Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Attila József Museum - A poetic genius

The poetry of Attila József is said to be the most beautiful in the Hungarian language and has reached the hearts and minds of many people in Hungary and abroad. It is possible to trace some of the events of his tragically short life at several sites throughout Budapest. József was born on April 11, 1905, in the poor working class district of Ferencváros. The modest two-roomed apartment at Gát utca 3, where he was born, has been transformed into a fascinating museum by Péter Sára of the Petôfi Literature Museum. It is easy to spot the apartment from a plaque, which was erected in 1965 and floral tributes and wreaths. The green door was ajar and a knock alerted Mrs Ferenc Soltész, the curator. "We had a Swedish translator here yesterday. People come from all over the world to pay tribute," she said. Inside the small apartment the walls are lined with black and white photographs. A picture of József’s father, Áron, in a military uniform is striking and a photo of his mother Borbála Pöcze reveals a pretty and delicate-looking woman. In his poem, A Dunánál (By the Danube) József wrote: "My mother was a Kun, my father was half Székely, half Romanian, maybe pure Romanian. From mother’s mouth the food was sweet, From father’s lips the truth was beautiful." József’s father, a soap boiler, abandoned the family when his son was three years old. There is a photo of another house in the same street and a poignant inscription reads: "Papa disappeared from this flat." His departure left his mother to care for József and his two elder sisters Jolán and Etelka on a small income she earned from taking in washing. In 1910, aged five, József was sent away for two years to foster parents, the Gombai’s, in the village of Öcsöd where the young boy worked as a swineherd, like other poor children in the village. At the age of seven, his mother took him back and with three children she again tried to make ends meet. A map by the door shows the 19 different places, all in Ferencváros, where the family lived. "Every time she had trouble with the rent, the landlord kicked them out and they had to move on," said Soltész, who supplemented the exhibition with stories and snippets of interesting information. The writer Zsigmond Móricz once asked József how he had managed to finish school. He expected him to say he sold newspapers to support himself, as many did. However, he said his sister Jolán married Ödön Makai, a lawyer from Hódmezôvásárhely, and they paid his school fees. József’s mother died of cancer in 1919 when he was 14 years old. Makai became József’s legal guardian and sent him to Makó boarding school. The museum shows József’s first volume of poems, Szépség koldusa (Beauty’s Beggar), which he wrote aged 17. The young poet furthered his education at Szeged university, but left after threats from Professor Horger who was disturbed by the publication of his poem Tiszta szívvel (With a Pure Heart) that began: "I have no father, I have no mother, I have no God and no country." József then left for Vienna and Paris where he became a member of the Anarcho-Communist group. When József returned to Budapest two years later he fell in love with Márta Vágó, who came from a very well-to-do family. But the romance failed and he wrote, "Osztálya elragadta tólem" ("Her class tore her away from me.") József’s love life provided fuel for his poetry, as did his political leanings. He became involved in illegal left-wing movements and published his fourth volume of poetry, Döntsd a tôkét, ne siránkozz! (Fight capitalism, don’t whinge!) The work was confiscated and József was charged with "political agitation and obscenity." In 1933, the Fascists were in power in Germany and József continued with his work in the Communist movement. József was very disappointed not to be invited to the Soviet Writers’ First Congress and in 1935, suffering depression, he entered a sanatorium for the second time. When he left the institution a year later he became the co-editor, alongside Pál Ignotus, of the civil humanist periodical Szép Szó (Beautiful Word). He wrote and edited much of the publication in the Japán Coffeehouse, now the Írók Boltja book shop at Andrássy út 45. Despite his work, József became more and more isolated and depressed. His life was occupied by painful love affairs and periods in hospital with depression. The poet’s sisters did their best to care for him, but to no avail - József ended his life in Balatonszárszó, on December 3, 1937. There are many places in Budapest where you can find Attila József. At Kossuth tér, by Parliament, a beautiful, melancholic statue of the poet sits facing the river, his hat in his left hand and coat at his side, as if exhausted after a long walk. An inscription in the style of József’s handwriting, taken from A Dunánál (By the Danube), reads: ”Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a Duna” ”As if it flowed straight from my heart Troubled, wise and great was the Danube” At Mester utca 67, you can see a plaque marking the spot where József attended school between the age of seven and nine. The plaque was erected on May 1, 1957, to mark the 50th anniversary of his birth (actually 52 years earlier in 1905). József was first buried in Balatonszárszó, then moved to Kerepesi Cemetery in 1942 to be united with his mother. József was then claimed by the working classes and given a decorated grave in the Workers’ Pantheon, but finally moved back to be with his mother, sister Jolán and nephew Péter Makai at Kerepesi. Recently add to the gravestone is the name of Attila’s sister Etelka who died in April 2004 aged 101. Former cemetery worker Antal Sinka added a theory to the many that surround the poet’s death. He said József did not commit suicide: "He left his sister’s house in a distracted state to buy two cigarettes. He was impatient for a train to pass and stepped out in front of it," said Sinka. To find the grave, go through the main entrance along the avenue, through the arcade and past the graves of Endre Ady and Mór Jókai. When you reach the next roundabout you will see a mausoleum with the words "Ave Domine" on your left. Turn right towards the Deák mausoleum and you will find Plot 35 where the great poet lies. The author and her hero...

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