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 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:

…I never caught any fleas. They were much faster than I was, because they were better nourished. I could easily catch the lice, but what was the sense in that? When they annoyed me, I randomly dragged my thumbnail down the stretched shirt on my back, and I could measure my revenge, enjoy the destruction, by the clearly audible puffs. I would repeat the procedure after a minute in the same spot with the same results. There was a swarm of them. They set up house in every nook and cranny. My green cap was gray with them and hummed. It almost vibrated with them. Still, I was startled and taken aback when I observed a certain ticklish sensation on my hip, and on lifting the paper bandage I saw that they were already on my flesh, eating my wound.

I tried to shake them off, to free myself, to get rid of them at least here, to dig them out, to force them at least to show patience, to wait. But I have to say, never have I felt a struggle to be more futile, never a resistance more stubborn than this. In time I yielded and just watched this gluttony, this eagerness, this greediness, this appetite, this undisguised bliss: certainly, it was as if I knew all this from somewhere else a little bit. Then when I began thinking of their behavior, I saw that I could to a certain degree understand them. Eventually I was almost relieved; my aversion almost disappeared. I still wasn’t happy. I was still somewhat depressed, saddened, and not without reason, I think, but I was without anger, or angry only in a vague way just at that form of nature in general. At any rate, I quickly covered up the wound and no longer fought with them. I didn’t disturb them any longer.

Here, as elsewhere, Kertész’s account borders on hallucination. At last, he is taken for dead and dumped with others in a heap on the icy pavement in Buchenwald. As he reminded his listeners in his recent Nobel Lecture, the director of the Buchenwald Memorial Center recently presented him with a copy of the original daily report on the camp’s prisoners for February 18, 1945. In it, “Imre Kertész, Prisoner #64,921, factory worker, born in 1927” is reported among the “Abgänge” (Decrements), meaning that Imre Kertész was dead. The entry was wrong about his occupation, his year of birth (in reality, 1929), and his very existence.

Eventually, Kertész/Köves is found by healthier fellow prisoners to be alive, and from that moment on his concentration camp career moves upward. At first, he is taken to a horrible dump of a hospital, but later he is carried to a real hospital within the camp, where his bed has a pillow, sheets, and a straw mattress, and where there is heating as well as medicine. Kertész/ Köves typically doesn’t explain how he, the lowest of prisoners, could land in such a privileged place; but we know that conditions for prisoners at Buchenwald, and in all other camps, varied from absolute hell to a more than tolerable existence. Wherever he goes, Köves, a reject of Hungarian society, is greeted and identified as a Hungarian.

Kertész/Köves writes in Fateless that those in the hospital who protected him from being discharged and thus from certain death were non-Jewish Polish prisoners. Working as nurses, these young men not only took good care of their Jewish patient but were also secretly arming themselves for the final battle against the SS. Indeed, just before liberation by the Americans, political prisoners seized power in Buchenwald.

Gradually, Köves makes his way home, with a motley crowd of other Hungarians, Jews, and non-Jews. At last, he arrives at his family’s apartment; but when he rings the doorbell, a strange face appears:

She asked me whom I was looking for, and I answered, “I live here.” “No,” she answered, “we live here.” She was about to shut the door, but she couldn’t because I held it open with my foot. I tried to explain to her: “There must be some mistake, because I left from here, and most certainly we do live here.” She, on the other hand, kept insisting that it was I who was mistaken, because without doubt they lived there.

Finally his foot slips and she slams the door, turning the key twice.

Subsequently, Köves finds his family, and learns that his father has died in labor service. The other family members, as well as their Jewish friends, have had many difficulties but none had been to Auschwitz and none can understand why he does not think of the future but only of the concentration camp, which has become the center of his life. When, near the end of the book, a journalist asks him what he felt, being home again, he answers, “Hatred.” The journalist says he knew very well what sort of people Köves hated. “I told him, ‘Everyone.'” And yet there were more than a few people who were kind to him. At the very end of his book, as if to confound his readers, he writes that “in a certain sense, life was purer, simpler” in the camps, and that “even back there, in the shadow of the chimneys,…there was something resembling happiness.”


The story of Köves ends at this point. Fifteen years passed before Kertész started writing it. At the end of the war, the Soviet occupiers installed an antifascist coalition regime in Hungary in which the Communists became increasingly powerful. During this semidemocratic interlude, several memoirs appeared by former labor service men and Auschwitz survivors, among them a controversial one by Dr. Miklós Nyiszli who, although a Jew, had worked as a pathologist under Dr. Mengele in the Auschwitz crematoria.8 But in educated circles, people rarely spoke about their Jewish background and concentration camp sufferings, and in the press, the past “era of persecutions” was treated as an unfortunate brief break in the history of mutually tolerant relations between Christians and Jews. Fascist leaders and outright murderers of the Jews were to be severely punished, as in fact they were; it was assumed that only a relatively small number of Hungarians had been at fault, a view that, despite evidence to the contrary, is still widespread in the country.

Meanwhile, a wave of anti-Semitism swept Europe, particularly Eastern Europe; in fact, the early postwar years were the only ones in Hungary’s modern history when there were pogroms, with four proven victims. Some Hungarians attacked Jews because they feared they would reclaim their stolen goods; but the Commu-nist Party’s anticapitalist and anti-bourgeois propaganda was also partly responsible. The pogroms reinforced the traditional practice by which public figures of Jewish origin kept silent about their racial and religious background. Not a single political leader has mentioned being Jewish since World War II, least of all the Jewish officials of the Communist Party, which, by 1947, was acquiring power in Hungary.

Even the Communists who had been deported and killed during the war not as Communists but as Jews were celebrated as “martyrs of the working-class movement.” The hundreds of thousands of non-Communist Jews killed during the Holocaust were called “the other victims of fascism.” It is no exaggeration to say that between the late 1940s and the 1960s, scarcely an honest word was published in Hungary about the Hungarians’ role in the Holocaust or about the Holocaust in general. Such a betrayal of history disgusted Kertész and has made him feel an alien in his own country, an underlying theme throughout his work. In all this, he may have overestimated Hungarian national power. As in so many other things, here, too, the country was following the dictates of Moscow.

After returning from Buchenwald, Imre Kertész had to finish high school, where he sat next to students for whom the war had been a brief and exciting adventure in the air-raid shelters. Later he tried his hand at many things, including work as a day laborer, journalism, writing librettos for musical comedies, and, finally, translating into the Hungarian language works by Hofmannsthal, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Freud, Schnitzler, and others. He began writing Fateless in 1960. It was finished and published in Hungary only in 1975, in part because what he had written was far different from what the Party wanted. Indeed, that the book could be published at all showed a new leniency on the part of the regime; there is not a word in it about a heroic Communist vanguard leading the antifascist resistance movement in the camps. By that time, other Hungarian writers had also published horrifying memoirs of the Shoah as well as scholarly studies of its history. Several of them had genuine popular success.

In Stalinist times, most writers willingly or reluctantly followed the Party line, thereby earning substantial rewards. Kertész never did this. Some of the Party intellectuals eventually felt secure and self-confident enough to repudiate their earlier views in favor of one or another reform movement. The 1956 revolution in Hungary, a crucial event for the world Communist movement, was, in great part, organized by former Stalinist intellectuals of Jewish origin. Those, like Kertész, who would have nothing to do with the Communists and who despised communism as just another totalitarian ideology, had nothing to do with these historic developments.

The modest success of Fateless in Hungary led Kertész to write Fiasco, published in 1980, which deals mainly with his failure to establish himself as a writer. In 1990, there followed Kaddish for a Child Not Born, the only other book by Kertész that has appeared in English.9 It continues the story of Fateless, outlining his postwar experiences and impressions and explaining why, after his experience at Auschwitz, he felt he could not bring a child into the world. But Kaddish does not much resemble Fateless; it is heavily meditative and it lacks the youthful charm and insight of the earlier work. Written in what strikes the reader as one long paragraph, it reads like a stream of consciousness and is hard to follow. In an interview, Kertész told a somewhat different story: he did not have a child because his wife, Albina, had difficulty in becoming pregnant and, in any case, he feared that a child might interfere with his work.10 (After Albina’s death in 1995, Kertész married Magda, an American-born Hungarian.)

In recent years, Imre Kertész has published several other books and has become more widely read, especially in Germany, where several publishers and writers recommended the author of Fateless for the Nobel Prize. Such writings as I, Another (1997), a series of meditations, or A Brief Silence While the Execution Squad Is Reloading (1998), a monologue and dialogue, have not as yet been translated. The literary critic Ivan Sanders was, in my view, accurate when he wrote that the grimness of Kertész’s novels is tempered by his satire and cool irony, and if he seems a one-theme writer, obsessed by the Holocaust, the merciless honesty and quiet, inexorable logic of his work illustrate other events of the century as well, not least the workings of communism in Eastern Europe.


The Frankfurt Book Fair is customarily dedicated to the literature of one or another country; in 1999 it was the turn of the Hungarians, particularly of four writers, Péter Nádas, György (George) Konrád, Péter Esterházy, and Imre Kertész. Three out of the four Hungarian writers selected by the German organizers were of Jewish background. The fourth, Esterházy, is a member of Central Europe’s greatest aristocratic family, reinforcing the widespread impression that in Hungary nothing important can happen without princes, counts, barons, and Jews. In fact, the far-right movements of interwar and wartime Hungary can be seen as part of a middle-class revolt against the remarkably strong influence of Hungarian Jewish businessmen and intellectuals as well as of aristocratic landowners and politicians.

Esterházy is too young to have known World War II; nor did his family suffer during those years. But they suffered under Stalinist rule, of which Esterházy writes at length in his much-praised recent novel, Harmonia Caelestis, published in Hungary in 2000. The book describes his father, Mátyás (Matthew), resisting Communist persecution with courage and dignity. Unfortunately, however, documents have recently come to light showing that the father, now dead, acted for many years as a diligent stooge of Communist political police, a discovery which has caused Esterházy to publish a new book. There he entertainingly reflects on the disturbing new information.11

Critics in Hungary were divided over who of the four writers most deserved the Nobel Prize, while anti-Semitic commentators on the far right complain bitterly that no “truly Hungarian” writers have been considered. Some nationalists have written about a “Nobel Prize for Auschwitz”; others ask rhetorically, “When will the first Hungarian receive the Nobel Prize in Literature?” This is something new in Hungarian history; in the past, even ferocious anti-Semites seemed proud of Jewish Hungarian sports champions and other Jewish celebrities.

Kertész often says that he feels free only when outside Hungary, and he does not consider himself a Hungarian. As he put it in The Guardian of London recently: “In foreign countries I feel at home while, at home, I act like a stranger.”12 His constant praise of Germany, and affection for Germans, grates on the nerves of some Hungarians. After all, they say, the Hungarians did no more than hand him over to Adolf Eichmann; it was the Germans who nearly succeeded in killing him. To this, Kertész answers that the Germans have tried successfully to deal with their past, whereas the Hungarians have not—a view that is not entirely true in both cases. In fact, officials and critics in post-Communist Hungary had been giving Kertész prizes and praising his work well before he won the Nobel Prize; and his writings are popular in Hungary today. Perhaps now Hungary’s talented writers of earlier generations will get the attention they have long deserved: among them the poets Endre Ady and József Attila, the poets and essayists Mihály Babits and Dezso Kosztolányi, and the novelists Zsigmond Móricz, Gyula Krúdy, and Sándor Márai. As for Kertész, he may one day reconcile himself to the fact that the Hungarians during World War II behaved no worse than other Europeans, which was pretty bad. He may even want to turn to the more recent concerns of the country he seems to both love and hate.

This Issue

September 25, 2003