Seagull Books

A Conversation with Imre Kertész

THOMAS COOPER: From time to time, actually not infrequently, one comes across comparisons. Auschwitz and the Holocaust are used as a kind of measuring stick to assess the horrors of some other tragedy or outrage of history. Parallels have been drawn between the deportation and massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, but, more recently, in descriptions of events of the wars in Bosnia. How do you respond to this use of Auschwitz as a sort of quintessence of evil?

IMRE KERTÉSZ: I don’t think these comparisons are justified, nor are they useful. When you make comparisons like this, you remove the events from their context. How does this further our understanding? But I still think Auschwitz is unique in history. The construction of gas chambers, a whole complex machinery of extermination. Of course there were appalling massacres before, but deporting and slaughtering a civilian population, a population whose labour was an asset to the German army, it’s unique in history, even in Jewish history, which was full of pogroms. But as Raul Hilberg noted, everything that happened to European Jews in the twentieth century, all the persecution, the yellow star and the ghettos, the seizure of property, there was historical precedent for it all, it had all happened in some form before, only Auschwitz was the exception.

In Dossier K., you cite Giorgio Agamben, his contention that the word Holocaust arises from the unconscious demand to justify a death that is sine causa. Could Fateless be read as a similar rejection of this demand? I’m thinking of the narrator’s hesitance to use any abstractions to describe his experiences in the camps, his refusal to describe the camps as hell because, as he says, he has no idea what hell is like.

Look, in the end these are just words, Holocaust, Shoah, I use them because it’s become unavoidable. But words are just a matter of consensus. Everyone says Auschwitz for Holocaust or Holocaust for Auschwitz. You know the historian, Hilberg, he’s passed away now, but his book was simply entitled The Destruction of the Europeans Jews. Maybe this is what we should say, maybe every time we speak about the Holocaust we should just say ‘the destruction of the European Jews.’ Maybe we could get rid of the Spielberg interpretations of the Holocaust, the ‘we survived’ interpretations, ‘we should be happy, the Jewish people survived, we have many dead, but in the end the Jewish people survived.’ I don’t even know exactly what this ‘Jewish people’ is to be honest, but perhaps we shouldn’t raise that question, it’s a complicated one.

If you’ll forgive me for bringing up the question anyway, does it make sense, in your case, to speak of Judaism without mention of Auschwitz?

In my case, no. My Jewishness is shaped by the Holocaust. I don’t speak Hebrew, I did not have a religious education or upbringing, I am not familiar with Jewish philosophy, I do not know the Cabala. I would use Isaac Deutscher’s term to describe myself. I am a non-Jewish Jew. I am not religious, I never was. Religion has never meant anything to me. Or rather I once heard someone put it perfectly, ‘God has no religion.’ He was a Calvinist pastor, speaking as part of a normal service, I can’t remember exactly when I heard it, but this is my view. But the thought of Israel is still very tender, fragile to me, and I express my solidarity with Israel whenever I have the opportunity. But it is not my home or homeland.

You commented once that the word Holocaust refers to those who perished, in other words those who were burned, and forgets those who survived.

Yes, survival was the exception, a flaw in the Nazi machinery, as Jean Améry wrote. The survivor is the accident, or the mistake, the thing that needs explanation. Survival seems unimaginable, but actually it is the camps that should seem unimaginable. You know this was one of the strange things about my memories of Buchenwald. In the middle of this camp there was a hospital where they tended to the sick, where doctors gave care to the sick. How was this possible? And then you realize the question is, how was the camp possible?

Améry wrote on his fear that with the passing of the last generation of survivors, the memory of the Holocaust would pass as well. Do you share this fear?

I spoke on Améry when I was asked to hold a presentation at the University of Vienna in 1992. That was when I wrote the essay entitled ‘Holocaust as Culture’. Essentially I just meant to set forth my view that if the memory of the Holocaust is to remain, it will remain through culture, which is really the vessel of memory. Tadeusz Borowski also feared that the memory of Auschwitz casts a long shadow over European civilization, it is still the vital question of our culture. I spoke about this as part of the presentation, and the audience, mostly members of the younger generation, seemed to show interest. And I began to think a bit about the nature of trauma and historical memory. The Holocaust was a trauma, and for the generation that lived through it, it remained stifled, there were these mute decades. Then symptoms began to show in our culture, and the symptoms were what had happened. Of course in Eastern Europe the whole discussion was distorted by the system, by the official version of liberation etc. Even today one can see significant differences in the way the Holocaust has been treated as historical memory in the East and the West.

From what perspective?

Simply that it has been given such thorough attention, in history, art, literature, it has become a part of Western Europe’s cultural past. The Holocaust is an absolute turning point in Europe’s history, an event in the light of which everything before and after will be seen. Chancellor Angela Merkel, when she took office, said that the Holocaust was part of the German Volk, the identity of the German Volk. And of course most of the historical scholarship on the Holocaust has been done in Germany. But the point is it’s not seen simply as an event of history it’s seen as an event that casts all our ideas about ethics and morality in a different light.

And you are suggesting that the communist regime in Hungary played a role in stifling similar discussion?

Absolutely, and they were quite candid about it too. The whole question of anti-Semitism was swept under the carpet under János Kádár. Of course you couldn’t be openly anti-Semitic, that wasn’t tolerated, but it was all false. They used to just use the word ‘persecuted’ instead of ‘Jew’, it was risky to say ‘Jew’. So in a way we became invisible. We were there as the victims of the persecution from which the Soviet army had supposedly saved us, but we couldn’t just be there as Jews.

Did cold-war alliances have any role in this?

Yes, definitely. The basic stance of the government was, ‘it’s fine to be Jewish in Hungary, but only if you bear no sympathies for Israel.’ It was just another kind of total assimilation. I could tell a story about this, I remember, a man prominent in cultural life in Hungary asked me for a manuscript. I ran into him at the theatre and he asked me if I was working on anything. I said I wasn’t working on any novella or anything like that, but I had an essay he might be interested in. ‘More Holocaust stuff?’ he asked. He was  Jewish himself, and this was how he responded. But the whole Jewish intelligentsia is so accustomed to this pressure to assimilate, to talk but to be quiet at the same time. You know, there was a Numerus Clausus in the interwar period, and society was much more openly anti-Semitic, and under Bethlen the Jewish communities of Hungary rename themselves Neologue. Only they knew exactly what they meant by this, but at the very least it was as if they wanted to make it clear that they bore no affinities with Orthodox Jewry, with Jews in the eastern part of the country. And they showed their perfect willingness to assimilate, at least as much as they would be allowed to do so. Even to convert, though of course this meant nothing when deportations began. You know the poet Miklós Radnoti, he was a converted Catholic and always thought of himself as a Hungarian. He was sent to the camps, and then they shot him by the side of the road in the course of a march to Germany. But the role of the Church in Hungary was different from that in Germany. In Germany the Catholic Church had little significance, and the Jewish question had nothing to do with the churches, it was entirely secular. In Hungary the Bishops had to vote on the Jewish laws, like the 1938 laws. This is something people should know. The parliament in Hungary had an upper house and a lower house, and the Bishops sat in the upper house. And when the question came up in 1938 they voted in support of the Jewish laws. Of course, they weren’t voting to kill all the Jews, but they did vote to have them excluded from schools, to allow for the seizure of their property, etc. The Church in Hungary had a role in this. You know in Switzerland they organize a book fair every two years. They invited me once, and to my great surprise, the man who was there representing the Hungarian embassy, not officially, he had just come to the fair, but he gave a very eloquent speech about the Holocaust. We spoke, and it turned out that he was Lászlo Ravasz’s nephew. He was deeply ashamed of the anti-Semitism of the Church in Hungary, and he had always worked to further knowledge of the events of the Holocaust. But the point is these people, they were there, they had to vote for or against these laws, and they voted for them. The persecution of the Jews in Hungary was a bit different from the persecution of the Jews in Germany in this regard. In Germany the government first took all power from the churches, then there was one-party rule.

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The Holocaust as Culture, A Conversation with Imre Kertész, soon to be published in English by Seagull Books.

An extract from an interview by Thomas Cooper.

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