Nine Suitcases

Béla Zsolt

translated from the Hungarian by Ladislaus Löb
Pimlico 2005 [1980]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
In 1944, the Jewish ghetto in the Hungarian town of Nagyvarad faces imminent deportation to death camps in Poland; the narrator of Nine Suitcases is hiding under a false identity in the hospital, along with his wife. As an intellectual, he is asked for advice on such questions as whether a girl should sleep with a guard to try to save her father and whether the sick and dying should be euthanized. And then the cattle trains begin their terrible journeys, taking away his in-laws and thousands of others, despite Allied bombing raids and the approach of the Russians.

Nine Suitcases was originally published in serial form, in 1946 and 1947, and its short chapters make for easy reading. It is presented in the form of a novel, but is mostly autobiographical, reflecting Zsolt's own experiences. As well as describing events in the Nagyvarad ghetto, he looks back at how he came to be there. In Paris in 1939, his wife's refusal to let go of her nine suitcases led them to return to Budapest instead of fleeing to a safer country. And he spent a year and a half as a forced-labourer serving Hungarian troops in the Ukraine, working as a grave-digger.

Presenting his bleak story with dispassion and a wry humour, Zsolt combines intellectual analysis with lively storytelling and psychological insight. Some of his chapters are philosophical ruminations, on Judaism, Christianity, war, socialism and suchlike. Others are gripping and suspenseful, narrating a desperate retreat through the forest in a blizzard, for example, or a nerve-wracking train-trip under a false identity. And Zsolt is a fine observer of people, and of the psychology of power and its abuse: one guard plundering Jews in the hope of purchasing a cow for his parents, another turning from sympathy to brutality after his first killings (of socialist demonstrators), and victims too numb to seize openings for escape, clinging to traces of the comfortable and the familiar.

Zsolt remains concerned with politics and aware of the complexities of class and status — after the war he organised a political party — and his perspective is Hungarian even when he decries nationalism. As a result, Nine Suitcases is perhaps less "universal" as a Holocaust memoir than a work such as Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. It is, however, a powerful and memorable study, one of the outstanding accounts of the period.

November 2007

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%T Nine Suitcases
%A Zsolt, Béla
%M Hungarian
%F Löb, Ladislaus
%I Pimlico
%D 2005 [1980]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0712606890
%P 324pp