... the Hungarian minority has been a particular victim of “homogenization.” It has also been victimized because unlike the German minority.
Hungarians have resisted the “solution” of emigration. They have strong ties to Transylvania... For years, ethnic Hungarians have claimed that the Ceausescu regime has singled them out for especially harsh treatment. They point to increasing limitations on the use of the Hungarian language and threats to the existence of Hungarian schools, churches, theaters, books and broadcasting, the cumulative effect of which is robbing them of their cultural identity. For a brief moment, the bloody revolution of 1989 which deposed and executed Ceausescu, united the majority of the citizens of Romania and hopes were high that a more open and harmonious society might become possible. Unfortunately, growing nationalistic sentiment and anti-minority hostility quickly dissipated the initial euphoria, and clashes between Hungarians and Romanians broke out in March of 1990. Fortunately, the Hungarians (both the Hungarian government and the minority in Romania) showed admirable restraint and the situation did not deteriorate further, as it did in the former Yugoslavia. A treaty was signed in the mid-90s by which both governments recognized the given borders, and in 1996 a new government was elected in Romania which included ethnic Hungarians. However, that government lost the elections in 2000 and the vote revealed a sharp rise in support for xenophobic and anti-minority politics: some 35% of the vote going to far-right nationalist parties. So serious tensions remain. As the translator of these poems wrote to us: “The officially sanctioned persecution by the police state has been replaced by informal, random acts of hate. But at least it’s not Bosnia. There’s still hope for peaceful coexistence; one of the poets [Géza Szöcs - ed.] in my anthology is a member of the Romanian parliament. These poets do not enjoy the luxury of alienation and turning away from society, their survival is inextricably linked to the survival of their community and identity.” We are pleased to present a selection of Mr. Sohar’s translations of poetry that is virtually unknown in the west, as is likewise the plight of
the people whose voice these poets articulate. As he wrote in his Translator’s Note to his bilingual edition of ten Hungarian transylvanian poets, I remain: “...these voices are not blaring propaganda for some kind of nationalistic program; each one remains an individual and personal confession of faith--and doubt. The mission thrust upon them by the persecution was accepted reluctantly and is presented as part of the human condition, just another aspect of life.”
Sándor Kányádi Screwed-up Rondeau zero zero sixty-five seventy-three I mumble like a convict who’s tattooed with a number on his arm and memory the number to my typewriter screwed this machine providing me with food is a license-plated yoke to me illusions don’t attack my solitude zero zero sixty-five seventy-three words can get my lips all blued fall over themselves escaping me even father time has skewed its human face we used to see spring’s tail is by winter chewed springs and books are ocean’s brood I¹d wait but there’s none to wait for me zero zero sixty-five seventy-three
Postcards from Dachau 1. appellplatz is soaked in silence and so are the exhibit halls the tourists are now wintering where the southern climate calls someone’s punctured one of hitler’s fervid eyes, perhaps a child, as I leave the guard puts up a new photo yet undefiled I sit down for a movie showing the boredom of the holocaust as efficient as the loopedreel film: not a moment lost Silence. Keeps drizzling. The wind relents. Appellplatz. Ruhe! A season ends.
3. in a barrack restored in every detail (or as a model room?) I pick out an almost comfy-looking bunk and could almost assume possession of it in my mind as a für alle fälle ace a sonnet-sized sleeping space 2. you can almost see the same old smoke rise when a dense black fog attacks the cleverly constructed crematory stacks maybe spring’s fresh colors can distract you from the workshop of the deadly storm when the poplars guarding the fence put on their bright new uniform but now the fog imbues the row of trees with plaintive danger signs and the smokestacks with wet snow where the fledgling flakes appear to melt as if some dark designs still kept a fire burning here
where ideas can winter shut off from snow or shine or rain even if they beat me to a pulp these ideas can come alive again beyond all common sense and serve my heirs as recompense
The Way . . . the way you make a visor of your hand on your forehead stopping every now and then the way you wander into loneliness and pass the night not caring where and when the way you gape at the empty bookshelves no longer missing the march of books the way the bed entraps you in the morning you linger there not caring how it looks the way your thoughts wander back home sometimes for did you ever really have a home the way the very word becomes outworn in the homes now flats are free to roam the way your tongue still treads on by habit the steps of rhymes like fingers on the keys the way your face gets coated and so in it itâ€™s just another mirror your mirror sees the way the flame gives nothing but its soot and no one owes a thing to any one else even sonnets start to paint their faces with a hand out the muse goes ringing bells the now and are
way the glyphs once carved into your brain vanish and the unknown is your friend secret treasures hidden long inside aging with you waiting for the end
the way god claims his place inside you just as if he were the real solid thing like you the dwelling and its rightful tenant yes indeed the castle and its king the way the veins stretch into twanging strings the soul sneaks out and who knows where it goes or else a volley fired at the sky will shoo it from here like a bunch of crows
Csángo*-Hungarians of Transylvania (Erdély) On hoar-frosty dew a raven serenade into an empty glass a snowfall comes to raid We’re sifting down quietly as those who’ve seen life go bust-daughters of the wind and the sons of the dust There’s nothing Erdély’s abused and aborted cradle can grow in the nothingness of frozen embryonic flow The moon embroiders you on a hard slice of black bread over a whole grape leaf our withered country will spread Should our God in his dream at last encounter us on waking up he’ll forget our prayers and all the fuss Our prayers are old frescoes now covered up by skin sand thins out our mother tongue into something Byzantine We are raped by summer winter fall and spring our song birds perish in the sky even as they sing The Carpathian basin’s scraped-out fevered womb can throb with fear for nothing but our drunken shadow’s doom
*The Csángo, a distinct Szekler ethnic group, live in eastern Transylvania, the Gyimes valley, as well as in Moldavia, Romania, where they migrated in the middle ages. Their folk music and dances preserve the most archaic forms of Hungarian folk culture.
Boarded-Up Windows The cottages with boarded-up windows stand in waisthigh ragweed and crumple into themselves faint from the smell of the bleeding hay in spite of the wet compresses wrapped on their foreheads by ossified moss and lichen. The wind taps out an October litany on the slats of the dismantled fence, on the xylophone of advent in the runaway yard, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s god’s blind eye or the devil’s hand squinting from behind dust-and-grime-shackled glass panes at the overgrown paths where the skunk cabbage trips over dried-out lianas, and dusk falls flat on its face-And will never end. A lair of moths, under the mulberry-spotted eaves where rancid tranquility sleeps... Oh, lost points of the horizon, a boarded-up cottage stands before you
like a man with plastered eyes in the wilderness-has no idea which way to turn, no one to guide him... Oh, you doors without latches, collection boxes of muteness, the cracks of the heaving corner-beams go unanswered... Oh, you sightless windows, you’ll never watch those departing, dried-up begonia branches behind you like shriveled-up optic nerves-they can no longer even look inside or feel the pain.