17 March 2015

Notes to "The Passion at Ravensbrück"

One steps clear of the others,
stands in a block of silence, still.
The prison garb, the convict’s scalp
blink like an old film-reel.
Fearful to be a self alone:
the pores are visible,
with everything around so huge
and everything so small.
And that was it. As for the rest –
for the rest, without a sound,
simply forgetting to cry out,
the body hit the ground.
Translated by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri
Hungarian Review reprinted in its January 2015 issue János Pilinszky’s “Passion of Ravensbrück” translated by János Csokits and Ted Hughes. This short, striking poem first appeared in English in Pilinszky’s Selected Poems in 1977 and was reproduced without change in The Desert of Love (Anvil Press, 1989), and again printed in its following original text in Hungarian Review:
He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like a projection.
Unfortunately the first line of this first stanza appears to be a misinterpretation of the original where the Hungarian pronoun “ő” (meaning both he and she) leaves undecided the gender of the person in question – a characteristic feature of the Hungarian language.
In fact, the inmate in the concentration camp is most probably not a man, but a woman, for Ravensbrück was exclusively a women’s camp. Ravensbrück, located along Lake Schwedt, about 50 miles north of Berlin, was established as early as May 1939, first for German anti-Fascists and Jehovah’s witnesses. Later on Jews and Gypsies, also numerous Polish and Russian women were interned here, and according to recent estimates 132,000 women passed through the camp, of whom about 20 per cent were Jewish. The inmates worked as slave labourers for German firms, such as Siemens, in dramatically worsening conditions: in 1944 barracks built earlier to house 250 women were overflowing to the extent of containing 1500–2000 persons. Horrifying medical experiments were also carried out in the camp, mostly on Polish women. Several gas chambers were constructed both in Ravensbrück and in its sub-camps, and according to the remaining records, over 2,200 women were killed in the gas chambers between February and April 1945 alone. The victims were mainly Hungarian, mostly Jewish, then Polish and Russian.
It seems that the victim of the Ravensbrück poem was Pilinszky’s friend, or someone he knew well. She must have been a young Hungarian woman deported to Germany from Budapest towards the end of 1944. Why did he not refer to her gender in the poem? Probably to stress the “reification” of the inmates in Ravensbrück and other concentration camps: they were not referred by name, only by serial number which was usually called out during the gruelling everyday process of the roll-call. In the recent translation of the poem Clive Wilmer and myself tried to preserve the “unnamed” and “reified” character of the Ravensbrück victim, without specifying the gender; what is important here is that the Nazi guards are trying to deprive a human being not only of his/her dignity, but also individuality. In this poem Pilinszky focuses our attention on particulars of the living body and on the utter loneliness of the victim before his/her execution.

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