No Simple Case

January 27 marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – and the death of Hungarian writer Antal Szerb. It’s the dark irony of fate that on the same day Allied troops entered the death camp, Szerb was beaten to death by Hungarian Nazis (calling themselves ‘Hungarists’ or those of the ‘Arrow-Cross’) in a forced-labor camp in Balf, Hungary.

Szerb was of Jewish descent, but at the same time he was a Hungarian literary scholar through and through. The blackguards who did the beating were not men of culture – how could they know that the man they killed had done more than anyone else to spread and promote Hungarian literature?

His last letter from the camp is one of despair:

My dears,

I am profoundly sad; not only has your plan failed, but we didn’t even receive the parcels. This place where we are, Balf, is a forsaken one, and we are doing very bad in every way. Now I have nothing but the hope that the war would soon end; this is the only thing that helps me hold on to my spirit.

It’s getting dark now, and I’m not in the mood to write more anyway. Have trust that we’d meet soon, and do love your miserable

Tóni [Tony, Antal]

Balf, December 16, 1944.

(Source of the original:

Antal Szerb was born in an assimilated Jewish family. This meant that their Hungarian identity was stronger than their Jewish one. In fact, they became practicing Catholics in 1907: so much so that Szerb’s godfather was none other than Ottokár Prohászka, Bishop of Székesfehérvár. In addition to his then-modern social views, Prohászka made his controversial mark on history by his pronounced anti-Semitism. “The plague of the Jews has chewed the Christian Hungarian nation down to the skeleton”, he wrote in 1893.

Prohászka died in 1927. I believe he forgave the Szerb family for their Jewishness when they were baptized Catholic. Had he lived to see the Holocaust, we can only guess what he would have felt or said. However, as he was a strong figure of Hungarian public life in his time, he had influenced the thinking of the (nationalist) Hungarian elite for decades, perhaps to the present day. And he did contribute to the mindset of those who – eventually – ordered the deportations and murders.

But the Szerbs were not allowed to put their Jewish past behind themselves, however much they seemed to want to. Wartime Hungarian governments looked at Jews as an ethnic group, and proclaimed that everyone who had at least one grandparent of Jewish descent would be considered a Jew, and treated accordingly. They required that all Jews who worked as intellectuals be registered.

The personal file lists the family tree of Antal Szerb down to the grandparents, marking their religions – and if anyone’s current religion was a ‘chosen religion’, they also marked the ‘original religion’. The original religion in most cases was, unsurprisingly, Israelite (abbreviated as ‘izr.’ on the form). Hungarian authorities used this register when they enforced the laws against the Jewish populace.

The labor camp of Balf, where Szerb met his death, was not run by Germans alone. In fact, most guards were ethnic Germans living in Hungary, and Hungarist radical youths (Hungarians). Recently, the present-day Hungarian government erected a monument that blames the Hungarian Holocaust exclusively on the ‘Germans’. As a result, the responsibility of some of the Hungarians is still being hushed up, and their ethnic anti-Semitism is still brewing.

My family has a similar story. Many families have similar stories. As it is, I am lucky to have been born.

If you want to see, not just read, how this really was, watch Sunshine. This film, directed by István Szabó, is a credible account of the period (it’s an English-speaking one with an international cast).

The morale? If anything, it’s this: beware of those who use force to tell you who you are. You can be sure they want to humiliate, rob, torture, and destroy you. Don’t live by their rules. Don’t hope they’ll come to sense. They won’t.

Among many brilliant books, Antal Szerb is the author of The Third Tower, the book that inspired this blog.

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