‘Liberty and love!’ A Hungarian poet’s legacy

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‘Liberty and love!’ A Hungarian poet’s legacy


1. North Korean female students in Budapest express their respects to Sandor Petofi in front of his statue in the 1950s. 2. The North Korean Petofi collection, which was published in Pyongyang in 1957. 3. Sandor Petofi (1823-1849), Hungarian poet and icon of the freedom fight in 1848-1849. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Mózes Csoma
Ambassador of Hungary to Korea

In the early 2010s, American journalist Barbara Demick published a book, “Nothing to Envy,” about ordinary life in North Korea. The book contains interviews with refugees, and among their stories, a Hungarian connection emerged — till then totally unknown. A refugee man, who was mentioned only pseudonymously, was told that when he had been escaping from North Korea over the Tumen River to China, he thought of his sweetheart and started to recite a short poem from the famous Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi (1823-1849). The title of the poem was “Liberty and love!” (“Sarang’kwa jayu” in Korean), and it is very interesting to investigate how the North Korean refugee knew its verse.

Last year, the Korean Peninsula celebrated the 100th anniversary of the March 1st Movement (1919), which was the greatest uprising against Japanese colonial rule. Despite the great geographical distance, this outstanding Korean historical event could be compared with the most important Hungarian revolution, which happened in the mid-19th century. The revolution started on March 15, 1848, against the rule of the Habsburg Empire over Hungary, and the freedom fight lasted for one and a half years but finally failed under the joint repression of the Habsburg Empire and Tsarist Russia. One of the most iconic people of the revolution was the patriotic poet Sandor Petofi, who belonged to the so-called “Youth of March,” which was the name of the group of students and young intellectuals starting the revolution. The poet was only 25 years old when the revolution broke out and was killed on the battlefield as a member of the revolutionary army in the following year. Petofi became the heroic symbol of the Hungarian independence, and the vast majority of his poems are part of compulsory curricula in Hungarian elementary and middle schools.

Close to the ‘samurai spirit’

The first pieces of information about the repressed Hungarian freedom fight and Sandor Petofi emerged in East Asia at the dawn of the 20th century. In 1907, the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) translated some of the poems of Petofi into Chinese. Later, in the 1930s, Petofi’s most famous poem, the above-mentioned “Liberty and love!” was often recited by Chinese soldiers during the Long March and the anti-Japanese fights. However, at the same time Petofi’s poems became known in Japan too. The first Japanese translations were made by the Japanese Esperantist scholar Aibara Susumu, and after his death, a young Hungarian evangelical priest, Ferenc Pap, started to translate the poems. According to the reminiscences of Istvan Mezey, who served as the director of the Hungarian Nippon Society in the 1930s, the poems had matched well with the Japanese audience because Petofi was introduced as a “warrior poet” — its characteristics are very close to the “samurai spirit.” In 1936, the Japanese Petofi Association (Dai Nippon Petofi Kyokai) was also formed, and it published a collection of Petofi’s poems. The foreword for the collection was written by Dr. Shiratori Kurakichi, who was one of the most respected historian scholars in Japan at that time.

It seems that Petofi’s poems became available for the Koreans through the Japanese translations during the colonial rule. However, Petofi’s poems on the Korean Peninsula first appeared in the mid-1950s. In case of North Korea, the local publication described Petofi as the “leftist” leader of the Hungarian freedom fights, but in South Korea, the literati emphasized Petofi’s patriotic efforts. It’s very interesting to compare the circumstances as to how the poems were used by the rival Korean states to corroborate their points of view on world affairs.

Purged translators in the North

The possibility of the translation of Petofi’s poems emerged in North Korea first. According to an archive diplomatic report, in the spring of 1952, the Hungarian diplomats and the representatives of North Korean cultural life had a joint visit to the Hungarian field hospital, which was maintained by a Hungarian medical team in the North. During the visit, the famous Korean poet, Yim Hwa (1908-1953) told the Hungarians that he had read the poems of Petofi in Japanese, and he would like to translate the poems into Korean. Yim asked the diplomats to send him a book of Petofi’s poetry in Russian. However, in the following year, Yim was purged and executed during a show trial, which targeted the communist cadres, who originally lived in the South.

According to the archive of Hungarian diplomatic reports, the opportunity to translate Petofi’s poems into Korean emerged again in February 1956. The Hungarian Koreanist scholar, Dr. Aladar Soveny, who served as the cultural attaché at the Hungarian Embassy in Pyongyang at that time, reported that the North Korean writer Seo Man-il and his Soviet-Lithuanian wife had started to translate Petofi’s poems into Korean. In March 1956, Dr. Aladar Soveny reported to Budapest that the Korean Writers’ Union had started to take measures to publish the Petofi collection, which was translated by Seo Man-il. However, the North Korean Petofi collection, which was published in the following year, didn’t contain the name of Seo Man-il. An other litterateur’s name appeared instead of his, and it was not the only mysterious development during the publication of the collection.

The Petofi collection was sent to press in North Korea on Oct. 12, 1956. However, the date of the publishing was March 17, 1957, which means that the printing process lasted more than five months. Maybe, it is not a mere speculation if we state that the publication was possibly delayed because of the anti-Soviet revolution, which had broken out on Oct. 23, 1956, in Budapest. On the first day of the Hungarian uprising, the people of Budapest had came together in front of the statues commemorating the freedom fight of 1848-1849 and recited the most patriotic poem of Petofi, titled “National song” (“Nemzeti dal” in Hungarian). However, this poem, which is well-known by all Hungarians, is mysteriously missing from the North Korean collection of Petofi poems. Maybe, it was exempted during the extremely long printing process. It has to mentioned that during the revolution, around one thousand North Korean students stayed in Hungary, and many of them helped the Hungarian freedom fighters with their experiences from the battlefields of the Korean War. Therefore, the North Korean leadership decided to call back the vast majority of the students from Hungary with panicking rush in December 1956.

Anti-Communist interpretation

Meanwhile, the Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule in 1956 created an opportunity for the first appearance of the work of Sandor Petofi in South Korea, as well. At the end of 1956, the Korean Free Literature Association published an anti-Communist book titled “Hanggari piga” (Hungarian Elegy). The book was written while the shocking news of the repressed Hungarian revolution were in the spotlight and tried to collect all available information about the Central European country including its cultural affairs. The “Hanggari piga” introduced Petofi as an “artist and soldier,” whose poems are the best representations of the Hungarian spirit. Likely, that kind of characterization was based on the old documents, which arrived to the Korean Peninsula during the Japanese colonial rule. The anti-Communist book emphasized that most of his poems are patriotic, which criticized not only the Habsburg rule, but also the Hungarian conservative nobles.

Turning back to the North Korean publication of Petofi’s poems, its official translator was Hong Chong-rin, a lesser known litterateur. It seems that the poems were translated from a Soviet Petofi collection because the Hungarian order of the surnames and first names, which is the same as in Korea, had been changed to the Western and Russian style. Hong Chong-rin stated that Petofi was an outstanding representative of world literature, ahead of his time.

According to the litterateur, Petofi had realized that the existing conditions should be changed instead of settling for pessimism, and he was ready to fight for the revolutionary changes. The poet dedicated his genius and passion to the “world revolution.” That kind of characterization was obviously based on the Soviet internationalists’ interpretations. It is interesting to mention that Hong’s introduction contained the fact that Petofi was killed on the battlefield of Segesvar but did not mention that the battle was fought with the Tsarist Russian troops.

In 1957, the Hungarian chargé d’affaires to Pyongyang, Mr. Lajos Karsai, reported to Budapest that the collection of Petofi’s poems were very popular and the books were sold out quickly. It seems, the poems had a huge impact on the North Korean population. Probably, the above-mentioned short poem “Liberty and love!” was the most popular one, that is why the refugee recited it during his escape from the North.

Liberty and love!

Liberty and love

These two I must have.

For my love I’ll sacrifice

My life.

For liberty I’ll sacrifice

My love.
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