Remembering the Indomitable Jewish Spirit of Imre Kertész

The Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész, who died on March 31 at age 86, was ferociously uncompromising in his identity as a Jewish writer. In novels such as “Fatelessness,” (1975) expressing his experiences as a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as “Dossier K: A Memoir,” (2006) an unfettered self-interview, Kertész situated himself in culture and history. Yet in a later work, “The Final Inn,” (2014) (A végső kocsma, as yet untranslated into English but available in French translation from Actes Sud publishers), the full power of Kertész’s spirit emerges. Presented as a working writer’s journal, with many meditative passages before, during, and after receiving the Nobel Prize in 2002, “The Final Inn” is also about strong bonds of friendship, especially with his fellow Hungarian Jews György Ligeti, the composer, and András Schiff, the pianist. In it, he expressed cool contempt for authors he disliked, including Bertolt Brecht and Milan Kundera.

He was equally rigorous as a critic of Holocaust writers, praising “At the Mind’s Limits” by Jean Améry (born Hanns Chaim Mayer), but deciding: “In truth, only two or three authors have written authentic, credible, and lucid texts about Auschwitz. All the others lie or tremblingly evade the truth.” His most vehement contempt was not for writers at all, but for European Jews who, in Kertész’s view, are committing a “suicidal error” by teaming up with barely disguised anti-Semites to condemn the State of Israel on every possible occasion. Kertész noted that he would like to ask these “sincere and stupid Jews who disown themselves and vomit insults against Israel” why they seem unconcerned by political issues and injustices closer to where they live in Europe. He concluded: “The European Jew is really a detrimental character who hates to see defensive weapons in the hands of Jews, and sees in his own extermination the sole solution to a life experienced in wretched and muddled awareness.”

Fearing another Auschwitz is all too possible, Kertész added: “We are witnessing the process of the separation of Israel from Jews of the galut. It is possible they will not meet again until the great extermination of all the Jews.” His pessimism was expressed inexorably and concisely: “I fear that Europe’s murderous atmosphere will finally wipe out Israel. I fear the spectacle of butchery that I will have to witness…When Israel will be destroyed, it will be the turn of the other Jews.”

Kertész was acutely aware of his identity as an endangered species. Even when belatedly seeing the James Bond movie “Goldfinger,” (1964) for the first time, his thoughts went to survivors and their fate:

Goldfinger. Incredibly stupid film. The unbelievable adventures of a spy called 007…History has become a kitsch action film in which everyone must play the role of an extra who is sometimes massacred and whose death deserves as much attention as the fall of the target in clay pigeon shooting; above all, such films and such History teaches us that we are nothing, that our lives and deaths are worth as much as a worthless action movie.”

Inevitably considering life from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor, as a writer Kertész always felt Jewish despite paradoxically lacking religious or cultural knowledge about Judaism. Instead, he was the “anachronistic form of Jew, of the galut, the assimilated Jew; I am the bearer and painter of this form of existence, the chronicler of its liquidation, the messenger of its necessary disappearance.” Any Jew, he alleged, whose Judaism is reduced to having spent time in Auschwitz can be defined as such only by anti-Semites.

In addition to being increasingly baffled by his own experience of physical survival, Kertész, also wondered at spiritual and creative survival after the concentration camps. He mentioned the insanity of the Romanian Jewish poet and survivor Paul Celan, marveling, “How was it that I did not go mad? Unless I am already.” Trying to find a logic in his literary productivity, he pointed out how in “Liquidation” (2003) he came to terms with how he managed to produce an earlier, much-acclaimed work, “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” (1990). Yet despite these scrupulous investigations, he had to admit that his works have no place in Hungarian literary tradition, despite being written in that language. Instead, they belong to East European Jewish literature, which was mainly written in the German language, by such authors as Franz Kafka and Celan. Being part of a tradition whose principal language he did not employ was a paradox which even the Nobel Prize for Literature never resolved. Indeed, the honor caused a degree of nuisance and disturbance in his life. Kertész informed his wife: “I write about Auschwitz. When I was deported, it wasn’t in order to receive the Nobel Prize, but to be killed; everything else that happened to me beyond that is mere anecdote.”

Courageously enduring Parkinson’s disease for many years, the wheelchair-bound Kertész would still appear at public events until quite recently, animated, vivacious, and engaged with the people around him. As an exemplar of humane feelings and intransigent talent for writing, Kertész was one of the happiest choices made by the sometimes capricious Nobel Committee for Literature of the Swedish Academy. While relishing his writings, we may hope for a prompt translation into English of A végső kocsma.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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