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Stranger in Hell


by Imre Kertész, translated from the Hungarian by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
Northwestern University Press, 191 pp., $19.95 (paper)


At the end of June 1944, when he was fourteen, Imre Kertész was sent to Auschwitz. How he got there and what happened to him afterward became the subject of Fateless, the remarkable novel that would bring him the Nobel Prize in Literature last year. Central to his story is the fact that, as a Budapest Jew, he should have been spared the fate that befell nearly half a million fellow Jews of the Hungarian countryside.

The German army marched into Hungary in March 1944, ordering a change of government but leaving the regent, Miklós Horthy, in place. Within a few months, the new pro-Nazi Hungarian government enthusiastically rounded up virtually all the Jewish children, women, and older men from outside the capital and sent them to Auschwitz. (Jewish men between eighteen and forty-eight survived by doing labor service in the Hungarian army, although many were killed during the last months of the war.) Yet when Adolf Eichmann and the Hungarian government wanted to deport two hundred thousand Budapest Jews, the hitherto cooperative Horthy suddenly used his power as regent to veto their plans, whether because of his awakening conscience, the Allied landing in Normandy, his fear of postwar punishment, his sympathy, however limited, for the generally assimilated and educated Jews of the capital, the threat of Allied bombing attacks on the capital, or vigorous protests by President Roosevelt, Pope Pius XII, and other foreign statesmen.1

Whatever the reason, some of Hungary’s radical right-wing leaders were outraged by the regent’s slackening interest in ridding Hungary of Jews. Deputy Minister of the Interior László Baky conspired with the fanatically anti-Semitic officers of the Hungarian gendarmerie to take matters in hand. They sent thousands of gendarmes, theoretically confined to the countryside, into the Hungarian capital with the aim of deporting the Jews. But Horthy worried that the gendarmes also intended to throw him out of office and used his still considerable prestige as well as a hastily gathered armored brigade to persuade the gendarmes to leave the capital. As a result, the Jews of the city were safe, at least until after a Nazi coup d’état in October. Thus Horthy, an avowedly anti-Semitic statesman, used the threat of military force to prevent most of “his” Jews from being deported, a unique event in the annals of the Holocaust.

Some had no luck, among them Imre Kertész, and thus also George (György) Köves, his fictional hero in the autobiographical Fateless. At the end of June, Kertész, the son of a fairly well-off Budapest businessman, was caught in a dragnet at the city limits. A municipal policeman with a deceptively kind manner ignored his valid work papers and handed him over to the vicious gendarmes. Within a few days he was on his way, together with several youthful companions, in a cattle car to Auschwitz. It was this misfortune, interrupting what had been a comfortable bourgeois life, that inspired Kertész to write his book as a devastating satire.

George Köves is an innocent, good, optimistic boy, a modern Candide, who faces his hellish world with confidence and a sense of humor. That he is disappointed again and again does not prevent him, on his return to Budapest, from having a feeling of “homesickness” for life in the camps.

The boy’s initial perception of Auschwitz as a sort of scout camp created by the admirable and enviable Germans has struck some readers as contrived, at odds with the usual desperate and horrifying accounts of the Shoah. But Kertész describes the guilelessness of his young hero powerfully and convincingly, conveying the perceptions and observations of someone with little foresight or hindsight. In his Nobel lecture, Kertész remarked that “in my writings the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense.”2 Before the Swedish Nobel Prize Committee pronounced Fateless a masterpiece, the book had millions of readers, especially in Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Germany, France, and Spain. In the United States Fateless and its author were virtually unknown until very recently, and even in Hungary the book was only mildly successful before Kertész won the Nobel Prize—it was well received but did not sell widely.

A persistent question throughout Fateless as in Kertész’s other work is why he, who had never felt Jewish and whom other Jews in the camp did not accept as one of their own, was forced to suffer the fate of a Jew. As late as the 1990s, Kertész wrote in his diary: “I am one who is persecuted as a Jew, but I am not a Jew.”3 And why, he asks himself, was he rejected by other Hungarians to the point that he still does not feel at home in his own country? Yet he refuses to look for another identity and a new place to live. He felt unappreciated as a Hungarian writer for many decades, while also doubting his literary talent. He has written learned commentaries on such modern philosophers as Ernst Bloch and Karl Jaspers and has often had perceptive things to say about European culture; yet he admits he cannot divorce his thoughts and his writings from his native Hungary and, even more, from his Holocaust experience.

It is hard to recall today how secularized and how assimilated into Hungarian society a middle-class Jewish boy could feel at a time when anti-Jewish laws followed one after another, and when a huge number of Hungarians could hardly wait to get rid of the Jews, while Jews in much of the rest of Europe were already dead. Köves and people like him felt themselves to be Hungarians of the “Israelitic persuasion,” or, more often, of no religious persuasion whatever. Of all the Holocaust photographs one of the most devastating, at least to me, is that of two young brothers from Hungary standing miserably on the railroad platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau, wearing patriotic Hungarian school caps and overcoats. One knows that within a few hours the two little boys will be gassed.

When George Köves’s railroad car reaches the border of German-occupied Poland, a Hungarian gendarme appears, offering to relieve the suffocating passengers of their hidden jewels, gold, and money:

Men,” he said to us, “you’ve reached the Hungarian border.” He wanted to use this occasion to make an appeal to us…. It was his opinion that we had no need of these where we were going…. Everything we might still hold on to would be taken from us by the Germans anyway…. Why shouldn’t these things find their final resting place in Hungarian, rather than German, hands?
The gendarme’s appeal gets him nowhere because the prisoners in the car demand water first—only then will they give up their valuables. He will not budge. “After all, you are still Hungarians,” the gendarme says.

Finally the furious military policeman4 concluded: “Stinking Jews, you make a business out of even the holiest of things!” And in a voice choking with outrage and disgust, he added this wish: “Die of thirst, then!”

Arriving in Auschwitz, Köves and the boys with him decide that the scrawny, Jewish-looking characters in striped garb, who take their baggage off the train and tell them to go toward the end of the ramp, are convicted criminals assigned to serve them:

When they noticed us boys, I saw that they became excited. They began immediately to whisper… and that’s when I made the surprising discovery that Jews don’t have just one language, namely Hebrew, as I had believed. I slowly gathered that their question was “Reds di jiddis, reds di jiddis, reds di jiddis? [Do you speak Yiddish?] The boys and I answered “Nein.” [No.] I noticed that this didn’t make them particularly happy. Then I could easily tell, because of my knowledge of German, that they were very much interested in our ages. We said: “Vierzehn, fünfzehn” [Fourteen, fifteen]…. They immediately protested with their hands, their heads, their whole bodies: “Zescajn” [Sixteen], they whispered from every direction, “Zescajn.” …I yielded, albeit with some humor: “Okay, I’ll be sixteen years old.” …Jeder arbeiten, nist ka mide, nist ka krenk” [Everyone works; don’t get tired, don’t get sick].

Most of the boys, suddenly advanced to the age of sixteen, survive the initial selection for the gas chambers.

Even at Auschwitz, many Hungarian Jews continued to trust the orderly, correct Germans; a former Hungarian officer was particularly trustful of the German guards because, as he put it, in World War I he “had fought side by side with the German comrades at the front.”5 Kertész’s description of his first day at Auschwitz makes the reader sense that his account will have an original and chilling quality, surpassed only by Primo Levi’s retelling of his days in the camp in Survival in Auschwitz.6 A few days earlier, Köves and his companions had been worrying about schoolwork, and even at the beginning of the day at Auschwitz they were behaving like good schoolboys, trying to obey their new masters, proud of their physical strength, making fun of companions who failed to earn the Germans’ respect. Yet, by the end of the same day, George Köves already knows what is causing the smoke and stench from the nearby chimneys:

I remembered the words of [our] headmaster…. I recall his quoting an ancient philosopher at the close of the speech: “Non scolae sed vitae discimus”; “We learn not for school but for life.” But I think that we should have been studying about Auschwitz all along, if they had tried to explain everything openly, honestly, intelligently. During the four years at school I did not hear a single word about this place. Still, of course, I realized that it would have been embarrassing, and I guess it really wasn’t part of our general education.

Köves spends only three days in Auschwitz; he is taken to Buchenwald, and then to Zeitz, which he calls “a smallish, poor, out-of-the way, one might even say provincial concentration camp,” and then back to Buchenwald. Again and again, Köves realizes how isolated he and the other assimilated Hungarians are among the “real” Jews. When three would-be escapees are hanged in the camp, he is unable to join in when prisoners spontaneously chant the Kaddish. Jewish “businessmen” in the camp from Galicia and northeastern Hungary have clothes, medicine, and other things to sell; but when Köves offers them his watery soup and some pieces of bread, they barely look at him. They reject his attempts to curry favor because he speaks no Yiddish: “‘Di bist nisht ka Yid, d’bist a sheygets’ [You are not a Jew, you are a goy]…. That was a rather strange feeling, because, after all, I was among Jews in a concentration camp.”7

The SS, the block leaders, the Kapos, the foremen, his fellow sufferers—hardly anyone takes pity on Köves, even though he is slowly dying of starvation, and lice are swarming in the putrefied flesh of his injured leg:

  1. 1

    The thesis of Roosevelt’s and Pius XII’s crucial role in saving the Jews of Budapest is defended by two outstanding younger German historians, Christian Gerlach and Götz Aly, in Das letzte Kapitel: Realpolitik, Ideologie und der Mord an den ungarischen Juden [The Last Chapter: Realpolitik, Ideology, and the Murder of the Hungarian Jews], (Stuttgart-Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2002), pp. 325–326. Note, however, that, by June 1944, the Pope was under American protection in Rome.

  2. 2

    Heureka: Imre Kertész’s Nobel Lecture, translated by Ivan Sanders (Nobel Foundation, December 7, 2002).

  3. 3

    Cited in Ivan Sanders’s brief biography of Imre Kertész in Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature, edited by Thomas Riggs (St. James Press, 2002), p. 156.

  4. 4

    The book’s two translators err in calling the Hungarian gendarmes “military policemen,” for similar to the state troopers in the US, the Guardia Civil in Spain, and the gendarmes in France, these men were not charged with maintaining order among soldiers, which is the job of military policemen, but were there to maintain order among civilians in rural areas.

  5. 5

    Here, as in many other places, the English version of the book misses the zest of the Hungarian original. The Hungarian “fighting [or brawling] side by side with the German comrades at the front” [akikkel akkor együtt verekedtünk] appears in English as “fellow German soldiers at the front, with whom he had lived in a camp.”

  6. 6

    Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (Collier, 1961).

  7. 7

    Because the translators omitted the Yiddish quote from the English version, I use here the quote in the original Hungarian version as it might appear in an English-language text. (See Imre Kertész, Sorstalanság, Budapest: Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó, 1975, p. 157.)

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