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.

Imre Kertesz
Imre Kertesz; drawing by David Levine

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…

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