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Arts & Culture for Nobel-winning Writer, Identity As a Jew Was Imposed, Not Chosen by Agnes Bohm

October 18, 2002
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He is the first Hungarian writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but — as a Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz — Imre Kertesz feels his writing reflects a more universal perspective.

“This prize was given to a Jew who writes in Hungarian about the Holocaust and dictatorships,” said Kertesz, whose prize was announced Oct. 10. “The Holocaust is an all-European trauma, which left a wound that is nearly unhealable. The Holocaust will remain a theme for writers for many years to come.”

Kertesz, who is spending the year in Berlin on a fellowship, returned to Hungary for a quick congratulatory visit.

On Oct. 17, he was made an honorary citizen of Budapest by Mayor Gabor Demszky. The event was held at city hall, where Kertesz once worked as a journalist.

Kertesz, 72, was deported from Budapest to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. His books, all of which deal with the Holocaust, have been especially popular in Germany.

His subsequent experience under Communist rule in Hungary helped Kertesz understand the horrors he suffered in the Holocaust.

“I understood Auschwitz really and deeply only during the Hungarian Communist era, when I comprehended how people behave in a machinery like that,” Kertesz told JTA in a telephone interview.

“Dictatorships are similar in that they crush the individual,” he said. “In dictatorships, the individual is either the victim or the criminal. When dictatorships are over, like when Germany was defeated in World War II or when the Soviet Union collapsed, the person who was actually the criminal feels that he has been a victim. This is the individual who I call the ‘man without fate.’ “

Only two of Kertesz’s books — “Fateless” and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” — have been translated into English.

“Fateless,” Kertesz’s first novel, is an autobiographical account of his experiences in the Holocaust. It was published in the United States in 1992, 17 years after it appeared in Hungary.

Unsatisfied with the quality of the English translation, Kertesz said he hopes the book will be retranslated, as was the case with the German edition.

In “Kaddish for a Child Not Born,” Kertesz condemns a world that permitted the Holocaust.

Occasionally compared to Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, Kertesz does not want to be pigeonholed as a Holocaust writer.

“I hope that this prize didn’t go only to the subject” of the Holocaust, “for I write about the dictatorships of the 20th century in a wider sense,” he said. “Maybe this played a role as well in the selection.”

It took Kertesz 15 years after his liberation to begin writing about his experiences in the Holocaust. Ironically, the power of his work comes from the fact that he writes about the Holocaust as it is being experienced by his characters, not as something viewed and understood in hindsight.

“I wrote my book as one who doesn’t know the continuation or the follow-up, that is, one who does not know what will happen in Auschwitz but as it happened in real time, when we waited in the ghetto without knowing what would happen to us,” he said. “That’s the experience I wanted to share with my readers.”

Initial news stories after Kertesz’s selection identified him as a Holocaust survivor, but did not mention that he is Jewish. In fact, Kertesz said, his Jewish identity is not something he chose but something that was “forced” on him.

Still, “it doesn’t mean that I don’t have Jewish solidarity,” he told JTA. He was recently criticized in Hungary for writing a pro-Israel article after attending a conference for Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem.

“The Israeli Jew is part of a nation, the Orthodox Jew belongs to an ancient and mystical religion, and there also is the Jew who doesn’t like to be a Jew and to be identified that way and tries to assimilate into the surrounding society,” he said. “I belong to the type of Jew who understood his Jewishness only after Auschwitz, who lacks Jewish culture and the Hebrew language. I am afraid that this type may disappear.”

Though the intensity of anti-Semitism today doesn’t rival that of the Nazi era, Kertesz indeed sees hatred of Jews on the rise again in Europe.

“The right-wing populist political parties have gained popularity with their xenophobia and opposition to immigration,” he said. “Again the Jews are blamed, as if they caused all the problems.”

Being a Jew today in Europe and, specifically, Hungary “does not mean the same thing it did in the 1930s, but still it is threatening,” Kertesz said. “To be a Jew today means to carry a certain culture and values which we cannot forget and cannot escape from.

“Anti-Semitism is not a problem only for the Jews, but for all of Europe,” he continued. “Unfortunately, in Hungary the Holocaust has not yet been digested, neither by Jews nor by the nation. I do hope that this will come however, and maybe this Nobel Prize will contribute to that.”

Kertesz’s current project is a book called “Liquidation,” which deals with the children of Holocaust survivors.

“For the ‘second generation’ it is even more difficult to deal with the Holocaust, as they inherited this problem from their parents and they don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “The heroine of the book is a woman who wanted to escape from the memories, as she feels they are sickening and she has to break free from it.”

Eventually, however, “Jewish fate will seize her,” Kertesz said.

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