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Staff Picks: One Woman in the War

WARNING: This post contains graphic content dealing with sexual assault and war crimes against civilians.

“You can’t possibly think anyone would publish a story with the slightest hint that the Heroic Soviet Liberators were amusing themselves by raping women in their spare time during World War II” read the rejection letter in 1981, sent by a reputable Hungarian literary journal to a budding writer.

Fast forward to 1991. Asszony a fronton (English: “One woman in the front”), published by the main Hungarian literary publisher shortly after the fall of communism, did exactly that.

Breaking a silence of several decades related to the ultimate taboo, psychologist Alaine Polcz put the horrors of war into words and shared her own experiences of the final months of World War II. Her unvarnished, autobiographic account presents extreme violence against the most vulnerable through the eyes of a woman. But the book, a shocking and tough read to say the very least, goes way beyond the historical events.

A recently married twenty-year-old woman is torn out of her sheltered environment in Transylvania. Fleeing from the impending air raids and the swiftly moving war front in her hometown Kolozsvár (now Cluj in Romania), she is thrown into the front line of the battlefield in Western Hungary. The region changes hands quickly between German and Russian troops, which comes with all consequences of a bloody war:

Later, when Székesfehérvár changed hands several times, the Russians, after first raping them, cut off with knives the breasts of the women who had cohabited with the Germans.

The shock of such violence upends her life––not that her marriage had been a dream to begin with. A somewhat naïve young woman, who wants to make a difference in life and has ambitions to become a doctor, she barely understands how STDs are transmitted when she gets infected by the only possible person, her husband. Going downhill from the emotional humiliation of a loveless marriage to the full-blown experience of wartime rape, Polcz’s text is a dismal read, reminding us that there is no sliding scale in rape or war crimes––the horror is absolute.

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.
(From the book sleeve of the 2nd edition)

The disturbing war experiences are narrated by an older and wiser Alaine Polcz, a survivor of the terrors of the war and now a practicing thanatologist (a psychologist studying the ways we deal with dying and others’ deaths). The reflections and interpretations suggest that, for all that it cost, her survival is the triumph of humanity over violence and horror. After years of recovery from grave medical conditions resulting from the violence, Polcz still chooses not to be a victim. She chooses as well not to give way to the desire for revenge, even though she would have every possible reason, from lingering nightmares to a life-altering loss: the inability to have children, as a direct result of what she had been through.

Her determination to outlast and rise above the horrors she has experienced teaches us an important lesson, just as it did in 1991, when the last “temporarily stationed” Soviet troops left Hungary.

Before 1991, Polcz was known as a psychologist with a deep understanding of incurable or ‘problem’ children, a scholar in thanatology, founder of the hospice movement in Hungary, and the wife of Miklós Mészöly, an uncompromising, independent prose writer (Polcz’s second husband). She was 69 when her brutally honest narrative was published. After several editions of One woman in the war and other, more lighthearted titles that followed (on topics such as cooking and cats), the famous Mészöly was sometimes jokingly referred to as the husband of Alaine Polcz––turning the tables and illustrating the creative relationship between these two exceptional authors. Polcz’s ”magnificent confession,” as he called it, came as a big surprise to Mészöly too, who read the manuscript only after it was finished.

Two titles, same memoir: The English language edition of Polcz’s book was first published by Corvina in Hungary under the title A Wartime Memoir.

One woman in the war was not meant to be a literary work, but instead an authentic, non-fictional memoir. It is a sincere recollection of ”one woman,” rather than a professional writer, in the war. The simple structure that records the events in chronological order with plain language results in sharing her deeply vulnerable account openly and sincerely with generations of women who had felt just as ashamed for decades to talk about what had happened to them during the war.

In the past few weeks the stories that daughters and granddaughters are sharing in a Ukrainian invasion-themed reddit thread that they learned, eventually, from their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers in East Europe are similar to those that I heard from my grandmother. Young girls disguising themselves as old women or disfiguring themselves in hopes of avoiding rape. A hidden door, blending into a whitewashed kitchen wall, leading to a pantry that gave shelter to four women at a time. A hay barn with a secret underground compartment. And children, children everywhere, standing watch to signal when the troops were getting close, my parents among them. Children were not typically harmed by soldiers yet, at least not then in World War II.

One woman in the war goes beyond violence against women in war or peace. It goes even beyond wartime rape in general. No fancy writing hocus-pocus, no persuasive rhetoric. Telling her story allows Alaine Polcz to rise above her past and can help us rise above our own problems now––even as the horror she describes is happening again.

Wartime sexual violence has been with us for a long time. Although somewhat less officially condoned in formal warfare than it had been among the ancient Greeks and Romans (vae victis) or even in the Second World War (particularly the Soviet and Japanese armies), prosecution of war rapes–still all too common in war zones––remains extremely difficult. A lot of cases remain underreported.

“Rape as a weapon of war” is actually a Library of Congress Subject Heading, also used for “war rape,” under the broader term of “War crimes.” Rutgers Libraries own over 120 books on the topic; see a selection of titles in the references. The same phrase in quotes returns over 5,000 hits in Google Scholar, indicating ongoing research interests from multiple perspectives.

book cover

The popular book Let’s cook with joy! is more than a collection of recipes for food. It’s rather a recipe for life itself. Finding joy in cooking healthy and inexpensive meals for the family expresses the author’s acceptance and passion for life.

One woman in the war is available from RUL online in the Central European University Press Collection. The first English edition was followed by the CEU one (same text with a different title) translated by Albert Tezla. Read Excerpts in English in Hungarian Review (excerpt 1, excerpt 2).

The popular book Let’s cook with joy! is more than a collection of recipes for food, it’s rather a recipe to life. Finding joy in cooking healthy and inexpensive meals quickly is part of teh author’s acceptance and passion for life as told in the many stories in between recipes.

To end on a happier note, I should return the RUL print copies in case someone wants to check them out and should start reading something else the wise Alaine Polcz wrote: Let’s cook with joy (in Hungarian, also available at RUL) is the perfect stressbuster. It might seem frivolous by comparison, but in light of the horrors Polcz describes in One woman in the war, a book that celebrates simple joy in everyday life is its own kind of achievement.

More from Rutgers Libraries on war crimes and rape