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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

Nine Suitcases

Béla Zsolt

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Nine Suitcases

Title: Nine Suitcases
Author: Béla Zsolt
Genre: Memoir
Written: 1947 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 330 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Nine Suitcases - US
Nine Suitcases - UK
Nine Suitcases - Canada
Neun Koffer - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Kilenc Koffer
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Ladislaus Löb
  • First published in instalments in Haladás between 30 May 1946 and 27 February 1947
  • First published in book form in Hungary in 1980

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Our Assessment:

A : staggering, exceptional

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 27/12/2004 Scott Helman
FAZ . 11/2/2000 Karl-Markus Gauss
The Guardian A 10/1/2004 Tibor Fischer
The Independent . 9/1/2004 Clive Sinclair
The Jerusalem Post . 14/11/2004 Rob Rozett
Literary Review . 2/2004 Carole Angier
NZZ A 6/11/1999 Andreas Breitenstein
The Observer B+ 11/1/2004 Ian Thomson
The Scotsman A+ 27/12/2003 Roger Hutchinson
Sunday Times . 4/1/2004 Theo Richmond
The Telegraph . 9/2/2004 Anne Applebaum
TLS A 12/3/2004 Caroline Moorehead
Die Zeit . (5/2000) Klaus Harpprecht

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he book (...) has an immediacy because of Zsolt's riveting personal experiences, his clinical journalism, and his dry wit." - Scott Helman, Boston Globe

  • "(A)ls Leidensbericht eines Überlebenden auch im Rahmen dessen, was mittlerweile "Holocaust-Literatur"genannt wird, ein einzigartiges Werk." - Karl-Markus Gauss, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Perhaps because Zsolt died before he could edit his material into volume form, Nine Suitcases has some weaknesses: the first half is meandering and repetitive, and Zsolt is fond of reminding us how important he was as a journalist and political pundit. But the shortcomings are more than offset by the book's force. (...) This is by far the best book I've come across on the subject of the extermination of Hungary's Jews." - Tibor Fischer, The Guardian

  • "(R)emarkable and unflinching" - Clive Sinclair, The Independent

  • "With all the facility that made him a well-known writer, Zsolt sketches penetrating vignettes that reveal the foibles of both the victims and their persecutors. (...) Written with great style, Zsolt's memoir is a powerful testament to the suffering of Hungarian Jewish forced laborers on the Eastern Front, the ordeal of the Jews of Nagyvarad, the heroism of the few who tried to help, and the callousness of the many who did Jews harm." - Rob Rozett, The Jerusalem Post

  • "Hier legt einer mit äusserstem Realismus und ganz ohne moralisch-weltanschauliche Weichzeichner Zeugnis ab von dem, was ihm im Abgrund des Menschlichen widerfahren ist. Zwischen Entsetzen und Erbarmen hat das humane Bestiarium seinen Auftritt, und kaum je ist einem bestürzender zu Bewusstsein gekommen, wie sehr die Wirklichkeit des Bösen jede Imagination übersteigt." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Nine Suitcases is a splenetic, occasionally over-written book, full of bile and black humour. While it lacks the prurient tenor of much 'Holocaust' literature, it does not rank with Levi's as one of the essential books of our age. Nevertheless it represents a triumph over adversity in Hitler's war against the Jews, and is a valuable chronicle of human infamy." - Ian Thomson, The Observer

  • "Nine Suitcases is a brilliant and beautiful book. It was written, at most, two years after the episodes in 1944 which it relates. Zsolt’s tremendous journalistic powers were deployed to recall the detail; his virtuosity as a novelist provides the irresistible narrative flow." - Roger Hutchinson, The Scotsman

  • "Like all of the most profound Holocaust memoirists, Zsolt does not romanticise any of his experiences, or invent heroes where there were none. His portrayals of the Hungarian policemen, or of his idiotic Hungarian intellectual colleagues, ooze with sarcasm. But so, too, do his portraits of some of the Jews he met in the ghetto and the camps (.....) It isn't an easy book to read, not least because, written in the aftermath of the war, at the time of the Soviet military occupation of Hungary, it also portrays Zsolt's sense of failure, his disgust with his old liberal ideas." - Anne Applebaum, The Telegraph

  • "Part of this excellent memoir, written with great simplicity and eloquence, recounts the atrocities committed against the Jewish forced labourers in the Ukraine, a corner of the Holocaust story little known to this day, but it also chronicles the way in which individual people were capable of acts of selfless generosity." - Caroline Moorehead, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Es war eines der ersten literarischen Zeugnisse aus der Dunkelheit der Verfolgung, und es ist, kein Zweifel, eines der wichtigsten: beunruhigend wie kaum ein anderes Buch, das zum Ende des 20.Jahrhunderts aufgelegt wurde. Nein, man liest es nicht gern. Man muss es lesen: eine Botschaft aus der Finsternis, der miserablen Epoche des Schreckens." - Klaus Harpprecht, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Nine Suitcases was first published in serial form in 1946 and 1947 in the weekly Haladás that Béla Zsolt had founded and of which he was editor in chief. This volume includes what translator Löb calls 'Part I'; two additional instalments were originally also published in 1947, describing the next section of Zsolt's harrowing adventures ("some episodes of Zsolt's train journey from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland"), the beginning of a planned but never completed 'Part II'.
       Told in relatively short chapters -- forty-four in all --, Nine Suitcases begins with Zsolt describing life (and death) in the ghetto in the Hungarian town of Nagyvárad in which the Jews were interned starting in the spring of 1944. He only slowly relates how he wound up there, and what he had gone through before:

When I was first brought in, I had two years' forced labour and military prison behind me, followed by a few short days of freedom before the German occupation. At that point I felt that I'd had enough, that that was it. I wasn't just indifferent to life, but rejected it outright.
       It's hard to blame him. Forced labour in the Ukraine and then ghetto life that soon leads inexorably to the transports to Auschwitz make for a world filled with almost unimaginable evil, where survival seems more a matter of chance than anything else. Base bestiality and selfless humanity are also constantly encountered side by side, an ugly world with odd bright spots, which never really amount to enough to allow for much hope.
       The one lesson Zsolt does learn is that:
if your life is in danger and you want to live you mustn't cling to objects but only to life itself.
       Unfortunately, it took a while for that lesson to sink in. Remarkably, Zsolt and his wife had escaped to Paris before the war -- but his wife had insisted on bringing along the nine suitcases of the title. These even appeared to get lost in transit, but the dutiful Germans had found them and put them aboard the last train that crossed into France, burdening Zsolt and his wife with these possessions. She "clung to the nine suitcases tooth and nail", and, as Zsolt would have it, that led to the decision not to go to the Riviera or Lisbon or Madrid -- because the trains wouldn't accept so much luggage. Instead:
Only one train was prepared to accept the nine suitcases, a train with a sleeping car and a dining car, a train as in peacetime: the Simplon Express. (...) The train crossed Switzerland and Italy according to peacetime schedule. Only, its destination was Budapest ...
       There was a bit more to it than that (as he does admit), including his wife's parents and her daughter from her first marriage all back in Hungary, but the nine suitcases make for convenient circumstances to blame -- as ridiculous a thing to decide fates as the treatment meted out to Zsolt and the Hungarian Jews. Family ties prove much more complicated and ultimately tragic: Zsolt also feels duty-bound to his wife and won't escape without her when given the opportunity. Worse, the grandparents won't allow the then teenage girl to be spirited to safety, because of what it would do to them.
       Zsolt was a prominent and well-known (and politically active) author and journalist at the time. He lived under a false name -- Samu Hirschler -- in the ghetto, and generally stayed away from his wife in order to not to be recognised by the authorities (though many of those with him knew who he was). Much of the book centres around May and June of 1944 when, as Löb notes in his introduction, some 19,000 Jews were taken from Nagyvárad to Auschwitz; Zsolt and his wife were among the few to escape once the transports began.
       Located only a few miles from the Romanian border, Nagyvárad did offer the possibility of escape to some, but among the many things Zsolt relates is how difficult it was for many given the opportunity to seize it, even when they were aware of the near-inevitable alternative. The far more popular way out was suicide.
       The scale of misery (and depravity), the sheer number of shattered lives, is overwhelming, with Zsolt himself often amazed at his (and most others') willingness to simply obey the commands that essentially doomed them. Yet there is a great deal of kindness and generosity to be found, and a willingness to help. Zsolt and his wife's escape involves numerous people, but here and elsewhere luck plays a large role. Survival seems barely more than happenstance; devastatingly, one of the last scenes is of Zsolt looking down from the Budapest apartment of a friend at Dr.K, whom he had been at university with (and a Jew who had converted to Christianity back then, and was now a devout Roman Catholic), being rounded up.

       Zsolt was a novelist, and Nine Suitcases is the work of a practised story-teller. It is certainly authentic (though Zsolt offers a great deal of dialogue and, for example, describes what happened while he was unconscious, i.e. includes at least some invention), but much of the power is also in how it is related. Zsolt does not wallow in the horrors he is constantly confronted with, indeed, there's little room for any thoughts about ethics and meditations on things like evil and justice: this world seems to have no room for them, man simply carrying on as best (or worst) s/he can.
       A testament to how low man can sink, and how humanity still, somehow, endures, Nine Suitcases is a remarkable work. Sadly -- as recent (and current) events in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Darfur, Burma/Myanmar (etc. etc.) remind us -- abuse of fellow man continues to be far more popular than it should. Zsolt shows that it can't completely break those targeted -- but also how incredibly high the costs are, to far too many individuals and, indeed, all mankind.

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Nine Suitcases: Reviews: Bela Zsolt: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Béla Zsolt lived 1895 to 1949. He was elected to parliament in 1947.

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© 2004-2021 the complete review

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