On 11th April 1905, Attila József was born in Ferencváros, then a poor district of Budapest. His father, Áron József was a Romanian factory-worker and his mother, Borbála Pőcze, a Hungarian peasant girl; the couple already had two daughters, Etelka and Jolán. By the time Attila was three years old, his father had deserted the family, leaving Borbála struggling to support her children and eventually forced to place them in the care of the National Child Protection League before they were found foster parents in Öcsöd, a small village in the Northern Great Plain region of south-east Hungary.
The move to Öcsöd would have a profound and lasting effect upon the young Attila, his foster father was extremely strict, and cruelly insisted on telling the boy there was ‘no such name as Attila’ instead calling him Pista. József later remembered how this had made him doubt his ‘very existence.’ When he later discovered the tales of King Attila the Hun, József recalled how they ‘had a decisive effect on all my ambitions after that. In the last analysis perhaps it was this experience that led me to literature, that made me a thinking person, the kind of person who would listen to the opinions of others but would examine them carefully in his own mind.’ József finally escaped from Öcsöd to return to his mother in Budapest.
At the age of forty-three, Borbála died from cancer, leaving her fourteen year-old son under the guardianship of his eldest sister and her wealthy husband, Ödön Makai who ensured that he went to the best school possible. In 1922, at the age of seventeen and whilst he was still at school, József published his first collection of poetry, A szépség koldusa (Beggar of Beauty). Two years later, József’s work would cause controversy after his poem Lázadó Krisztus (Rebellious Christ) was featured in the October 1923 issue of the magazine Bluebird, consequently he faced charges of blasphemy was sentenced to eight months in prison sand a hefty fine, both of which were later overturned.
His ambition to become a teacher led József to apply to the University of Szeged to study Hungarian and French Literature, yet his defiant streak would ensure that his time there was cut short. One of the University’s lecturers, Professor Horger objected to the poem Tiszta szívvel (With a Pure Heart) which appeared in József’s second volume of poetry, Nem én kiáltok (That’s Not Me Shouting) in 1925 and began with lines, ‘I have no father, I have no mother, I have no God and no country.’ Continue reading