Dossier K.

Imre Kertesz; Tim Wilkin­son, trans.
  • Review
By – October 25, 2013

Imre Kertész, the author of a num­ber of nov­els about his incar­cer­a­tion in Auschwitz and Buchen­wald, was award­ed the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 2002. His lat­est work is a mem­oir in the form of an exchange between a fic­tion­al inter­locu­tor who asks ques­tions and Kertész, who responds. The result is an extra­or­di­nary self-por­trait where­in the author inter­ro­gates him­self about aspects of his life, lit­er­a­ture, and phi­los­o­phy, as well as his thoughts on the lega­cy of the Holo­caust as it is pre­sent­ed in the West­ern world.

For those of us who have fol­lowed Kertész’s crit­i­cism of what he labels the abus­es of the Holo­caust, this small vol­ume will not come as a sur­prise. For exam­ple, with regard to the use of the term Holo­caust’ he writes, As far as I’m con­cerned, I use the word because it has been made unavoid­able, but I take it for what it is: a euphemism, a cow­ard­ly and unimagina­tive glib­ness.” Kertész goes on to note that the word actu­al­ly only relates to those who were incin­er­at­ed: the dead but not the sur­vivors, and that the sur­vivor is an excep­tion; his exis­tence — real­ly the result of an indus­tri­al ac­cident in the machin­ery of death… that is one of the rea­sons it is hard to accept, to come to terms with the excep­tion­al and anom­alous exis­tence that sur­vival stands for.” So what does Kertész sug­gest we call the Holo­caust? He writes,

Peo­ple don’t care to call what actu­al­ly hap­pened by its prop­er name, the’ De­struction of Europe’s Jews’… instead they have found a word whose true mean­ing they admit­ted­ly don’t under­stand, but have estab­lished this rit­u­al and, by now, an ossi­fied and immove­able place for it among our notions and defend it like watch dogs… They bark at any­one who approach­es to adjust any­thing about it.”

Else­where, Kertész crit­i­cizes Steven Spiel­berg’s depic­tion of the Holo­caust in Schindler’s List as kitsch, explain­ing, I regard as kitsch any rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Holo­caust that is inca­pable of under­stand­ing or unwill­ing to under­stand the organ­ic con­nec­tion between our own deformed mode of life and the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of the Holocaust.”

When the four­teen-year-old Kertész was deport­ed to Auschwitz along with much of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ry, one of the causal­i­ties was his inno­cence. He writes that even in the death camp he had a trust in the world,” and believed that the adult world had a duty to save me… and get me home in one piece… I firm­ly believe that I have that child­ish trust to thank for my being res­cued.” Kertész also notes that of the sev­en­teen chil­dren who were arrest­ed with him and sent to Auschwitz, he was the only one to sur­vive. He writes that yes, it’s not easy being an exception.”

Kertész’s provoca­tive mem­oir is well worth read­ing and although some will be out­raged by his views on the lega­cy of the Holo­caust, we can only admire Kertész’s dis­tinc­tions between fic­tion and real­i­ty as it relates to the Shoah.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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