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Nine Suitcases Hardcover – 1 Jan 2004
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Nine Suitcases is Bela Zsolt's memoir of the Holocaust--his personal experiences in the Hungarian ghetto of Nagyvarad and as a forced labourer in the Ukraine is as tragic as it is moving. Zsolt's writing forces us past the simplicities of good versus evil and shows the awful human weaknesses, personal complicities and daily heroism and tragedy of war at its most brutal.
The difficulties and dangers of Holocaust literature are legion. (What could or should Holocaust literature be? Has Adorno's warning--no poetry after Auschwitz--been misunderstood or forgotten?) Norman G Finkelstein's provocative The Holocaust Industry has brought our attention to the difference between memorialising Nazi genocide and learning real historical lessons. But Nine Suitcases hugely deserves its publication and can fully stand alongside the work of Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel's Night. Originally published in weekly instalments, Zsolt describes in detail how he came to be in the ghetto (and the significance of those eponymous suitcases), his work as a gravedigger and labourer (ironically, in 1942, force to fight alongside the Germans); the bravery of a local Madame in serving her Jewish prostitutes; his feelings towards his Orthodox fellow inmates; and his plan to pretend a Typhus outbreak. And all of this is done with a matter-of-fact simplicity and without rhetorical flourishes or indulgences. This is an important, great book. Sometimes, Zsolt says, in the ghetto there was "a silence that provoke(d) prayer or blasphemy". We should read Zsolt and, in the ensuing quiet, decide anew what our strategies for learning and understanding should be. --Mark Thwaite
"[A] heartbreaking memoir... Unbearably immediate" (Laurence Phelan Independent on Sunday)
"A sombre yet strangely beautiful account, devoid of sentimentality...the recent publication of his work in English is long overdue" (Phil Baker Sunday Times)
"Remarkable...exceptional" (Caroline Moorehead Times Literary Supplement)
"This is by far the best book I've come across on the subject of the extermination of Hungary's Jews" (Tibor Fischer Guardian)
"Very, very rarely you read something that knocks the breath out of you... This masterpiece does" (Carole Angier Literary Review) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Rather than laying out his story in a straightforward chronological fashion, Zsolt turns his narrative back and forth in time. In on of the most powerful passages in the book, he tells the story of his deportation to Russia as if he is still in the ghetto talking to his friend Friedlander, adding details every now and again about the developments in the ghetto affecting himself and his friend. Like the other narrative threads in Nine Suitcases, this is all revived in clear and compelling prose. Zsolt adopts a detached, dispassionate tone for much of Nine Suitcases, reflecting the hopelessness and exhaustion that came upon him in the ghetto. His calm description of Jews being hoarded onto cattle wagons for deportation to the concentration camps is truly chilling. On occasion, however, there are gasps of horror and despair at his terrible experiences, most memorably when he recalls how he fled the labour camps before the Russian military advance, leaving behind those who clang onto their worldly possessions in the rush to escape.
In the final third of the book, Zsolt tells of how he escaped from the ghetto in Nagyvarad and made his way to Budapest by train. This story is very different to what has gone before but is equally compelling, providing a glimpse of the impending defeat of the Axis powers and of the views of Hungarian people after the Jews have been erased from daily life. It is not easy to critically compare memoirs of the Holocaust and I do not wish to attempt that here. I can, however, wholeheartedly recommend Nine Suitcases to anyone. It is a remarkable and unique account of the darkest chapter in twentieth century history.
If Holocaust literature is concerned with the motivation of the German authorities, Zsolt's tome is more concerned with the reasons why the ordinary peasantry, like his Hungarian gendarme companion, consents to participate in the outrages, and the equally enigmatic question of why the Jews failed to resist or escape when they had the opportunity. Rightly, it is a book of questions and pastiches, rather than easy answers, but when the latter is proffered it is generally in confirmation of the reader's own suspicions.
The translator's prose style is impeccable, lucid and becoming, and the words and pages seemed to fly past at twice my standard reading pace.
In short, splash out your week's wages if necessary, but you won't be disappointed.
The translation into English has been done so well and this makes the reading so much richer.
The sentences are often long which is his slyle but the content is just incredible.
It casts a whole different light to the getto reality in the 1943-44 period and the depth of observation and detail of the many moments is so humbling.
Now its difficult to empathise with the madness of the nazi indoctrination and the hate of the many peasants for the jews.
I will have to read this again as its so so full of rich writing.
Its not full of the brutality but more the other forces which were so much more terrifying.
If you want to read and understand about life around the gettos this is a must.
The title of the book is taken from the number of suitcases his wife took when they tried to escape the coming war by taking a train to Paris and then on. But she was only allowed to take one Suitcase from the onward journey and because they could not take all nine suitcases went back to Hungry.
This is a remarkable story of survival against the odds and unusual in that it records the efforts of the Hungarian Jews to survive not only the Nazis but also Hungry's own fascists.
This really is a book about survival during Europe's darkest hour but at times the dark humour keeps people going. I would recommend this book because it is intense and written with feeling and hope.
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