Zsófia Balla was born in Cluj (Kolozsvár) to Hungarian parents. Her father, Károly Balla, was a writer and journalist, and her mother Berta (née Taub) a professor of German literature. Her maternal grandparents were Hasidim from Máramaros, her grandfather serving as the choir master and melammed of the village of Alsórona (Rona de Jos). Her parents were among the few survivors of the two families, who lost at least one hundred members in Auschwitz. The poet’s mother survived Auschwitz, while her father returned with painful memories from Ebensee (a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp). Zsófia divorced her first husband, by whom she had a child who died. In 1997 she married the poet Csaba Bathori.
Interestingly, Zsófia was not brought up practicing her parents’ religion. The main cause probably lay with the political system of Romania, with which they had to live. Though she received an atheist education, her mother taught her the laws and tradition of Judaism. While she occasionally visits a synagogue, her reasons are mainly cultural. She considers herself a Hungarian writer with a Jewish heritage, who is tied to Judaism through her family’s suffering.
Despite the hardship Balla experienced in Romania, where she was expelled from the village of Dej for organizing a music education class and because she belonged to a particular dissident intellectual circle, she was not active politically. Romania was the country where for seven years, between 1983 and 1989, she could not publish her work, and was not allowed to leave the country between 1980 and 1990. However, at the same time, she surprisingly received the Poetry Prize of the Romanian Writers Association in 1984 and again in 1991 after the ban on her work was lifted.
Balla studied music in Cluj, receiving her diploma from the Academy of Music in 1972. Her first poems were published in 1965 in the magazine Igaz Szó (True Word) and in 1968 her first book of poetry appeared. In 1975 she became a member of the Romanian Writers Association. Between 1972 and 1985 she was the music editor of the Hungarian section of the radio station in Cluj. In 1985, due to an official order, the station was abruptly closed down, together with every other regional station in the rural areas. Between 1985 and 1990 Balla earned a living as a reporter for a national daily newspaper named Elôre (Onward). Between 1990 and 1994 she was the literary editor of two family-oriented weekly magazines.
In 1990 she was invited to join the Hungarian Writers Association and since 1992 she has been a member of the editorial board of Jelenkor, one of the most influential literary magazines in Hungary. She moved to Hungary in 1993 and has lived there ever since.
In Hungary she is considered one of the greatest women poets. Her lyricism is mixed with grotesque playfulness along with fragmented, ironic, prose-like sequences. The subjects in her latest collection, A harmadik történet (The Third Story, 2002), are darkness, decay and death, which are balanced against her personality, objectivity, rationality, self-interpretation and self-justification. The book followed a seven-year silence, this time caused not by political censorship, but by her desire to find and step into a new world she created for herself.
Currently she is working on an essay collection, editing her newest poetry book in German and, above all, preparing to publish a book based on serious short pieces, entitled The Jewish Canteen.
SELECTED WORKS BY ZSÓFIA BALLA
A dolgok emlékezete (Memories of Things), poems. Preface by Andor Bajor, Bucharest, Romania: 1968; Apokrifének (Apocryphal Song), poems. Bucharest, Romania: 1971; Vizláng (Water Flame), poems. Bucharest, Romania: 1975; Második személy (Second Person), poems. Bucharest, Romania: 1980; Kolozsvári táncok (Dances of Cluj), poems. Bucharest, Romania: 1983; Asa cum traiesti: Selected poems in Romanian, translated by Aurel Sorobeta, preface by Grete Tartler. Bucharest, Romania: 1983; Hóka Fóka fiai (The Sons of Spiel Seal), poems for children with drawings by Géza Nagy. Bucharest, Romania: 1985; A páncél nyomai (The Marks of the Armour), poems. Bucharest, Romania: 1991; Eleven tér (Living Space), selected poems. Budapest, Hungary: 1991; Egy pohár fû (A Glass of Grass), poems. Pécs, Hungary: 1993; Ahogyan élsz (The Way You Live), selected poems, 1965–1995. Pécs, Hungary: 1995; Triangulum: three plays of puppetry. Budapest, Hungary: 1997; Schönes, trauriges Land: selected poems in German translated by Hans-Henning Paetzke. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: 1998; Spirituoso: poems in four languages translated by Csaba Báthori, Kinga Dornbacher and Stephen Humpreys. Pécs–Budapest, Hungary: 1999; Schwerkraft und Mitte: selected poems in German, translation and postscript written by Daniel Muth. Berlin, Germany: 2001; A harmadik történet (The Third Story), poems. Pécs, Hungary: 2002.
Besides all these her poems were translated to several languages, and included in at least forty anthologies in countries such as Poland, Slovenia and the United States of America among others.
She writes and publishes essays, literary criticism, music reviews and opera librettos.
Poetry Prize of the Writers Association of Cluj, Romania (1980); Poetry Prize of the Romanian Writers Association (1984); Poetry Prize of the Romanian Book Salon (1991); Poetry Prize of the Romanian Writers Association (1991); Déry Prize, Hungary (1992); Kulturfonds Grant, Germany (1994); Attila József Prize, Hungary (1996); DAAD Grant, Germany (1999).
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Gyukics, Gabor. "Zsófia Balla." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 13, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/balla-zsofia>.