“Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.” – Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertész in Fatelessness. This book is not what you would expect to read about the Holocaust. Kertész’s unemotional and detached tone highlight his message as opposed to the appalling details of his experience. His intent is to get us to look straight at the consequences of our human nature.
On a recent trip to Budapest, I picked up two books written by Kertész, a Hungarian Jew, Auschwitz survivor and later a Nobel Prize winner for Literature. The first is an autobiography (Dossier K.) and second is a biographical novel about his experience at Auschwitz (Fatelessness). The autobiography is a partial transcript of an interview between Kertész and his editor. It reveals his cynical mindset toward the legacy of the Holocaust. It roves between memories of his life and how these details were woven into his novels. It also hits on historical references that occurred in Hungary during his childhood. His childhood experience at Auschwitz is the topic of the second book, Fatelessness. Both books explore some important philosophical questions.
For Kertész, Fatelessness is not “Holocaust literature.” Literature, he says, fails to capture the experience of the concentration camps. “Among the masses of books on the same sort of subject [the Holocaust], only a very few are truly able to genuinely put into words the unparalleled experience of being in the Nazi Death Camps.” Fatelessness, like any novel, uses a setting and a story to reveal a theme. The commentary that he has added to these facts is what is important. His intent was not to accurately document what happened to him, rather he’s saying something about human nature. His commentary rebels against the public’s focus on the sentimentality of the Holocaust.
In Fatelessness, he expresses this through the main character’s (György) conversations at the end of the novel. On his return home, he speaks with his neighbors who asked him about how terrible it was. Not believing that he hadn’t noticed any atrocities at the camps, he explained that he focused on the specific tasks they demanded of him. These tasks commanded his attention and gave him purpose. “I asked them in turn what they had done during those ‘hard times.’ ‘Errm,…we lived,’ one of them deliberated. ‘We tried to survive,’ the other added. Precisely! They too had taken on step at a time, I noted.” The point of view of a participant is very different than the point of view of a spectator.
In another conversation, a journalist asks György about the hell he endured at the concentration camps. He responds, “ ‘If the whole…chunk of time had been dumped around their necks instantaneously, at a stroke, most likely they too would have been unable to stand it, either physically or mentally, in the way they actually did manage to stand it.’ ” Then he said,” ‘That, roughly, is the way that you saw it.’ ” As spectators, we have the benefit of hindsight. György didn’t know where he was going, how long he was going to be there, what he was going to do there. He had no idea how long it would last. There is friction between György’s step-by-step mindset of survival and the readers’ outrage over his treatment. György and his neighbors were actors in a play that the no one could make sense of until it was over.
Decades after Fatelessness, Kertész is so disgruntled about the Holocaust’s legacy that he takes issue with the use of the term “holocaust” itself. In Dossier K. he gripes, “As far as I’m concerned, I use the word because it has been made unavoidable, but I take it for what it is: a euphemism, a cowardly and unimaginative glibness.” His suggestion of the alternative phrase, “The Destruction of Europe’s Jews,” suffers the same ailments as the term “Holocaust” – it doesn’t encompass the entire range of experiences. For him, the chief omission is the survivors of the Holocaust. Neither of these terms leave room for this experience. Just as no novel can engulf the experience, no word can either.
Kertész also addresses the responsibility that we each have for ourselves. He stresses in Dossier K. that there are, “ethical consequences of subsistence and survival.” Throughout history, people faced the struggle of surviving in difficult circumstances. In such circumstances, people will always choose their own survival over someone else’s. Because survival isn’t a conscious choice, it isn’t easy to recognize that it is collaboration. Regardless, we cannot deny this intrinsic part of ourselves.
This aspect of human nature is like an avalanche. The right conditions will trigger a slide growing in intensity and destructiveness until it hits rock bottom. “If you consider one line taken by European history and analyze it with your post-facto knowledge of the way in which, for centuries now, mankind has been thinking and acting, the way in which he has been living, then the setting-up of the machinery for the extermination of European Jewry is no big surprise.” In this history, there is a pattern of blaming “others” for economic and political turmoil, and a decline in the quality of our lives. The motivations for this blaming are complicated, but involve a mixture of fear, the desire to conform, a deference for authority, and opportunism. The threat of an avalanche will never cease.
These two books go highlight what Kertész wanted us to see about the Holocaust, only a small portion of which I have discussed herea. When he reckons that he, “ought to speak about that [the happiness of the concentration camps],” he is directing us beyond the atrocities to the entire span of human experience. Considering the turmoil we are currently facing throughout the world, it will benefit us to remember the legacy that Kertész left behind with Fatelessness and Dossier K.