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Wit and immediacy enrich riveting Holocaust memoir

From the first page of his Holocaust memoir, "Nine Suitcases," Bla Zsolt conveys a prevailing sense of disbelief about what is enfolding before his rheumy eyes.

A prominent Hungarian writer in the first half of the 20th century, Zsolt saw his homeland turn swiftly against him. His wife saw her town become her captor. Hungarian Jews saw former friends and neighbors condoning their death sentences.

This numbing disbelief extends to the reader: Despite the glut of Holocaust work, one cannot help but be taken aback at the scale of betrayal and inhumanity that Zsolt recounts here.

"Nine Suitcases" was originally published 60 years ago and banned in Hungary until 1980. (Zsolt died in 1949.) But the book, translated into English for the first time, by Ladislaus Lb, has an immediacy because of Zsolt's riveting personal experiences, his clinical journalism, and his dry wit.

The memoir opens on a dingy mattress. Zsolt is in a ghetto in the Hungarian town of Nagyvrad, following the German invasion on March 19, 1944. Bodies are piled up. Disease flourishes. The Jews are confined in quarters not fit for animals.

But this isn't where Zsolt's story begins, nor where it ends. He had already spent part of 1942 and 1943 in a forced-labor unit in Ukraine. It's a miracle, he writes, that he survived the mines and the typhus while he was "starving, stinking, and crawling with lice."

He was released from the work camps only to be sent to a military prison. A few months after he was let out, the Germans arrived, and it was back into cruel captivity.

It is that unimaginable fate that allows Zsolt to harbor some optimism in the Nagyvrad ghetto, even as his mother, in-laws, and wife's teenage daughter are sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. "Believe me," he tells a fellow ghetto dweller, "I can even imagine surviving this hell." And yet later, he is convinced this is it: "It'll be goodbye to this disgraceful town, this rotten homeland, this crazy age, this life."

Much of "Nine Suitcases" takes place in moments of terrifying limbo like this: Jews awaiting word on whether they'll be sent to concentration camps; whether a faked typhus epidemic could delay their deaths; whether the Allied liberators will arrive in time.

"Death in this place is a good 'assignment,' " he writes. "The dead aren't driven out at daybreak to work for the SS, they aren't beaten till they hand over their jewellery, and they won't have to set out in the cattle wagons."

Zsolt, revered as one of the sages of the ghetto, tells of the horror of having to help people make wrenching decisions: If they could save themselves, should they sacrifice their families? And, conversely, if they could save their families, should they sacrifice themselves?

Some of Zsolt's most trenchant observations come in his reflections on how a civilized society could devolve into such barbarism. Yesterday, he remarks, this was a land where ambulances responded methodically to accidents, where engineers installed road signs about dangerous bends, where nature had been domesticated. And yet tomorrow, he writes, his countrymen in European clothing will be taken by cattle cars to be gassed.

Zsolt and his wife later escape with the help of a friend, eventually reaching Switzerland as members of a group of about 1,700 Jews saved in a unique ransom deal with the Nazis. He spent the last few years of his life back in Hungary, as a journalist and politician.

The arc of Zsolt's life was particularly cruel for a man who had so committed himself to making his country better -- someone who couldn't even make love without thinking he should be doing something political instead. "Above all else, I have lost my homeland," he writes.

Like other Holocaust stories, "Nine Suitcases" offers glimpses of non-Jews who act heroically in their own way, notably a tailor's apprentice in Nagyvrad who throws provisions over the ghetto walls and helps Jews escape. But those good deeds are not meant to, and do not, whitewash Zsolt's account, which is by and large a disquieting portrayal of man at his worst.

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