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One Woman in the War

Alaine Polcz


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”I always walk on the shadowy side of life”
– the author.

1Before the publication of One Woman in the War in 1991, Alaine Polcz was widely recognized as a psychologist ministering to the needs of disturbed and incurably ill children and their families, as the author of numerous articles and several books on thanatology, and as the founder of the hospice movement in Hungary. To those who knew her through these dedicated engagements with death and the dying, the account of her experiences in the closing months of the Second World War was a revelation of past horrors in Hungary which, until then, had lingered on in the farthest reaches of the national memory as rumor and suspicion about the violent acts committed against women during a time of chaos, havoc, and savagery. In her review of the work, Anna Földes, a respected critic and literary historian who had previously interviewed Polcz in relation to her publications on death and dying, originally thought that Polcz was led to the care of dying children by experiences not uncommon to many members of the war generation: the uprooting from her home and becoming a refugee in Hungary, the terrors of the war itself, the years of delay in beginning a professional career, the decades-long excoriation of the writings of her second husband, Miklós Mészöly, the distinguished modernist in Hungry’s prose fiction, by critics and literary historians serving the interests of the government, and, possibly, illnesses she had suffered in her youth. Now that Polcz has broken out of “the tower of silence” with the account of what she endured when she was only nineteen to twenty, Földes comprehends what Polcz meant when, during that interview, she expressed her gratitude “for the trials of existence,” as she states in her review, she now learns for the first time that the author herself had completed the “school of death, the university of trials” and passed the examination in the “relieving discipline of enduring the unendurable, of the human bond that shines forth even in hell.” Földes now concludes that, because she was denied the happiness of motherhood for which she had so fervently longed, Polcz eventually chose to become “the rational guardian angel of children.”

2But even Polcz’s very close friends were entirely unaware of the story of her first marriage and her war experiences which she so honestly and frankly discloses in this book. In his review, Ottó Orbán, the noted poet and personal friend of Polcz and her husband Miklós, observes that all that had been generally known about her was that she was for a long time a psychologist at a children’s clinic dealing with their difficulties in entering the world and then devoted herself to the departure of human beings from life in as humane a way as possible. In a narrower intellectual circle, she was also known to be Mészöly’s wife. As someone closer to the two of them, Orbán had, of course, heard something about all kinds of horrors Alaine had experienced during the war and also about a serious illness she had suffered; but “with the dull-witted arrogance of those who had lived through the siege of Budapest,” he somehow supposed that the bombing had simply been “a bit more violent” in the area where the war had caught up with her. As for her having been sick, “Who hadn’t been? I was, too. Big deal!” Orbán had appreciated the fact that she wrote her studies in “respectable Hungarian, and not in the gobbledygook of the international psychological dialect” so prevalent in that body of literature, but he found in them no evidence of an author-in-progress. There is no question that, like Orbán, even her closest associates and friends were unprepared for the revelations of the confessional and its literary quality. Even her husband, to whom she readily turned for help with her professional writings, did not see thie “chapter” from her life during its long genesis until it was published. Describing his response to his wife’s literary activity in a interview published on January 3, 1998, Mészöly explains: “It was always obvious to me that an interest to do such writing existed in her. She had planned for a long time to write her life’s story, an account of her experiences during the war. Earlier I myself had a part in her working on her professional writings; I served like a midwife at the birth of the texts. Now, however, when Alaine embarked on the writing of One Woman in the War, I sensed she had to be left entirely on her own, that I should not participate. So, although I knew she was working on it, I did not read it until it was finished.” Asked whether he was able to resist looking at the manuscript, he replied: “Yes. And I am extremely glad it happened that way, for, to my very great surprise, she created a magnificent confessional volume, in an entirely new style.” The literary world quickly recognized its merits: It was awarded the prestigious Déry Prize, named Book of the Year in Hungary, and highly praised by Hungarian reviewers, and has already been translated into French, Romanian, Slovenian, and Serbian.

3Information about her life remains scarce, but fortunately, Polcz has provided some essential details about other “chapters” of her life in a radio interview on a program called “Calling Card,” which was also published in 168 Óra [168 Hours], March 30, 1993, and in “My Autobiography,” a six-page account, which appeared in Mérleg [Scale], 1995. These articles, supplemented by her answers to questions submitted by the translator, shed some light on her life with her family in Kolozsvár (Cluj), Transylvania and her lasting, deep devotion to the place of her birth as a rightful part of historic Hungary, both of which nurtured her sense of values and shaped her view of life. She limns a picture of family poverty and economic struggle in post-Trianon Transylvania during her early years. She wore hand-me-downs and shoes with holes in their soles, and the family of seven lived in a room and a kitchen, without lavatory and bathroom. Relatives who lived in two- or three-room places with doorbells seemed foreign to her. Her reaction to hardship and her parents’ efforts to make ends meet may be an early indication of the tremendous inner strength she manifests toward the trials of marriage and war that she recounts in the memoir when she says that “poverty has many jewels and joys... not known to the rich,” and that human beings, while they are children, consider everything they experience to be “normal, natural” if they are, as she was, enveloped by the atmosphere of love and joy.” She delighted in summers spent in a village with relatives and friends, close to animals and nature. Attending high school presented a real challenge to her: she had to maintain an excellent level of scholarship to remain eligible for a tuition exemption and, at the same time, tutored students privately for income, and helped at home because her mother, from whom she received her love of work, perseverance and sense of feminine modesty, was employed outside the home to help make the family more comfortable.

4Polcz expresses indebtedness to her early years in Kolozsvár for her deep belief in religious freedom and tolerance for minorities. In the family home, in the small room and kitchen, “we were Unitarians, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Protestants. The transformations and developments of our faith–school and marriages often exerted decisive influence–we changed from one belief to another.” Her father frequently remarked, laughing: “Do bring home a Jewish daughter-in-law, the family is incomplete without one.” When that event occurred happily years later, and the new daughter-in-law, Ici, was serving her first dinner to the family, Polcz’s younger sister, Kata, whispered to her: “How happy she is. She thinks it is something for her to wind up in a purely gentile family in which everyone is a doctor.” Of course, there was such banter, Polcz remarks, but she came to know true religious conflict only in Budapest. In addition, in Kolozsvár it felt natural to be living among many nationalities. Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians, Serbians, Jews, and Armenians lived side by side, and despite the expected slurs and racial jokes that were voiced within the ethnic groups, she has, on expo-sure to the world, come to realize what the basically harmonious relationship prevailing in that multi-cultural society meant to the evolution of her view of life and her own, open attitude toward human beings.

5There was, however, another side to her life in Kolozsvár that affected her profoundly during the inter-bellum years. Transylvania was no longer a part of the historic Hungarian homeland which ancient Hungarian tribes had occupied along with the Carpathian Basin during the ninth century. When the first Christian king of Hungary, Stephen I (c. 970–1038), was crowned in the year 1000, Transylvania became a part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon, in 1920. At the time when the Turks occupied the center of Hungary from 1526 to the end of the seventeenth century, and the Habsburgs ruled the western and northern regions of Hungary, Transylvania was governed by Hungarian princes, the famed Rákóczis, and served for a time as the center of Hungarian culture and as the custodian of the highest political traditions of Hungary.

6In Kolozsvár, Polcz lived amid powerful echoes of this centuries-long kinship with Hungary. Matthias Corvinus, known as the Renaissance king of Hungary, was born there in 1443. During his reign from 1458 to 1490, he strove to restore the Hungarian state after many years of feudal anarchy and became, in the eyes of many modern historians, one of the most impressive figures of the period in central and Eastern Europe. His court in Buda attracted many important humanists, including Callimachus Experiens, who lived at the court from 1483 to 1484, Marzio Galeotto, who resided there frequently between 1461 and 1486, and Antonio Bonfini, who, following frequent visits that began in 1486, became a permanent resident at the court from 1496 until his death in 1502. Matthias’ library, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, was the first among the libraries founded at the time; it consisted of about 600 codices, and its original titles were prepared by scribes and miniaturists in Italy, mainly Florence, and later at an illuminator and book-binding shop in Buda, where he also established a printing press in 1472. The house in which he was born and his statue still stand in the center of the city.

7The ties of Polcz’s birthplace with Hungarian culture are numerous. It is the place where Hungary’s first encyclopedia was published, in 1653; where Miklós Bethlen, the noted 17th-century Hungarian politician and political writer, carried on his work; where Miklós Tótfalusi Kis, who went to Amsterdam to master the art of printing, quickly established his European reputation, published a controversial bibliophile edition of the Bible in Hungarian, and returned to Transylvania and settled in Kolozsvár in 1690 to live out his remaining years; where Mikes Kelemen, who, accompanying ruling Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II (1676–1735) into Turkisch exile as his secretary after the defeat of Hungary in the War of Independence in 1711 and writing the letters that became a significant part of Hungary’s literary heritage, received his education; and where the first Hungarian theatre was founded in 1792.

8The trauma of being wrenched from their ancient historical and cultural roots by the Treaty of Trianon was aggravated for the 1.6 million Hungarians in Transylvania by the Romanian state’s policies aimed at marginalizing the minorities. The policies applied to all the minority groups, but the government, viewing the Hungarians as the most threatening to the security of the fledgling state, applied restrictive measures against them more aggressively. It curbed the use of the Hungarian language, denied written legal status to Hungarian churches and violated religious freedom. Its educational policies, aimed at the assimilation of minorities and the suppression of their educational systems, eliminated more than fifty percent of all Hungarian schools and Romanized the Hungarian university in Kolozsvár. The government closed Kolozsvár’s Hungarian National Theatre, denied the freedom to organize meetings and even required authorization to celebrate engagements, weddings and Christenings; it imposed censorship on the ethnic press and inhibited individual freedom through a fifteen-year enforcement of martial law that made house searches and illegal arrests common occurrences.

9The Polcz family felt the hand of oppression directly. She writes: “I was born in Transylvania after the First World War. I came into a world in tears and mourning following the shock of having my birthplace severed from my homeland. I have a black necklace whittled out of wood, called beads of mourning. Women wore them after Trianon.” It is true, she says, that she was still able to attend a Hungarian school and that she grew up in a Hungarian environment, but her father was constantly being harassed and taken away, and relatives were always spending time in prison. She was forced to learn many words and names strange to her ears and soul, and she can still remember what was etched in her mind as a young student under the Romanian monarchy: “Maestates sa Hohenzollern Sigmaringen Carol al doilea”–His Majesty Charles II of Hohenzollern Even her father’s failure to register the date of her birth and his choice of her name were an expression of his resistance to the Romanian administration. When queried about the probable inaccuracy of 1922 as the year of her birth published in a literary lexicon, given the age at which the events in the memoir took place, she stated that she was born on October 7 but did not know the year. There were five children in her family, and none of them was properly registered at the time that they were born, because her father did not want to acknowledge the Romanian administration but hoped that the Hungarians would soon return to Transylvania. When they did come back in 1940, as a consequence of the Second Vienna Award, and reintroduced a Hungarian administration, her parents could not decide the year of her birth, but she thinks 1924 is the more likely date. As for her name, her father chose “Alaine” because it could not be translated into Romanian. Only in 1940 did she learn that “Alaine” was her first name. Until then she was called “Ibolya” [Violet] within the family and at school. Perhaps her father was, she notes, not knowledgeable enough in French to realize it was a name for a male, and she may be the only woman in the world with the name of “Alaine.” She found, as she had with poverty, a valuable benefit in experiencing political oppression: being a member of the opposition, she says, gave her enormous inner strength.

10Then, historical events again altered her life radically, this time for the better. The Second Vienna Award reattached Northern Transylvania to Hungary, and everything in Kolozsvár changed overnight: “Hungarian police and soldiers, Hungarian placards and newspapers, Hungarian films, Hungarian currency, Hungarian books. Hungarian is spoken in official agencies. Hungarians become the ruling class.” Her family’s economic situation improved vastly. Her father, an ordinary lawyer who did not speak Romanian, became county attorney general. They moved into a four-room apartment in a villa and had a female servant, of whom she speaks fondly in her memoir.

11But their elation at the change did not last long. Three months to the date of the Second Vienna Award, on November 30, 1940, Hungary joined the Tripartite Pact and entered the war. On that very night, the air-raid blackout went into effect in Kolozsvár. “We nailed carpets on the windows, and because we were young, we danced–to a gramophone wound up with a crank. Tangos, Vienna waltzes, English waltzes. My mother wept in an adjoining room. Two days later, the young men were transported to the front.” In a passage in “My Autobiography” that could serve as a postscript to the memoir, she observes: “One who has lived through a war views life differently. War cuts you to the quick, it strips you naked. That is, if you are caught up by its current. There are provincial towns and villages where the war quietly flows past you; you manage to swim through it, knowing starvation, experiencing anxiety, and acknowledging others’ losses. I got into its very middle... I never knew anything about what was happening to me, about what it meant. I simply met my fate. Angels were holding me in their hands, but I foolishly thought I was suffering.”

12Polcz is responding to the horrible experiences she narrates in the memoir. At Csákvár, she, her husband, and her mother-in-law were swept into fierce battles between German and Hungarian forces and the Red Army that had broken through the Carpathian passes with the support of the Romanian army that had defected to the Soviets on August 23, 1944, to occupy Western Hungary and join the siege of Budapest. Evacuated by German troops to Mindszentpuszta in the Vértes mountain range before the advancing Red Army, Polcz, her husband, and her mother-in-law were forced by Soviet forces to march back to Csákvár after Christmas, where the bitterest fighting was taking place between Bicske and Lovasberény, southwest of Budapest. Villages changed hands frequently, often daily; the front billowed back and forth. Trapped in that vortex of violence, Polcz suffered the horrors of war as only a woman can know them: physical and emotional humiliation, bestial violations of her very being–events which she kept entirely to herself, as she did her stressful life with a controlling husband, until the memoir was published forty-six years later.

13In 1945, after the war ended, Polcz went back to Kolozsvár. She started to work as a journalist at a paper called Népiesség [Patriotism] while she was studying psychology at Bólyai University. In 1946, she had to leave Transylvania because of her Hungarian citizenship and fled across the border with her husband to Hungary and settled in Budapest. She continued her studies in psychology and pedagogy at Péter Pázmány University (later Loránd Eötvös University). She had to support herself entirely while she was a student, working as a clerk at the National Széchenyi Library and later at the Children’s Psychological Institute. She barely managed to obtain her degree because the communist government, declaring psychology a bourgeois subject, closed the department. She received her doctorate in the restored Department of Psychology, Loránd Eötvös University, in 1959.

14Radical political changes continued to plague her life. The multiparty democratic system which emerged from the physical and human ruins of the war and held so much promise for the future of Hungary could not withstand the power of the communists, backed by the presence of large Soviet forces; it was gradually subverted until the Communist Party, headed by Mátyás Rákosi, an exile just returned from Moscow, seized power in 1949 by using what came to be known as “salami” tactics. Seven years later, in October 1956, the Revolution erupted, only to be quickly and bloodily put down by the Red Army, and János Kádár was put into power as head of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Polcz summarizes what she experienced in Hungary up to the present day: “... first came fascism, liberation after nazism–for that is what it was for a while–then followed communism, the Revolution, vengeance, a soft dictatorship, then the struggle for democracy within a democracy.” She adds: “And two marriages, both a great and serious education.” The recurrence of her illness for three years took her to death’s door, from which, she says, Miklós, whom she met in 1947 and married in 1948, pulled her back. And yet, as with earlier adversities, she viewed that ordeal in a positive light; it made “life, the world open before me: the university, travels, intellectual and physical pathways. And unceasing transformation and development.” In her mind, she had to develop the ability to write, to have something to say, so that she could write her books and be able to work with the dying. She had to acquire knowledge and experience, she states, elements she also needed for her work in psychology. She writes: “When I am in a bad mood, I say to myself: I always walk on the shadowy side of life. That’s the way it is. During the Revolution, a tank projectile struck right below the window we were looking through–a passing episode, for the Revolution was beautiful too; but during the detentions and executions my temples turned gray in two weeks. Well, this is needed for psychological experience, too. All this together is the School of Adversity. I do not recommend it to anyone, only if someone has something to do in life. But I did not want any of this, either–instead, it was given to me. I was also given things to be done.”

15She began her professional career by working with adult mental patients in the psychiatric ward of the National Neurolgical and Mental Hospital, using play, art, and writing as therapy, which was quite uncommon in Hungary fifty years ago. Then she treated disturbed children at the Central Child Welfare Institute, introducing play diagnostics and play therapy into its program. Next she served as a psychologist in the Children’s clinic tending to dying children. After her official retirement, she undertook medical psychology and the care of dying children in the oncology section in a children’s clinic of the Central Council of Hungarian Trade Unions. Then, when she was seventy, she turned to the care of dying adults and the assistance of mourners, and launched the hospice movement in Hungary in 1991. Since its founding fourteen hospice departments have been created and 1,400 persons trained to conduct its work, and the Hungarian Hospice Foundation was established, which she serves as president and which publishes a periodical. She has contributed extensively to the literature in her field. A selection of her titles indicates the subjects of her professional interests: The Lion Cub Play as a Diagnostic and Therapeutic Tool, 1962; Puppetry and Psychology, 1966; The Use of Puppet Plays in Psychodiagnosis and Psychology, 1966; Effective Play Diagnostics and Psychotherapy, 1976; Medical Psychology in Practice, 1987; Our Attitude toward the Dying and the Body of the Deceased, 1987; Order and Disorder in Human Behavior, 1987; The School of Death, 1989; and Will I Die Too? Death and the Child, 1993, the last two being works she considers of special value to the general reader. From such labors, she “joyfully retreated to the kitchen. I even wrote a little cookbook: Let’s Cook Easily, Quickly, from Nothing.” She has also published Macskaregény [A Cat Story], an autobiographical book on cats, and Olvasólámpa [Reading Lamp], a book of essays, and is writing a book on cookery, all the while continuing her work as a psychologist and a housewife.

16Polcz addresses directly the content of One Woman in the War and her attitude toward the war on the back cover of the third edition, published in 1995:

Every war has a thousand faces. This is mine, as I survived it. How a young woman, I myself, as a wife of a couple of months, and age 19 to 20 landed at the Esterházy manor house in Csákvár from the ranks of a Transylvanian minority, from a Transylvania just reunited with the motherland.
A woman’s life at the front. Hunger, lice, digging trenches, peeling potatoes, cold, filth. This life was not only mine. My husband’s white-haired mother was dragged away and raped as pubescent girls were. Russian soldiers attacked me, beat me, protected me, stepped on my hand with a boot, fed me.
What were they like? What were we like? Why did they rape women knowing they possibly would pay for it with their lives? Not only bombs and projectiles annihilated, not only Hungarians and Germans were killed. Why did they make war? And why did we?

17Her narrative unfolds from March 1944 to fall 1945. Two strands progress together: her unhappy marriage and her war experiences, particularly during the three-month period of sexual violence she endured and its impact on her physical and emotional being. Hungarians had long been aware of the atrocities and reprisals civilians suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers, and they had heard rumors about how women disguised themselves to be spared sexual attack, and whisperings about friends whom Russian soldiers had raped. But, as Péter Balassa, a reviewer, points out, no one knew from a victim’s point of view how brutally and, at the same time, how naturally the rapes occurred, in one way or another, as a commonplace of everyday life. Political considerations and official censorship kept them from being reported and out of the historical record for more than forty years. Another reviewer, Sándor Radnóti, looks beyond such censorship for an explanation of the long period of silence to a cause which, he suspects, dwells more deeply in society: “The degradation itself induces suppression. The act of rape tarnishes, the loathing falls upon the victim, too. Vulgar public opinion holds her under the unseemly suspicion that she cannot be blameless if that happened to her.” In her review, Földes maintains that if historical circumstances after 1945 had permitted “the wounds of rape and forced sex to be brought to light frankly and objectively, and society had taken into account the not incomprehensible fury of the instincts of starved soldiers on the loose for hours, sometimes for days, the ulcer would not have turned so gangrenous.” But, she adds, if times had been different, “even the objectivity of history could not have prepared or compelled anyone to crack the hard seed formed from the silence for which Alaine Polcz had need for decades.”

18Polcz decided to crack that seed about thirty years ago in order to console a close woman friend, now deceased, who was going through a marriage crisis, promising never to disclose her name. As the motto of the book indicates, she wanted to say that it was possible to overcome everything, even the worst situation, that one can survive a bad marriage just as she had her own and the war, “how, after many horrors, a human being can recover and find happiness in a good marriage.” As best as she can recall, she wrote the account between 1975 and 1980, and let it lie fallow for some ten years. Then in 1989 she read an essay by János Rózsás in Újhold [New Moon], a yearbook, and, provoked by the negative image of the Russian troops it conveyed, she took up her old manuscript again, because she wanted to say that there were many kinds of Russians. Pressed for time by the demands of her profession, she had constantly struggled with the writing of her specialized books, but this one “I spoke into a tape recorder, this one sort of slipped out.” She dictated in this manner in the early hours before she left for work, and the tapes were typed out by a friend, Márta Bernáth, who suggested minor stylistic changes. The result is testimony to her natural powers of narration. The memoir is written in a clear, simple, direct style. There is no embellishment of her situation, no meandering, no sense of a work actually being composed. She does not analyze or explain, and despite her profession, she does not “psychologize” her experiences. As one of the reviewers, Csaba Károlyi, opines: “Instead, she stays with an apparent naive delineation. She does not stylize or conventionalize the material, she does not lyricize, she does not turn artful. She simply enumerates the facts one after the other; she allows those facts to throw light upon her and the situation in which she found herself.” In addition to the artlessness of her style, he considers a very distinguishing feature of her mode of writing to be her capacity to “relate the extraordinary occurrences that befell her without placing her own person in the foreground in an offensive way, even accidentally. And precisely because of this, her wisely remembering individuality is recognizable in her mode of turning toward matters through the discipline of her style.” Balassa finds that “the novelty and greatness of the book lies in the fact that a professional writer would not permit himself, or very seldom permit himself, to enumerate only facts and events from beginning to end in a book. The unstylized fact becomes confessional, the almost fictitious narration of the facts. This is a monumental epical story that today only the literature of fact is capable of presenting.” Földes maintains that Polcz’s credibility derives from the objectivity of her narrative style: the objective presentation of the facts of her story “curbs her most personal confessions. This enables us (along with the author) to make moral distinctions between human beings–murderers and victims, accomplices and witnesses.”

19The work is, indeed, the depiction of Polcz’s journey through the various levels of hell. In the span of a year, she is subjected to a succession of events appallingly brutal, forcing her to know every physical pain and mental agony, every affliction and humiliation a woman can possibly experience. Földes finds fear in its various forms to be the focal point of Polcz’s narrative: “In the age of innocence one still does not know that one has reason to fear. Then one learns to be anxious, to be terrified, to tremble, and, whimpering, to leap out of a window into a shower of bullets. At first, to fear only isolation, then the rattle of weapons, mysterious noises and soldiers breaking in, starvation, the savage embraces inflicting physical pain, the undesired male strength. Fear silences not only laughter but weeping as well.” For Orbán, to a woman there can be “no greater trial of spiritual strength, a more difficult test of good taste, than the delineation of her own rape.”

20The ultimate triumph of the work lies in Polcz’s ability to feel neither hatred nor desire for revenge, even though the bestiality of her violator still haunts her dreams, and the grave illness that resulted from the bestiality deprived her of the ability to bear children. With every reason to call to account those who had victimized her, she does not pass judgment on them. She speaks of every human being in her story, including herself, as Orbán puts it, “with sorrowful understanding, refraining from the opiates of vengeance and self-deception.” She is able, according to Károlyi, “to rise above her own sufferings, not through some sort of exuberant charity but through her recognition of the interdependence not only between those with whom she suffers but also between violence and victim.” According to Balassa, Polcz “holds a mirror before us; meanwhile, she lives with the prerogative and superiority of the truly despoiled she does not pass judgment.” He finds her attitude a very great matter in Central Europe, that “her disclosures are not combined with a thirst for revenge and hatred.” Her “monumental epic of terror points back in time”–jist as the last contingents of the Soviet army are leaving Hungary–“without vengeance, and this act serves as a worthy example from which all of us can learn. Ultimate defenselessness does not necessarily or automatically lead to the destruction of love.”

21This capacity of Polcz’s occasioned speculation about the source of her ability to rise above her experiences is such a moral act. Understandably, several reviewers attributed it to woman’s temperament, to woman’s outlook on life. No doubt the powerful impact of the work stems from the fact that a woman is speaking of her world here, not a man, a rarity in European as in other literatures of the world. Judit Barabás, in her review, sees as a substratum of the work “the outlook that is distinctly a woman’s very own, justifiable psychologically: the capacity to perceive, solve and acknowledge the concrete, the momentary occurrence and situation–the latter is frequently the only possibility for survival,” and she identifies as a female attribute “the capacity to survive, the ability to remain alive,” a trait which “almost automatically makes one act in situations at the brink.” Balassa maintains that “the female temperament, the woman’s lot is always closer to the fundamentals of nature, history, and existence. The constant, instinctive, and seemingly animal connection with ultimate issues, which springs from physical defenselessness, sexual and social defenselessness, appears here incomplete profundity, powerfulness, and somber splendor... present here are the recreative and cast-in-life belief and the restorative, elemental power of the female temperament, precisely because the courses of male passion, confessions, and messages are not knowledgeable in the same manner.”

22Ottó Orbán, who considers the memoir one of the most shocking and uplifting books of recent years, recalls an episode in his Budapest apartment in which Polcz tried to calm his rambunctious three-and-a-half year old daughter with the velvety voice he identifies with the manner of those who work with children. Stealing a look at Polcz, he mumbled to himself: “That won’t work. It’s one thing to be involved with children professionally, quite another to have your own child.” To this day his face reddens with acute shame at the stupidity of that statement. “I did not know that a dead person was also sitting on the edge of our bed. The young woman that Alaine once was, who, like normal women generally, wanted to bear children but within whom, instead of the joyfully bursting ovum, the war rotted for long years, in the strictest sense of the word, like a living contagion.” Concluding his review, he observes that, as Polcz was writing, the words of the Hungarian language “seemed to give way under her hand, and from that inexperienced hand flowed a novel that smites the chest... I have been a professional writer for thirty years, and now its material laughs in my face,” he adds.

© Central European University Press, 2002

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