Dr. Gabor Barabas has loved poetry since he was a child, growing up in post-Holocaust Hungary. He listened to his elderly relatives read grand, resounding verses, and he dreamed of becoming a poet himself.
He did just that, writing his own poetry, but he also pursued another dream — to become a doctor.
It wasn’t until Barabas, who lives in Long Branch, retired from his career as a pediatric neurologist that he turned that passion for poetry into the most challenging writing task of his life — translating the complete works of the revered Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti. It took him seven years.
The book, Miklos Radnoti: The Complete Poetry in Hungarian and English, has just been published (by McFarland and Company, Inc.), with a foreword by Gyozo Ferencz.
Radnoti died in 1944 at the age of 35 during a forced march. Born Jewish (he converted to Catholicism a year before his death), he had been forced into an unarmed Hungarian Army labor battalion. He was buried in a mass grave with other Jews who perished on the march.
He was already an established poet with six published books. One more collection of his poems was found when his body was exhumed 18 months later, scribbled in a notebook stowed in his overcoat pocket.
Barabas knew of Radnoti’s work, but it was only after retiring eight years ago that he became deeply intrigued by it. With the help of a Hungarian scholar, he got in touch with Radnoti’s widow, Fanni, then in her 90s, and showed her his first attempts at translation. She and her husband were together just nine years before his death. She stayed in the apartment they’d shared, never remarried, and as a teacher and an intellectual in her own right, she served as the guardian of his work. Barabas compares her to Dante’s true love, Beatrice.
“She gave me permission to translate all of his poems,” he said. That included 400 complete works and even fragments. It turned into “a rare experience — not just a literary journey but a psychological one too.”
“I tried very hard to complete the book in time for her to see it, but she died — at the age of 101 — five months ago,” he said.
Quite aside from the massive translation job, Barabas and his wife SuzAnne have their hands full with the theater they founded and run — he as executive producer, she as artistic director — the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. They put on six new, previously unproduced works a year, selected from 500 scripts received from all over the world — the next one, Lucky Me, by Robert Caisley, opens July 31 — not to mention their commitment to producing a number of plays with Jewish themes.
They also have two grown children and two grandchildren.
Barabas, who is also a sometime playwright, says that in Radnoti he found validation of his own world view. Though he was born after the horrors of the Holocaust, Barabas said, his family was deeply marked by it. His mother was in Auschwitz and lost most members of her family. His father was in labor camps, including Mauthausen.
Barabas grew up aware of being different. In his heder class, he was the only child. “I was surrounded by 40 empty little desks,” he recalled.
The family fled Hungary in 1956 during the communist revolution when he was eight, and settled in Connecticut and then Brooklyn. He studied English literature in college, before going on to his medical studies. He and his wife, a cofounder of theater companies in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, founded the nonprofit NJ Rep in 1997.
“In the U.S., except for the trauma of learning a new language, things were much more comfortable — we were part of a Jewish community, but I was aware of being different,” he said. “There wasn’t a palpable sense of tragedy in our home, and my parents were very protective of me, but by the time I was 12 or 13, I was very aware that I had these relatives whom I had never met, who, in a way, lived through me, that I should do as much as I could to honor their memory.”
Radnoti has a large following in Hungary — an irony considering the intense anti-Semitism there, and his work has been translated into English by others, but Barabas found those versions unsatisfying.
“A translation of anything — especially poetry — is destined for failure,” he said. “The only question is the degree of failure.” To that end, he strove, he said, “to adhere with great fidelity to the stylistic and poetic elements” of the poems.
In addition to the poems, in Hungarian and English, he included text to establish the setting in which the poet worked, the country’s history, the anti-Semitism, and the prewar milieu.
Barabas said he hopes the book will bring an English audience Radnoti’s work, which he reveres.
“I think I was able to intuit both the world he lived in and what he went through,” Barabas said, and the implications for the world at large.”