Walks in Muranów 1939.

Literature

Road to an Empty Sky is an outstanding work on Poland’s Jewish culture and a unique memorial to the latter’s destruction. Book presentation of the new book of Zoltan Halasi. Guests: Zoltan Halasi and Andras Török

Thursday 8 October 2015, 6:00 pm

Polish Institute

Road to an Empty Sky is an outstanding work on Poland’s Jewish culture and a unique memorial to the latter’s destruction.  It opens on a Holocaust poem written in Yiddish by Itzhak Katzenelson and translated into Hungarian by Halasi. Throughout the nineteen gripping chapters of the book’s prose section, Halasi speaks through the words and writings of the Jewish intelligentsia of the time to describe what was lost in the war. In literary texts rendered as historical documents, the author gives an overview of Polish Jewish culture followed by an exceptionally vivid depiction, rich in dramatic details, of the cruel and methodical annihilation of both this national culture and those living in it.

From one chapter to the next, he slips seamlessly from one role to another – from rapporteur to art historian, literary critic to travel guide writer – as he covers themes as varied as wooden synagogues, anthologies of Yiddish poetry and Warsaw’s Jewish Quarter with unerring expertise. Taking the perspective of a German banker, he exposes the Nazis’ hidden financial agenda and, as an SS pamphlet writer, reveals the absurdity of racist discourse.  

The recounting of a week-long selection within the Warsaw ghetto shows us the inexorable logic behind actions made under duress, while a social worker describes the many obstacles she faces in rescuing children. Using three different points of view (Polish, Jewish and German), Halasi shows us how the Treblinka death camp was set up and operated. Through the cynical commentary of German police officers, we see the rituals with which murderers are initiated and mass slaughters are performed. The last chapter alternates – rhythmically, painfully driving the reader to the brink of endurance – between fragments of narratives by fleeing Jewish children and by those who sheltered them.

The profoundly disturbing content is paired with special literary devices, such as verse (frequently polyphonic) hidden in prose. By exploring the individual plights of many, the book invites us to see how they all fit into the overarching systemic processes. Using important formal innovations, the work as a whole covers a thematic area unfamiliar not only to the Hungarian, but also the European reader. Its novel approach facilitates a literary revisiting of complex, multifaceted factual materials long held in secret.

The book concludes with an unconventional collection of poems, medieval in tone and outlook, in which the author draws upon characteristic features of the Middle Ages: empires, popes, chivalry, crusades, feudal struggles, as well as the false accusations against Jews: blood libel, host desecration and well poisoning – all of which add up to an anatomically precise depiction liberally dosed with irony. It culminates in a triad of poems which, following the genre of the traditional Jewish lament (qinah), tells the tale of its European history.
With its powerfully innovative literary devices, Halasi’s book undertakes to show not only the systemic organization of the Holocaust, but also to – through the use of poetic imagery and the musicality of verse – draw up from the collective subconscious its historical antecedents in Europe, and deliver the essence of its message to the reader.

Critically acclaimed soon after its publication, Road to an Empty Sky was granted the prestigious Déry and Milán Füst awards in Hungary.