The news that Hungarian Holocaust survivor and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz died at 86 on March 31 in Budapest, brought back the memory of the May 13, 2003 YIVO Institute for Jewish Research benefit dinner at which Kertesz was to be an honoree.
Held at the Pierre, among the 460 guests a roster of diplomats including those from Hungary, Austria, Lithuania as well as Vienna-born Holocaust survivor Park East Synagogue Rabbi Arthur Schneier founder of Appeal of Conscience. That evening’s total immersion Hungarian motif included an ensemble of Hungarian Magyar costumed musicians and dancers and a sumptuous dinner —including sublime cucumber and beet salads— designed by Hungarian-survivor restaurateur George Lang.
Unable to attend because of illness—a fact unknown to the guests until that evening—Kertesz. who had written extensively about the Holocaust—“Liquidation (2003) and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child”— was “present” via a brief video interview from Berlin. He mused: “I was an outsider…. Hungarians are such nationalists, they even forgave you for being Jewish.” Yet, he admitted that he “knew little about being Jewish” and in his closing remarks declared: “I’m 100% Jewish because of…. Auschwitz.”
Departing from his scripted role as “award presenter” to Kertesz, fellow Hungarian Holocaust survivor billionaire George Soros shocked the assemblage with a rant about victims of violence and abuse becoming “perpetrators of violence,” suggesting that this model applies to the Israelis vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There were walkouts and loud booing that drowned out a sprinkling of applause.
A few days later, a fuming Elie Wiesel told me: “I heard what happened. If I’d been there—and you can quote me—I would have walked out.”