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Arts & Culture Czech Writer Tries to Recapture the Reality of Nazi Death Camps

December 27, 2002
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“So I am Jew and it is fate,” Arnost Lustig says with a bittersweet smile as he strolls across the Charles Bridge in Prague.

The Czech-born, naturalized American author is reflecting on his recently published book “Lovely Green Eyes,” which has received rave reviews from both British and American literary critics.

The book’s teen-aged heroine, Hanka Kaudersova, escapes death in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers by denying her Jewish identity and becoming a prostitute in a brothel for German soldiers.

While “Lovely Green Eyes” — like most of Lustig’s works — describes the fate of Jews during World War II, the writer refuses to be labeled a Holocaust writer, saying the core of his work lies elsewhere.

“I write about people under pressure, I write about tests that people are not ready for and which they did not expect,” explains Lustig, 76.

“My books are about the possibility of survival. They are about two ways of survival: the honest way and the cowardly way,” he continues. “And that is probably also the reason why my books are still being read by young people today, because they too are under immense, invisible pressure that we older people do not understand anymore.”

The Literary Review of London described Lustig recently as the Czech Republic’s greatest living author, and called for his work to be awarded a Nobel Prize.

Yet the author says that each of his books — he’s written more than a dozen — represents a defeat.

“It is a fiasco, it is a lost battle,” he says with a look of frustration. “I would like to be a better writer so more people would read the books,” adds the author.

Lustig says he lives with the constant worry that his writing is not as good as he once thought, which is why he keeps reworking his earlier books.

“I am not rewriting my old work. I just add what was missing,” he says.

Some of his inspiration in reworking, he says, comes from his characters who talk to him.

He argues that the impossible task of conveying the experience of the Holocaust terrifies everyone who writes about it.

“It is so agonizing that many have killed themselves,” Lustig says, referring to writers such as Italy’s Primo Levi or Poland’s Tadeusz Borowski.

“I live like Levi, and like all the others, with incredible anger and helplessness that I am not able to write” about the concentration camp experience, says Lustig a survivor of three concentration camps himself.

“I wrote ‘Lovely Green Eyes’ out of anger. I did not know how else to communicate the experience, so I chose this innocent girl.”

Lustig was sent to the Terezin transit camp at 16, and later to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald. He met wonderful people in the camps, he says.

“Nobody had to tell me about solidarity, selflessness and the beauty of people — I experienced that human beings are good, even in the most horrible conditions,” Lustig says.

He remembers one winter day in Auschwitz: “I was so hungry and freezing that if any German had seen me in that state he would have sent me to the gas chamber,” Lustig says bitterly.

He recalls passing a group of fellow prisoners who offered to warm him up. They gathered around him and warmed him with the heat of their bodies.

“And that is beauty for me,” says Lustig, who constructs his books’ plots around the contrast between humanity and bestiality.

“Of course you have to write about the suffering, because that was part of it, but I am interested in the moments of beauty in the camps,” he says, recalling the simple pleasures of warm sunny days, blue skies or stars in the night.

Lustig, who now spends most of his time in Washington, says he came to realize what it means to be a Jew during his time at Buchenwald.

While working in an ammunition factory close to the camp he dreamed about being a member of the Gestapo, which would give him good shoes, a warm coat and three square meals a day.

“Suddenly I realized that being a Jew is a privilege,” Lustig says with passion in his voice. “To be a Jew is a privilege that is not always sweet. You have to pay for it, but it is a privilege as a result of which I am more responsible toward people around me and toward myself.”

Being a Jew means having the ability to know good from evil, right from wrong, just from unjust, he adds.

The allusion to responsibility brings Lustig back to the subject of communicating the experience of life and death in the camps. He believes the experience can only truly be conveyed if all those who died were to return to life and write their stories.

“There is no writer who could describe everything, even if he or she were famous and had won six Nobel Prizes,” Lustig says.

Lustig is confident that future generations will continue to write about the war and the concentration camps.

“The only thing that will be lost is authentic testimony,” he says. “But I think that the events of the second world war will be written about because they hold the key to unlocking the human being.

“The border of evil was shifted down into depths never reached before — and we still do not know whether we have touched the bottom yet,” says Lustig, who adds that the perpetrators of Sept. 11 may well have set a new low for human depravity.

In the face of such evil, he says, the importance of literature grows.

He conjures up the image of canaries once used in coal mines to signal the presence of poisonous gases.

“That is exactly what literature is — it is a canary that smells threats to human beings long before anybody else notices it and starts yelling,” he says.

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