Miklós Radnóti was born on May 5, 1909 in Budapest. At his birth his mother and twin brother died. His surname was originally Glatter. His father Jakab Glatter worked in the textile wholesale company of his brother-in-law Dezső Grósz. His ancestors lived in Gömör-Kishont county (today in Slovakia), Miklós’ grandfather Jónás Glatter was an innkeeper in Radnót. His mother’s lineage is from Vác. After the birth of his son and death of his wife, Jakab Glatter soon moved from the ground-floor flat of the block at Kádár Street 8 in the 13th district where they had lived. It is not known whether Miklós was taken home to this flat, neither what happened to him during the first two years of his life. We do not know where and by whom the baby was taken care.
In 1911 Jakab Glatter was persuaded by his relatives to marry again. His second wife Ilona Molnár came from a Transylvanian family. The Glatter family moved to a third floor flat at 7 Falk Miksa Street. In 1913 Jakab Glatter and Ilona Molnár had a child who died in this same year. In 1914 their daughter Ágnes was born. The parents did not tell the children about the tragedies that had fallen on the family. Radnóti, as he described in his short story of autobiographic inspiration Ikrek hava (Gemini, 1940), had spent this period of his childhood in an intimate atmosphere and emotional safety. He went to primary school to the nearby Szemere Street between 1915 and 1919, and then was enrolled in Markó Street secondary school. The school prepared its students for practical career, thus it focused on natural sciences. Latin, for example, was not taught here.
In the summer following the second school year, in July 1921 Miklós’ father unexpectedly died of apoplexy. During the following months Radnóti lived at various relatives. Only then he got to know that his mother had died during his birth and that Ilona Molnár was his stepmother, while Ágnes his half-sister. That his twin brother also died at his birth he only got to know three years later. As his foster mother could have not provided for two children alone, the family considered advisable Ilona Molnár and her daughter’s moving to Nagyvárad (today Oradea, Romania) where they had relatives. In 1941 Ilona Molnár married again, and Ágnes was also married for a short while. She published a volume of poetry and a novel under the name of Ágnes Erdélyi, and she stayed in contact with Radnóti until the end of their lives. Both Ilona and Ágnes perished in Auschwitz, in the same year of Radnóti’s death.
We have no certain information about the life of Radnóti from the two years following his father’s death. His officially appointed guardian was his uncle Dezső Grósz. After his separation from his stepmother and half-sister between 1921 and 1923 he probably lived at Örömvölgy Street 16 in the 8th district with the brother of his stepmother Ede Molnár. In 1923 he moved to Lipót Boulevard in the 5th district (today Szent István Boulevard in the 13th district) number 5, the flat of his great-grand-aunt. This remained his registered address until his marriage. In this year he enrolled in the Higher School of Commerce on Izabella Street in the 6th district (today 7th district). He sat for the final examination in 1927, and according to the witness of his certificate the commercial subjects did not arouse his attention.
It took him several years to process the trauma of these years. The idea that his birth involved the sacrifice of others’ life became a recurrent theme of his poetry from his first works until 1941. He elaborated it in the most complete form in Gemini which also bears witness to how serious identity problems the personal tragedies and their protracted revelation had caused to him. Just when the components of his personality were about to be solidified, this experience deeply influenced his relation to the world and to himself. Thus the conscience of death had permeated his thought since his adolescence.
His guardian took care of him decently, but he grew up in rather modest conditions. The disappearance of the intimate family atmosphere of his childhood was a great loss to him. At the same time, due to his relatively loose family ties in his high school years he enjoyed more freedom than the boys of similar age, and early he became independent. He pursued much sport, he also won medals on athletic competitions of his school.
In these years he started to write poems. His professor Károly Hilbert (later Komlósi) who coached him in maths played an important role in arousing his interest in literature. When Radnóti at the age of 16 broke his leg while riding on bicycle, his guardian asked his professor to provide him with literature and speak with him about his readings. Radnóti soon brough him his own poems. It was in his flat that in 1926 Radnóti got to know his later wife Fanni Gyarmati, as Hilbert’s wife also coached girls in maths. He remained in contact with his professor until the end of his life.
His first poems were published in various student journals. An important step in his development was his admission to the student association of literature called the Hungarian Youth’s Bálint Balassa Literary Circle. The home-printed journal Haladás (Progress) of the Circle published a number of his poems, short stories and critiques. This was not only a school of social and literary life to him, but also an occasion to find life-long friendships. The ideas of the leader of the Circle Alfréd Reinhold which amalgamated leftism with the teaching of Jesus and Hindu mysticism, had a special impact on him. It was in this circle that Radnóti was first touched by the spirit of Christianity and leftism. The Progress Circle – as they were also called after their journal – also organized afternoons with various programs. After two years of working, the authorities dissolved the circle and the journal, accused of spreading subversive ideas.
After his final examination, Radnóti studied for a year in the College of Textile Industry of Reichenberg (today Liberec) in Czechoslovakia on demand of his guardian who planned to place the direction of the company in his hand. However, the subjects did not interest him, and as teaching went on in German, he also had problems of understanding. He also got in emotional confusion, having a love affair with a local girl, Klementine Tschiedel, called Tini in his poems. His cycle “Die Liebe kommt und geht” written to her, was not published by him. After returning to Hungary, he soon settled his relation with Fanni Gyarmati again.
His poetic vocation was strengthened in Reichenberg. He wanted to go to university, but he could not obtain the consent of his guardian. After his return to Budapest, in 1928 and 1930 he worked in the textile store of Dezső Grósz. In the meantime he was consciously preparing to the university. As he finished a school of commerce, he had to sit a supplementary examination in the subjects of the eighth class of classical high school, including Latin, which was a serious difficulty to him. He passed his examination in December 1929 in the István Verbőczy (today Sándor Petőfi) High School in the 1st district of Buda. The president of the examination committee was Jenő Pintér, the influential conservative historian of literature of the age.
In these two years he was involved in a number of literary undertakings of his generation. He was editor of the only two issues of the journal 1928 which was a continuation of Progress. After the ceasing of the journal he became member of the editorial board of the journal Kortárs (Contemporary, 1929-1931) which was also a generational journal, but even great poets published their poems here (including Attila József whose poem On a Poet, written against the great literary authority Mihály Babits, was published here). Radnóti’s poems were first published in an anthology in 1929, in the volume Jóság (Goodness) presenting nine young poets. The title of this anthology was also an ideal program, professed by Radnóti all through his life.
Radnóti published his early works under the name Miklós Glatter, and later Miklós Glatter Radnóti. The name Miklós Radnóti was first used in 1929, but even his poems in Jóság were signed as Miklós Glatter Radnóti. It was only from 1930 that he exclusively used the name Miklós Radnóti. The main effort of his life was to become a Hungarian poet, to which in his conception a Hungarian surname was indispensable.
His first volume of poetry, Pogány köszöntő (Pagan Salute) was published in 1930. The title of the volume indicated the entry of the young poet into literature, and also his chosen standing as an outsider who uses the language of pastoral poetry. The volume was introduced by a motto taken from the book Jesus (1927) by Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) which formulated the program of “goodness”. Thus Radnóti intended the term “pagan” not in the meaning of “non-religious”, but in a rebellious sense. The young poet saw the social revolutionary in Jesus.
Radnóti intended to study at the Pázmány Péter University in Budapest, but due to his Jewish religion he was not admitted in terms of the law of numerus clausus of 1920 which had fixed the proportions of the students belonging to various ethnic and religious minorities. Thus in 1930 he started his studies at the departments of Hungarian and French at the Ferencz József University in Szeged. Here he immediately found new friends and became member of the leftist student organisation called Arts College of the Youth of Szeged which organised cultural visits and performances to the neigbouring villages, and also worked as a publishing house. Radnóti also entered in connection with the Workers’ Cultural Centre in Szeged, and wrote speech choirs for the workers’ recitative choir. At the same time he was deeply influenced by the professor of modern Hungarian literature Sándor Sík, member of the Piarist teaching order, who started to support Radnóti immediately after his arrival to Szeged. Their intimate relationship survived until Radnóti’s death. The dark side of his Szeged university years was the strengthening antisemitism leading to repeated atrocities against Jewish students, the so-called “Jew-beatings” at the university organised by racist Alliance of the Turul (named after a Hungarian mythological bird).
Radnóti’s second volume, Újmódi pásztorok éneke (Song of Modern Shepherds) was published in 1931. The new poems continued the bucolical tone of the previous volume. Only a few weeks after its publication the public prosecutor started an inquiry and had the volume confiscated on the charge of offence against decency and religion. A perquisition was held in the Szeged flat of Radnóti, he was interrogated and a lawsuit was brought against him. In the summer of 1931 Radnóti spent two months in Paris with the purpose of improving his knowledge of French. He was deeply impressed by the functioning and cultural variety of a democratic society. A so-called “Colonial Exhibition”, opened in the same period, turned his attention toward African cultures. His lawsuit took place in early December. The tribunal found the charge justified in two of his poems, the Arckép (Portrait) and the Pirul már az őszi bogyó (Fall Berries Redden in the Sun Now) and Radnóti was condemned to eight days of prison. Radnóti appealed the judgment, also appending the letter of Sándor Sík who stood for him with his authority of a priest and university professor. The appeal court suspended the execution of the judgment on probation.
In 1933 his third volume, Lábadozó szél (Convalescent Wind) was published. Radnóti also included in it some of the poems of the previous, confiscated volume. This volume was closed by the longer composition Ének a négerről, aki a városba ment (Song of the Black Man Who Went to Town), which in the following year was published as an autonomous volume. A negative critique of Mihály Babits on the Lábadozó szél appeared in the important literary journal Nyugat (Occident), in which Radnóti published for the first time in 1932.
Radnóti wrote his PhD dissertation on The Artistic Development of Margit Kaffka (1934) under the supervision of Sándor Sík. He wanted to officially sign it with his adopted name Radnóti. This was also important to him because he planned to marry Fanni Gyarmati after finishing the university. However, the Ministry of Interior only authorized him the name Radnóczi. In 1934 he received his PhD degree in Hungarian literature, but to complete his university studies he also had to present his thesis in French and to pass his examination of professorship.
Miklós Radnóti and Fanni Gyarmati married in August 1935. They rented an one-room flat in Pozsonyi Street 1 in the 5th (today 13th) district, and here they lived throughout their common life. They passed their short honeymoon at the Lake Balaton. Fanni Gyarmati taught stenography in the school of his father, where occasionally also Radnóti taught orthography. Besides, he tried to make a living on occasional literary works. His only stable income was the monthly support received from his guardian. Radnóti could never get a job in an editorial or as a teacher.
His literary career started to be accomplished in these years. In 1935 he published his volume Újhold (New Moon) which brought a turn in his oeuvre. With this volume he became a mature poet with a sure formal taste, and the presentiment of violent death, perhaps the main motif of his poetry, appears here for the first time. This theme was further elaborated in his next volume Járkálj csak, halálraítélt! (Walk on, Condemned!, 1936) which was honored with the prestigious Baumgarten Award in 1937. At this time he already regularly published his poems and critiques in Nyugat, and his earlier rebellion against Babits turned into an unconditional reverence. He was also engaged in translation, and in a few years he became one of the best literary translators. In 1937 and 1938 he had a series on history of literature in the radio, which was broken due to the anti-Jewish measures of 1938. He had a large number of great projects of anthology, but he was allowed to realize only a small part of his editorial ideas. In these years he got into close friendship with István Vas, the translation of selected poems of Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) was their common undertaking.
The Baumgarten Award made him possible to make a second travel to Paris, this time together with his wife. On this occasion he got to know the poetry of the Spanish martyr poet Federico García Lorca (1898–1936). His next volume Meredek út (Steep Road) came out in 1938. In this he published his First Eclogue, the first one among his eclogues that later grew into a “hidden cycle”, which amalgamated the bucolic tone of his early poetry with his great theme of death. In the summer of 1939 he traveled to France for the third time. After his return he completed his autobiographic essay Ikrek hava (Gemini) which was published at the same time with his Selected Poems (1940). This was a period of alternating feverish activity and despair in his life. His possibilities were narrowed even more than before.
Radnóti was called up for forced labour service on three occasions. The first one was between September 9 and December 9, 1940. In most part of this service they dismounted the wire fencing of the former Roumanian border around Veresmart in Northern Transylvania which assigned back to Hungary in the Second Decision of Vienna on August 30, 1940. He spent the last week in a company for refractory soldiers together with all his platoon. After discharge he continued his work. In this period he already had to face rude antisemitic press attacks. This is why he started his cycle Eaton Darr strófái (The Stanzas of Eaton Darr) written in the masque of a fictive poet, by replying with absurd poems to the senseless cruelty. He went through a crisis also in his private life, falling in love with painter Judit Beck. He addressed to her his poems Zápor (Rain) and Harmadik ecloga (Third Eclogue). His marriage, however, did not come in danger. His emotional coming back is also attested by his Októbervégi hexameterek (Hexameters in Late October).
This latter poem was written during his second forced labour service. He was called up on July 3, 1942 and was discharged in late April 1943. During the first service he did not wear any special marking, while on the second he had to wear a yellow armband indicating his Jewish descendance. He was first commanded to Transylvania where they set up phone posts around Élesd (today Aleşd). In mid-October he was brought to Hatvan where he worked in the sugar factory. From November he nailed ammunition cases in a case factory of Újpest, and later worked in a machine factory in the same town. He was humiliated a number of times, his books were sequestrated. He recorded his labour force experiences in his diary. The last record is of March 14, 1943 and then the diary stops. The reason was a humiliation which was more rude than any earlier one. On March 16 he received permission to go out, but a voluntary officer picked a quarrel with him on the Street, he commanded him into the Albrecht Garnison on Aréna Street (today Róbert Károly Boulevard), had his hear cut, beated him and tortured him with various exercises. A week later he also had a working place accident. At this time his friends already collected signatures and presented an application at the Ministry of Defence in the interest of his discharging.
Some days after his discharging he converted to Catholic faith in Saint Stephen Cathedral of Budapest. By this he fulfilled his sixteen years old decision, intentionally in a period when the anti-Jewish legislation already prevented him of having any advantage of his baptism. He was baptised by Sándor Sík.
The last months before his third forced labour service were spent with feverish working. He translated, wrote and elaborated a lot. He compiled a selection of the animal stories of Jean de la Fontaine (1621–1695), and published his own selected lyrical translations under the title Orpheus nyomában (In the Footsteps of Orpheus, 1943). He composed the volume Karunga, a holtak ura (Karunga, Lord of the Dead) with African fables translated by him, and started to translate Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (but he only arrived to the second act, and the rest was completed by György Rónay).
He was deported to forced labour service for the last time on May 20, 1944. On the day before his departure he wrote his poem Töredék (Fragment). He was taken to the town of Bor in Serbia where the Siemens and the Organisation Todt run a copper mine for war purposes. The about six thousand Hungarian forced labourer were supervised by the Hungarian army. On his last service he wore a white armband indicating his Christian religion. The camp of Bor was a series of lagers established on the thirty kilometers long line between Bor and Žagubica. Radnóti lived in the lager called Heidenau. On August 29, due to the advance of the Soviet army and the renewed activity of Yugoslav partisans the lager was evacuated. The forced labourers were commanded in a forced march to the central lager in Bor, from where they were set on road towards Germany in two units. Radnóti was assigned to the first unit which started on September 17. Before leaving, he gave a copy of his poems written in Bor to his friend, the sociologist Sándor Szalai who survived and brought the manuscripts home. The second unit which left the lager on September 29, was liberated by Yugoslav partisans on the next day.
The journey of the first unit, however, ended tragically, and only a few of them survived. The main stations of their walk were Belgrad, the island of Zemun, Titel, Novi Sad and Črvenka. Here Radnóti wrote the second Razglednica. German milicists joined the Hungarian Nazis accompanying the forced labourers, and shot dead about five hundred of them. From Črvenka a part of the forced labourers were immediately driven further in two groups through Sivac and Zombor to the Hungarian Mohács. Radnóti was in one of the two groups. In Mohács he wrote the third Razglednica. Those remaining in Črvenka, about eight hundred persons were executed by the German SS.
The group of Radnóti was transported in cattle wagons from Mohács to Szentkirályszabadja where they were lodged in the barracks near to the airport. Here he wrote his last poem, the fourth Razglednica on October 31. In Szentkirályszabadja a number of survivors still saw him, but after that nothing certain is known about his fate and death. As we do not know the events of the first two years of his life, neither those of the two years following his father’s death, so the events of his last days remain obscure to us. From Szentkirályszabadja they walked through Veszprém, Zirc and Pannonhalma. In Écs twenty-two persons who were unable to walk were put on a carriage and brought to Győr in hospital, but neither the town hospital nor the emergency hospital accepted them. Thus Sergeant András Tálas and two Hungarian Nazi soldiers drove the carriage to Abda where they shot dead these persons, including Miklós Radnóti, in the flood basin of the river Rábca. András Tálas was arrested in 1946 and in 1947 executed for war crimes. His indictment, however, did not include the mass murder of Abda.
The mass grave was reopened in late June 1946. The exhumed corpses were taken to Győr and buried in the local Jewish cemetery on June 25. This was the second burial of Radnóti. The description of corpse number 12 in the autopsy protocols belongs to Miklós Radnóczi. According to the description, he was executed with a skull shot. He was identified with the documents found in his clothes: his name card, his civil identity card, the certificate of the Writers’ Economic Union, the authorized copy of his certificate of baptism, and the letters written to him.
His papers also included a black notebook which was given over together with the rest of his documents to his widow by the Israelite community of Győr. The first page carries the following text in five languages (Hungarian, Serbian, German, French and English): “This notebook contains the poems of Miklós Radnóti, Hungarian poet. The finder is kindly requested to forward it to Professor Gyula Ortutay: Budapest, VII. Horánszky u. 1. I.” This notebook contained Radnóti’s last poems. His posthumous volume Tajtékos ég (Foamy Sky, 1946), compiled by Fanni Gyarmati before the opening of the mass grave of Abda, only contained those poems of Bor that had been taken home by Sándor Szalai. The complete poems of the notebook of Bor were published for the first time in the collected poems of Miklós Radnóti of 1948.
Miklós Radnóti was buried for the third time on August 16, 1946 in the grave number 41 of parcel 41 of the Kerepesi Street Cemetery in Budapest.