by Imre Kertész, translated by Tim Wilkinson.
Vintage, 262 pp., £6.99, April 2006, 0 09 950252 6
Show More
by Imre Kertész, translated by Tim Wilkinson.
Harvill Secker, 144 pp., £12.99, September 2006, 1 84343 235 8
Show More
Show More

‘There is an hour of the day which falls between returning from the factory and the evening Appell, a distinctive, always bustling and liberated hour that I, for my part, always looked forward to and enjoyed the most while in the Lager; as it happened, this was generally also suppertime.’ This is the voice of Gyuri, a 14-year-old boy from a Jewish family in Budapest, remembering life in a German concentration camp in the summer of 1944. It is also the voice of Imre Kertész. His own experiences in the camps gave rise to his masterpiece, a novel whose utter originality sets it apart from all other writing about the Holocaust. Fateless, which won Kertész the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, is not – he has said – an autobiography, but ‘uses the form of an autobiographical novel’.

Gyuri is seized in a vast, random round-up of Hungarian Jews and herded onto a train for Auschwitz. Selected for work rather than the gas chambers, he is soon moved with a transport of ‘labour Jews’ from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, and from there to a satellite Lager at Zeitz. Returned to Buchenwald on the verge of death from starvation and infected injuries, he survives the winter through a series of strokes of luck and acts of friendship until the camp is liberated by the Americans in April 1945. He then makes his way slowly back to Budapest across the wreckage of Central Europe. But his reappearance, a gaunt figure still wearing his striped camp uniform under a Polish officer’s cap and over American army boots, makes him an object of fear and suspicion to many. Even old friends who welcome him are unable to grasp his feelings. He stops in a Budapest square, as evening falls. ‘It was that peculiar hour, I recognised even now, even here – my favourite hour in the camp, and I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.’

Homesick for Buchenwald? Fateless does not fit into any convention there may be for fiction about the Holocaust and the camps. On the very first page we meet in Gyuri an observant, detached, self-obsessed boy who notices all details with crystal precision, and yet has no interest in the motives of other people, or in the background to what is taking place, unless they impact on his own hour-to-hour life. ‘I didn’t go to school today,’ the novel casually begins. But it turns out that the reason for his absence is that his father is being ‘called up for labour service’ – in other words, he is being deported to a camp (he will die in Mauthausen). At home, Gyuri listens indifferently to agitated talk between his father and stepmother, as they turn over their timber business to a gentile; he is more concerned with his own boredom and with getting himself a drink of water. When they go shopping to find his father a rucksack and provisions for the camp, he finds that the yellow star they have to wear in the street, which is ‘a source of amusement to me when I am on my own’, is now ‘close to embarrassing’. He manages to cry a little in a last embrace with his father, but reflects that ‘all the same . . . at least we were able to send him off to the labour camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day.’

Gyuri is not a rebel. He is a solipsistic adolescent who just wants to get by, who has already learned that the best way to avoid hassle in the adult world is to play by the rules rather than challenge them. Indeed, Gyuri has an almost Candide-like respect for rules. He assumes that those who make them are acting for the best and cannot be evil at heart, however unlikely that may seem from moment to moment. When he arrives at Auschwitz, after a horrible cattle-wagon journey, he finds it all overwhelmingly impressive. The gravel, lawns and flowerbeds amaze him by their neatness; the SS guards seem relaxed rather than intimidating; the uniformed doctor who conducts the ‘selection’ awes him with his calm authority and smart uniform. The orderly way in which the fit are directed to one side while the old, the sick and the mothers with children are sent to the other strikes Gyuri as wonderfully logical. He even feels resentment when an elderly and unfit man is assigned to his own group.

By the end of the first day, the new arrivals are beginning to grasp – through rumours and hints from other prisoners – what is really going on under those smoking chimneys, what has happened to the others from the train and what deceptions were used to lull them. And yet Gyuri, while sickened, thinks all this detailed craftiness is like an awful student prank, a joke, and imagines the planners slapping each other’s palms as they think up one wheeze after another: the nice flowerbeds, the offer of shower and soap, the gas from the ceiling. He is amazed to realise that this huge institution, the universe of Auschwitz-Birkenau with all its satellite camps, has been secretly running for years. Why did his school fail to prepare him for this? ‘I ought to have been learning all along exclusively about Auschwitz.’ Now he has to learn how to act and how to behave here, all at once.

And he does learn. The sights, sounds and smells which appal many of his comrades, the flaming chimneys at night, the work details returning with their dead in barrows, the news that those who go sick are sent to the gas chambers and that others are being selected for medical experiments – all this Gyuri pushes into the background, as if it were ‘a natural phenomenon’. Instead he concentrates on what is under his nose: how to use the latrine pits and washroom, how to ensure that he gets a share of the gruel and a lump of gritty bread. After a few days, his group leaves Auschwitz for Buchenwald, to the envy of the other prisoners. Again, Gyuri is impressed by his new ‘home’, by the summery landscape seen on the march from the station, by the superior orderliness and by the better food: a third of a loaf, solid scraps in the soup, and the frequent Zulage (‘extra’) in the form of a dab of jam or piece of sausage. This is a much older camp than Auschwitz, where the veteran prisoners have established an efficient routine and even acquired a sort of pride in the place. When Gyuri asks if he is going to have his camp number tattooed, an elder prisoner retorts: ‘For God’s sake, man, we are not in Auschwitz here!’ Gyuri reflects: ‘It is fair to say that I too soon came to like Buchenwald.’

But then he is transferred to Zeitz, to a satellite work camp. At first he looks down on it as ‘a small, mediocre, out-of-the-way, so to say rural concentration camp’. But Zeitz too has its own harsh routines which he sets himself to learn. ‘In any place, even a concentration camp, one gets stuck into a new thing with good intentions.’ Clubbed to the ground for talking during Appell (‘roll-call’), he is rescued by an older Hungarian, the broken-nosed Bandi Cytrom, who teaches him the rules for survival. Never miss a chance to wash, always save scraps of food, however hungry you are, stand in the middle of the rank at Appell to avoid attracting attention, stand at the back of the soup queue because the soup at the bottom of the cauldron is thicker, and avoid the Musulmänner – the emaciated figures who have given up the struggle. ‘You lose any will to live just looking at them,’ Bandi warns.

At Zeitz, Gyuri meets a group of pious Jews who keep themselves apart from the rest. They avoid eating sausage and soup, which they trade for less unclean food, and at Appell they quietly pray to themselves. But they will have nothing to do with Gyuri, apart from selling him food. Coming from an urban, assimilated Jewish family, speaking no Yiddish and scarcely able to follow Hebrew prayers, he is spurned by them as a shaygets – a gentile kid. Back in Budapest, Gyuri and his friends used to argue about what it meant to be a Jew, now that ‘race’ had suddenly become so important to the authorities. Gyuri had upset his girlfriend and her sister by insisting that Jewishness had no inner, subjective meaning; one was a Jew simply because others designated one a Jew. But now, in the camp, this rejection hurts and isolates him. When three escaped prisoners are recaptured and hanged in front of the whole camp at Appell, Gyuri manages not to look at what is happening, but instead notices the godly Jews swaying back and forth and quietly intoning the prayer for the dead. For the first time, he regrets that he cannot pray ‘in the language of the Jews’, and envies the faithful.

By now, in late 1944, Germany is beginning to lose the war. Rations at Zeitz are cut, and cut again. Bread is down to a quarter loaf, the turnip soup is mostly water and the days of regular Zulage are a memory. For all his ‘good intentions’ and respect for the camp system, Gyuri has been continuously hungry and food-obsessed for many months. Now he begins to decline. He lives a day at a time, finding it ever harder to get up in the morning. ‘I was transformed into a hole’ by hunger, he says, and he eats handfuls of grass and even tries sand. He notices the change in others’ appearance before he registers what is happening to his own body, which has become that of a decrepit old man. Scabies covers his cracked skin, he is drained by diarrhoea, his clothes are never dry, his worn clogs give his feet suppurating sores.

As his strength fails, he is savagely beaten. Gyuri drops a sack of cement and is punished by an overseer, who dumps extra loads on his back. Somehow, with buckling knees, he manages to get the sacks to the truck. And here, for the last time, his weird Candide instinct surfaces once more. The overseer has screamed ‘Arsehole! Damned Jew-dog!’ and stamped his face into the dirt. But the overseer proves to be right: if Gyuri makes a supreme, in extremis effort, he can manage this burden. ‘In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts.’

But this is almost Gyuri’s last coherent thought. He is beginning to ‘find peace’, scarcely feeling the cold and the wet. At Appell he simply sits down in the mud, until the prisoners on either side jerk him upright again. At work, he lies on the ground, scarcely aware that he is being beaten. Bandi Cytrom drags him forcibly to the washroom, strips and scrubs him. ‘Did I want to croak right here, did I maybe not want to get back home, he asked, and I have no clue what answer he must have read from my face but all at once, I saw some form of consternation or alarm written all over his.’ Bandi had seen that Gyuri was withering into a Musulmann. He began to avoid him. But Gyuri felt only a dim relief that he was no longer being pestered.

This would have been the end of Gyuri within a few weeks, as it was for thousands of others. But then something unexpected happened. He had developed an inflammation on his knee. Helpless, he was carried by Bandi and others to a sick bay where the abscess was lanced. And then there began a sort of stubborn competition among the prisoners to save this boy. Gyuri was moved from one primitive ‘hospital’ to another, and then thrown into the back of a truck which jolted him back to Buchenwald. By now, frozen, lousy, starving and with another infected swelling on his hip, he was close to death. He was dumped on the ground in the rain, in a heap of dead or dying bodies. But then somebody pulled him out of the heap and wheeled him off on a handcart to a hut, where he was hidden among a group of children. There he was picked out by a German prisoner-doctor, who transferred him to his own, privileged ward, one of those tiny enclaves of humanity which the veteran prisoners had contrived to establish within the camp. In this hut, with its glazed windows and a coal stove burning, Gyuri was laid on a bunk with sheets and a pillowcase. Friendly Polish orderlies brought regular food. A Czech male nurse slipped him extra bread and canned meat. Slowly Gyuri’s condition stabilised; he was able to hobble a few paces and talk to his neighbours.

Outside, as the sound of distant guns became audible and thousands of emaciated prisoners poured in from camps evacuated in the east, Buchenwald went into its final convulsions. Through the windowpane, Gyuri could watch the cartloads of dead bodies being wheeled to the crematorium. On the hut wall, the loudspeaker grew more frenzied: ‘All Jews to parade immediately!’ The orderly told him to take no notice. Gyuri stayed in his bunk, uneasy at the prospect of sudden changes. Days later, when the loudspeaker howled ‘All SS personnel to leave the camp at once!’ he worried that this might delay the soup. When the senior prisoner’s voice announced ‘Comrades, we are free!’ he was delighted, but not quite reassured until the same voice summoned the ‘potato-peeling commando’ to the kitchens to prepare a rich goulash. A month or so later, Gyuri was back in Budapest.

All survivals from that experience, especially Jewish survivals, were to some extent improbable. They were jetsam on a shore, and behind them and their accounts is a silent ocean. What saved Gyuri – and Imre Kertész? Many unlikely turns of chance preserved Gyuri’s life, and yet ‘luck’ is an unworthy answer. As Kertész said in his unforgettable acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize: ‘It is not so easy to be an exception. But if we were destined to be exceptions, we must make our peace with the absurd order of chance.’ The reality for Gyuri, and no doubt for Kertész, is that he was saved again and again by other human beings who took risks for him. The first were the prisoners who jumped into his cattle truck at Auschwitz to clear it of people, corpses and luggage and who muttered in half-comprehensible Yiddish: ‘Say you are 16! Say you can work! Don’t say you are sick or tired!’ After them came men like Bandi, forcing him to wash and teaching him the tricks of survival, and then the prisoner-doctors who snatched him from death, and the Polish sick-bay staff who kept him from returning to the main camp, and the Czech nurse who smuggled forbidden food to him.

Why did they do these things? In the novel, Kertész does not let Gyuri use clichés like ‘common humanity’. Gyuri is honestly puzzled. His neighbours in the hospital hut have witnessed or heard of the worst sufferings imaginable, and yet they are genuinely aghast when they hear that he wasn’t allowed to tell his parents that he had been arrested. ‘I gained the impression that they expressly sought out, almost hunted for, an opportunity, a means or pretext for this emotion for some reason . . . as a testimony to something.’ And the Czech nurse with his food, which he might have sold or bartered so profitably? Gyuri can only explain it by ‘stubbornness’. Testimony to what, and stubbornness in defence of what? Kertész, a very elegant writer, does not need to explain.

It seems often to have happened in the camps that prisoners took incredible risks and pains to try and save the young, those who were almost children. But there were other factors. Kertész first published this novel more than thirty years ago in Communist Hungary, and it may be that there were things he thought it prudent not to describe, or perhaps failed to get past the censor. One of these things may have been the role of the Communist Party in the camps.

In many camps, especially in Buchenwald, with its big group of veteran German ‘politicals’, clandestine Communist organisations were powerful. At Buchenwald, the Party group operated to some extent as a resistance movement, but mainly as an underground welfare state. Its cells could allocate ‘soft’ jobs (in the kitchens, sick bays or registry, for instance) to those it wanted to protect. Sometimes these were Party comrades, sometimes just the young, helpless or otherwise deserving, and behind the Kertész account of the way Gyuri was passed along a chain of prisoner-doctors, it’s plausible to guess at an effective network which had decided to protect him. It was not until 2002 that Kertész learned that his own death had been entered in the camp register in February 1945. That, too, may have been done by the camp underground in order to conceal him. The trouble with writing about this, in postwar Hungary, was that these Party networks inevitably operated a sort of triage among the prisoners. Some people were saved because they were Party members. Others, obviously enough, perished because they were not. Censors in Eastern Europe did not like discussion of this aspect of the Party’s past.

There is a little more evidence that Kertész was selective in what he wrote then. He wrote the screenplay for the touching, beautifully acted film of the novel, directed by Lajos Koltai, which is now showing in British cinemas. In the film, there is an important scene after the liberation of Buchenwald in which an American officer befriends Gyuri and tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade him not to go back to Soviet-occupied Hungary. This scene was not in the published novel, and it’s easy to see why.

Back in Budapest, Gyuri disconcerts sympathetic questioners. Asked what he feels about being at home again, he replies: ‘Hatred’ – of everyone, not just the Germans. How was it in the ‘hell of the camps’, where he must have ‘endured horrors’? But words like ‘hell’ and ‘horror’ seem completely wide of the mark as descriptions of the world he has just left. ‘It seems there are some things you just can’t argue about with strangers, the ignorant, with those who, in a certain sense, are mere children.’

Misunderstanding comes to a head when he finds his way back to his old Jewish neighbours. He horrifies them with a long, semi-coherent rant in which he tries to argue that what has happened to him and all of them is not a ‘fate’, not even a Jewish fate, but an experience in which they have somehow been complicit through the fact of living through it. Moment by moment, step after step, they have gone along with it. Bewildered, they protest that ‘you must put the horrors behind you.’ This is just what Gyuri does not want to do:

It had not been my own fate, but I had lived through it, and I simply couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get it into their heads that I now needed to start doing something with that fate . . . I could no longer be satisfied with the notion that it had all been a mistake, blind fortune, some kind of blunder, let alone that it had not even happened.

Here, close to the surface, is the irony underlying the whole novel. Gyuri’s indifference to the ‘wider picture’, and his apparently passive habit of trying to go along with whatever is inflicted on him, turn out to have preserved him as a moral being – still taking steps, even if they sometimes lead towards his own destruction.

Imre Kertész has lived under two almighty tyrannies, Fascism and Stalinism, which set out to teach him that ineluctable racial destiny or laws of class struggle rendered individual actions meaningless. But ‘if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate; that is to say . . . then we ourselves are fate.’ Gyuri did not brood on the gas chambers or on the monstrous nature of what was happening to everyone around him. Instead, he lived from minute to minute. He struggled to lift the cement sacks, filled his imagination with the smell of turnip gruel, did not challenge camp rules and ‘got stuck into a new thing with good intentions’. And in this way, a corner of him remained free.

These themes have been taken up again and again by Kertész. In Kaddish for an Unborn Child (first published in English in 1997), an unnamed but recognisable Gyuri is living in postwar Hungary as a writer and translator, still disoriented and tormented by Auschwitz, which he insists is irrevocable and yet not in the past, still wrestling with the enigma of a Jewishness which he does not feel but in which he lives. In a continuous, often dense monologue, he records his brief marriage to a woman – also of Jewish origin – who struggles in vain to bring him back into ‘normal’ human life. In a last effort before she abandons him, she asks him to give her a child. He refuses. His cry of ‘No!’ recurs through the book, and that unborn, unconceived child provides its title. The ‘No!’ has many sources. One is a shameful terror of abandoning his memories and obsessions. Another is refusal to be ‘another person’s father, destiny, god’. He denies that it is because he fears for the child’s future in a world which has not come to terms with Auschwitz: ‘How can one compel a living being to be a Jew?’ Most powerfully, perhaps, it is ‘because what happened to me, my childhood, must never happen to another child.’

The latest Kertész novel is Liquidation (and it should be said that the translations by Tim Wilkinson of Kertész’s elaborate, often tentative and evasive prose are worth a prize in themselves). Here, once more, is a writer who survived Auschwitz (this time as a baby, rather than a boy), a melancholy recluse whose self-torture comes to devastate the lives of his friends, his lovers and his wife. More open in structure than Kaddish, but returning to several of its characters, this is a story of mysteries and discoveries – a suicide with metaphysical motives, a novel written for the flames rather than for the drawer – which is dark with the Auschwitz shadow and develops all the themes which Kertész began to deal with in Fateless.

But Kertész never put these thoughts more lucidly than in his Nobel speech. ‘The complex of problems referred to as the Holocaust’, he said, could not be explained as a conflict between Germans and Jews, or as the latest chapter in fated Jewish suffering, or as a one-time aberration. ‘What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end-point of a great adventure, where the European traveller arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history.’ He felt a demarcation line separated him from literature and its ideals: ‘Auschwitz suspended literature.’ But from that zero point, once it was recognised, values could be re-created. And ‘the greatest European value of all’ is the ‘longing for liberty, which suffuses our lives with something more, a richness, making us aware of the positive fact of our existence’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences