Gary Adelman
Getting Started with Imre Kertész

Little more than thumbnail sketches are available to English readers of Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish novelist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature for such Holocaust books as Fateless (1975) and Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1990), which are the only two of Kertész’s works that have been translated into English as of this writing.1 Kertész was one of seven thousand Budapest Jews deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. He was fifteen at the time, the same age as the narrator-protagonist of his autobiographical first novel, Fateless. In that book, George emerges from the camps with a mental clarity that promises a successful rehabilitation. In the later Kaddish, the unnamed survivor-protagonist is, in contrast, haunted, isolated, and suicidal. The two novels (reputed to be the first and third in a trilogy) represent two contradictory interpretations of the Holocaust, one potentially redemptive and the other nihilistic. The contrast of these two readings of extreme experience could not be more important to Kertész (as they were to Dostoevsky, beginning with his prison memoir, The House of the Dead). At issue is the recovery of one’s freedom, on the one hand, and on the other, existence seen as an absence agitated by memories and “panting towards the grand apnoea.”2

Kertész, whom we know from interviews, and from the recollections of a friend,3 to be wittily quick on the draw and fun-loving, would enjoy the dark playfulness of “the grand apnoea,” and might have thought of it as a parodic euphemism for Auschwitz—can there be a place more grand for the cessation of respiration? But he couldn’t have squeezed it into Kaddish even if he had wished to. His survivor-protagonist is humorless and dwells unceasingly in anguished memories that poison his life.

Only the interpretation of Auschwitz implicit in Fateless could lead to recovery. However, only the interpretation conveyed by Kaddish could finally be convincing. (This dilemma represents the nub of the great debate running through Dostoevsky and defying artistic closure.)

In an interview conducted in 2002, Kertész said, “Auschwitz is my greatest treasure. The closeness to death is unforgettable. Life was never so beautiful as in this long moment.”4 There are two interlocking ideas here. The suggestion the words might seem to convey, of an intensity of sensation akin to happiness that some victims may have experienced in the death camp, is flatly contradicted by the experience of Fateless as well as by other public statements made by Kertész. His words to the interviewer mean something quite different. He means that Auschwitz gave him dedication and purpose: the idea of hard grace, if only he could muster up the courage to act responsibly upon his comprehension. And merging with this idea, making it thinkable, is the Wordsworth-like experience of intense happiness that Kertész apparently discovered retrospectively in his memory of certain prisoners at Zeitz and Buchenwald, prisoners who cared whether he lived or died. Such memories were to inspire the teenage survivor to become a writer who would think of Auschwitz as his “greatest treasure.”

Kertész’s stance in Fateless is one of detached scrutiny of his narrator’s evolution toward responsibility. At the end of the novel, his narrator-protagonist George (prematurely aged, dragging his right foot, eyes small and suspicious) returns “home” from Buchenwald as if emerging from a chrysalis, and tries to explain to relatives what he’s still struggling to understand. He tells them that everyone in the family saw what lay ahead, and that everyone went ahead step by step, cooperating. Probably, he says, that was the only way to survive—to shut out the unbearable and to pass the time. Taking it step by step—that’s the way prisoners are able to hang on for years:

The point is in the steps. Everyone stepped forward as long as he could: I, too, took my steps—not only in the row in Auschwitz but before at home. I stepped forward with my father, with my mother. . . .

His uncles can’t follow his drift. He’s trying to say that he’s responsible for his own fate. Jews may have been fated to be destroyed, but they weren’t like frozen plants at the bottom of a lake. His uncles knew what was coming when they embraced his father the evening before he was deported to a labor camp. They knew what was in store for George when he reported for labor at a bombed petroleum factory on the outskirts of Budapest: “all they fought about was whether I should take the local tram or the local bus on the way to Auschwitz.” His Uncle Steiner screams at him, beating his chest. “What? Are we now the guilty ones—we, the victims?”

George wants them to understand that we all bear some responsibility for what happens to us. What refuge is there in fate? Can one be human without freedom? “I almost begged them to understand this. I couldn’t simply swallow this silly bitterness simply for the sake of becoming innocent again.” As he leaves his uncles’ apartment, dusk is setting in:
my favorite hour in the camp, and a sharp, painful, futile desire grasped my heart: homesickness. . . . Yes, indeed, in a certain sense, life was purer, simpler back there. I remembered everything and everyone, even those who didn’t interest me, but especially those whose existence I could validate by my presence here . . .

He is speaking here of fellow prisoners whose humanity enabled him to survive. “Even back there, in the shadow of the chimneys, in the breaks between pain, there was something resembling happiness”—in the memory of Bandi Citrom, Pjetyka, Bohus, and the doctor. “Yes, that’s what I’ll tell them the next time they ask me: about the happiness in those camps.” More important than the horrors is the shared humanity.

The faith this inspires (endorsed by few writers of the disaster, Tzvetan Todorov and Terrence Des Pres being notable exceptions) is that human beings are prompted by crises to help one another, and to distinguish good from evil. Brutality can submerge this tenuous web of moral life, but even so, there are always those who remain invisibly woven into it. Young George of Fateless has begun to believe this is a universal truth. In Kaddish, however, the narrator is overwhelmed by the realization that, as Kertész has said elsewhere, “nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz.”5 By this Kertész means that we live in denial and, paradoxically, in unconscious acquiescence to Auschwitz—people behaving as if the monstrous acts of the century were all produced by some invisible, powerful mechanism—as if history were in the grip of blind and deaf forces, human beings helpless before an irresistible fatalism and ultimate submission to tyranny. Kertész explains (in the Nobel Lecture) how the writing of Fateless (1963 to 1973) led him to this conclusion:

I might have tried to break up time in my novel, and narrate only the most powerful scenes. But the hero of my novel does not live his own time in the concentration camps, for neither his time nor his language, not even his own person, is really his. He doesn’t remember; he exists.

Faced with the difficulty of having to account for what actually happens to George—for filling in his experiences frame by frame—Kertész was led to a remarkable insight. In the accounts of survivors, he said, and as he himself remembered these scenes, a few hurried, confused minutes elapsed between a transport’s arrival and the selection of those who would work and those who would be gassed. In fact, it was a full twenty minutes—as he discovered in his research of Holocaust sources. When he came upon photographs taken by an SS soldier of a transport of Jews arriving at the Birkenau railroad platform, Kertész says that he looked at the photographs in disbelief:

I saw lovely, smiling women and bright-eyed young men, all of them well-intentioned, eager to cooperate. Now I understood how and why those humiliating twenty minutes of idleness and helplessness faded from their memories. And when I thought how all this was repeated the same way for days, weeks, months, and years on end, I gained an insight into the mechanism of horror; I learned how it became possible to turn human nature against one’s own life.

Later in the lecture, he observes, “the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense.” It is the trauma of European civilization threatening to live on in a destructive form in European society. “What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history.”

These words imply a charitable, resolute humanism that accepts the Holocaust as a collective responsibility of all humanity. Kertész would agree with Albert Camus: “Our poisoned hearts must be cured,” wrote Camus in 1945. “And the most difficult battle to be won against the enemy in the future must be fought within ourselves, with an exceptional effort that will transform our appetite for hatred into a desire for justice.”6 This is a political statement encapsulated by René Char as “a largeness of mind and a minuteness of application.”7 The related model for Kertész may well be the small kindnesses he observed in the camps. Speaking of The Plague, Camus explained, “What Rieux (I) means is that one must cure everything one can cure. . . . It’s a holding position.”8 To bring this correspondence into focus, Kertész, like Camus, would promote a greater understanding of peoples’ destructive tendencies, and at the same time support the modest countertruths upon which civilization depends.

At the shorter Nobel Banquet Speech, Kertész remarked that “a privilege [had] been bestowed on [him].” His experience as one of the lost ones “also concealed redemption, if only my heart could be courageous enough to accept this redemption, this peculiarly cruel form of grace, and even to recognize grace at all in such a cruel form.”9

Fateless narrates the Wordsworthian growth of a poet’s mind in the setting of concentration camps. At the end of the book, George’s free will and humanity appear in embryo, on the verge of recovery. The novel progresses in a linear fashion, narrated by fifteen-year-old George, who describes his family’s reaction to his father’s deportation, then his own round-up and deportation, his experiences in three different concentration camps (Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz), and finally his liberation and return to Budapest after one year. The story begins with George’s account of his father’s efforts to preserve some means of support for his wife and son. He has already transferred ownership of his lumberyard to Mr. Suto, his manager—in an unrecorded business transaction costing Mr. Suto nothing. George watches as his father also trusts Mr. Suto with a box containing the family valuables. “All this was beginning to bore me,” says George.

The callous remark is symptomatic of his narration. His father and stepmother are in acute distress. This is especially evident in the bewildered state of George’s stepmother, which George describes without empathy. He does not know how to behave because he feels no spontaneous emotion. Their holding hands makes him uncomfortable. Though his parents are unable to eat dinner, his own appetite is ravenous. He wishes that his father had already gone.

The description of the family gathering, arranged to bid his father goodbye, tends to alienate the reader from all of them (especially his uncles, and perhaps justly), although our antipathy is clearly the product of George’s manner of representation. His devoutly Orthodox Uncle Lajos constrains him to pray for his father. “Now . . . you too are part of the common Jewish fate,” he says. Something false, glib, fleshy about the man (as depicted by George) repels the reader. The whole scene—conveyed by George through a series of disconnected images (George is a recorder of fleshy details)—repels the reader:

bony yellow head of my stepmother’s mother . . . puffy cheeks of my stepmother’s sister. . . . grandfather, when he pressed his small birdlike head . . .

George looks on with an alien coldness, loving nobody.

Two months later he’s performing labor service (along with eighteen other boys his age) at a Shell oil refinery outside of Budapest. Comes the morning when city buses are flagged down and Jewish passengers removed for deportation. Kertész’s stance, obliging him to flesh out every temporal event in George’s step-by-step progress to Auschwitz, and requiring him to look through the eyes and disaffected sensibility of the strange boy (whose lack of predictable emotion reminds one of Camus’s Meursault), has the effect of renewing the possibility of surprise for the experienced reader of Holocaust literature.
George is astonished at how quickly he winds up (after the unloading of the freight car) marching with others in rows of five across. Admiring the professionalism of the Germans while avoiding what it implies, he thinks it’s all running so smoothly, “like a well-oiled machine.” After being selected for “the other side, among the qualified ones,” he notes with scorn “how many old or otherwise unusable men there were here.”

Foolish marionette, he acquiesces to what he doesn’t understand, congratulating himself for having volunteered to board the train that takes him to Auschwitz. These ironies are certain to irritate some readers, like Michael André Bernstein (Foregone Conclusions, 1994), who disdains what feels to him like sadomasochistic pornography, and half suspects that racial self-contempt lies behind such a simplistic treatment of Jewish self-delusion. At this point, George is in collusion with his fate. Since there are no contingencies—no other paths that he can see—the ironies are unavoidable.
Perhaps irony is too refined a term for a world that seems to the willfully naïve George “extending into infinity.” Those who rule within it appear to be unavoidable natural phenomena, like the nauseating air he breathes, so cloying and sticky-sweet at times that he can’t eat. When the boys learn that Auschwitz is an annihilation camp, George says, “I can say that, aside from a certain respect and, of course, the smell, with which we were stuck as if we were in a thick stew or a swamp, I felt nothing.” The anger submerged in this thought breaks out into hatred a little later, when he is able to piece it all together—how the “unusable” saw the barber, received a piece of soap, reached the showers where gas poured down on them—and to recognize that during this process they were treated cordially, the children played games, and the place where there was gas instead of water was surrounded by flower beds. It is like a practical joke, he thinks, except that grown men slapped their hands with delight as they worked it out. Hot anger, in other words, and revulsion, can occasionally rise up out of his passive fatalism and awed regard for the SS.

George moves to the next new place and again surrenders to its rhythms; even so, he is not quite sleepwalking through an unalterable existence. His consciousness looks on inquisitively, although his emotional life remains benumbed, dimmed, as if he had been traumatized in anticipation of the trauma of the concentration camp.

After brief stays at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, he ends up at Zeitz, a labor camp for two thousand Jews where prisoners are relatively well-off. George comes to think of this first period of time as “the golden days”—the rations bearable, the musterings only occasionally three hours long. The prisoners are cooperative. George sees “eagerness” and “good intentions” in their faces. Then, too, it is summer and the work (unloading wagons of gravel) takes place outdoors. Also, he becomes attached to a fellow prisoner, a Hungarian in his twenties with a smashed nose and his top teeth kicked out, who teaches him the rules of survival. George bunks with Bandi Citrom (and two other Jews from Budapest) on top of a wooden box covered with straw and a canvas sheet. “But still, sleep is deep and all-erasing,” he comments, content with what seemed only “natural” in a concentration camp, and couldn’t be changed in any case.

Life at Zeitz seems to George full of exciting events, from the morning coffee to the “special hour” at dusk, before the evening mustering: “the time for jokes and complaints, visits, conferences, business transactions, the exchange of information, as well as the familiar clatter of pots.” The writing has the same charm and naïveté as that of a boy at summer camp.

At the next stage, which marks George’s deterioration into one of the walking dead, the reportage takes on the characteristics of shell shock—that is, the starkness of an objectivity devoid of feeling or the instinct for life. In fact, though, it is not a remarkable change in the narrative voice that one has become accustomed to from the beginning. In a sequel to this novel, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Kertész enables one to make informed surmises about the precise nature of George’s “trauma.”

Everything changes utterly when the food rations become scarce. As the camp undergoes demoralization, more Jews are made Kapos. Beatings occur more frequently. The Lagerältester, who is responsible for order in the camp, turns murderous. George is suddenly aware of the enfeeblement and emaciation all around him. He attempts to remove himself by living in his mind—fantasizing, in a small way, as Dostoevsky did when he was in captivity at Omsk—reliving his life at home, planning to change his behavior for the better, “setting everything straight with the greatest perfection” in his imagination. George also fantasizes about staying in bed until the morning mustering call, that is, flirting with being murdered, but he is prevented by Bandi Citrom from being rooted out and clubbed to death.

His stomach turns into a “constantly voracious void.” He tries to eat sand. When he spots some grass, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment. In three months, he is “a dried-up old man,” yellow skin hanging in loose folds, at all times shivering and struggling to control the cramps of diarrhea. And then he crosses a line past which he no longer cares or feels, but simply falls to the ground and stays there. In this state, Citrom can offer him no further hope:

Cold, wetness, wind, or rain no longer disturbed me. They couldn’t reach me. I never felt them. Even my hunger vanished; I continued to lift to my mouth whatever I found, whatever was edible, but I did it absentmindedly, mechanically, from habit, one might say.

George has turned into a “Muslim,” as the vanquished ones are called at Zeitz. At one point Citrom drags him to a faucet and rubs him down with cold water, if not to wake in him some sign of life, at least to diminish his offensive smell. The depiction of his dissolution continues with fleshy particularity. A deep, pus-filled cavity, a phlegmon, develops on his thigh. In the hospital, where he has two surgical openings cut into his knee for the draining of the pus, he develops another phlegmon on his left hip and has a hand-sized incision cut below it. Lice swarm upon his body, eating at his wounds.

Figuratively, George dies and goes to heaven, but not in the form of smoke; nor is heaven believable to him as a place that could exist along with Auschwitz. Literally, he’s freighted to Buchenwald—helpless in the straw with other dying men, and awkwardly, shyly aware of a bond of feeling among them. He says, “Perhaps it was love, I think. And I experienced the same from them as well.” This is a signal event in the regeneration of George’s emotional being. It has no immediate consequence—a clumsy tenderness of feeling causing only a momentary break in his solitude.

At Buchenwald, where he is tossed into a cart, he understands that he is to be cremated. Zeitz didn’t have a crematorium. But instead George finds himself installed in a room with other boys his age, in a bed by himself, examined by a doctor, and getting rations. Then he’s carried to another room and placed in a bed with a sheet, a firm pillow, extra blankets, light coming in through washed windows, the emblem of the SS eagle on the pillowcase. He’s suspicious of such concern for a single life—a Jew’s life!—and one useless as a worker, a drain on the provisions and efficiency of the camp. He stares in disbelief at the roominess and lack of clutter, and at the two unused beds, and now he reasons:

this is the sort of place I had already heard about in Auschwitz, where they feasted their patients on milk and honey until piece by piece they removed all their organs for the sake of knowledge and science.

Anger creeps into his supposition with that gratuitous “for the sake of knowledge and science.” Reason and plausibility could explain nothing in this place, he thinks, where just about anything is “accessible and transferable from a make-believe world of fantasy into a concentration-camp reality”—practical jokes, imponderable theories. That he should have been taken from a wheelbarrow full of bodies, and on his way to the crematorium, to a bona fide place of healing and recovery, doesn’t make sense—unless winding up in just such a place is the joke. He will never learn why he was not cremated. In this fact lies the potentiality of his insurmountable affliction as a survivor.

His admiration for the doctor, whom he learns has been a prisoner for twelve years, is exceeded by his regard for his male nurse, Pjetyka, another old inhabitant enjoying the privileges of seniority—graceful in movement, “almost beautiful,” his hair grown long, and wearing civilian clothes during his off hours. Pjetyka nurses George back to health. Bohus, another attendant, brings George a supplementary portion of bread after every meal. Considering its market value, George thinks that he’s compelled to do it out of some deep personal need, or out of “stubbornness”—by which he means a resistance to letting go of certain finer feelings, though they have nothing to do with his practical welfare. “I can assert one thing: with time one even becomes accustomed to miracles.” He lies in bed envisaging the camp in all its detail from the barking of the loudspeaker. He can even “deduce the size and quality of the transport,” and knows in advance the scale of sweet, sticky smoke for that day. As the Americans come close, and the camp routine begins to unravel, George discerns from the loudspeaker that Jews are being hastily pulled from the work force and shot.

Terror enters the ward with the doctor. A bed has to be vacated to make room for another patient. The boy in the neighboring bed is selected to go “home.” He locks his arms around the doctor’s legs but is slapped in the face and kicked aside. “[E]verything happened according to the rules of justice,” George rationalizes. The other boy was in better health and stood a better chance out there. And furthermore, he reasons, “I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own”—attempting through this rigmarole to arrive at the conclusion that he was obviously better adjusted for life in a concentration camp than the other boy and this is why he was spared. And finally, settling the matter, “what was the good of such concern when people were shooting out there?”—meaning, we’ll all be dead soon enough.

Yet, a feeling of bitterness mixed with guilt, and a restive conscience anxious to vindicate itself, might be seen as positive signs in the perspective of George’s evolution into Imre Kertész. That perspective becomes the narrative focus at the end of Fateless, when George emerges tentatively, his humanity restored, into Hungary’s momentary transit between a defeated and a triumphant totalitarianism. In Kaddish, Kertész will develop the subsequent complexities of survivor guilt.


If, as is reputed, Fateless is the first novel in a trilogy, the second, as yet untranslated into English (and referred to variously as “The Washout,” “Fiasco,” or “The Failure”), may explain how George becomes the embittered, frenzied (and unnamed) survivor-narrator of the third novel in this series, Kaddish for a Child Not Born. My strong impression is that the two books contrast with one another the way, for example, Terrence Des Pres10 contrasts with Maurice Blanchot11 on the mental space the Jew inhabits in the death camp. For Des Pres, those who survive are able to withstand brutalization because of their understanding of good and evil. Implicitly they know that people are responsible for each other, and that any person’s existence depends on the sacrifice—and often the repeated sacrifices—of many others. Even under sentence of death, there is hope, willingness to carry on, and at times a happiness that passes human understanding. On the other hand, the credo “I before everyone, I first, second, and third, and then I again” is the principal rule of the place. To assimilate this results in isolation and spiritual suicide.
For Blanchot, in the prisoner’s night God has annulled himself. Jewish prisoners live only in the moment and understand it in the past tense. If they choose to live, their corruption begins, and there is no limit to dehumanization. You quickly pass the point at which you believe you deserve to die, when human feeling means suicide. Human life is like a fly’s life.

Fateless and Kaddish are two contradictory interpretations of the death camp reality. Both were accessible to Kertész when he wrote Fateless, as they were to Dostoevsky when he wrote The House of the Dead. Both authors overcome nihilism in the writing of the novels, which is the restorative, regenerative act for Kertész—the enactment of a will to believe that there is a basic dignity that can be disowned only at the risk of morally degrading the human organism. The moral law is understood to be a primary phenomenon and ultimately the most important aspect of human nature. People need each other, and never more than when survival is the issue.

In Dostoevsky, the inability of his heroes to abandon nihilism and accept the fairy tale of the regenerative vision condemns them to isolation and suicide. This model applies as well to the survivor-protagonist of Kaddish. Kaddish is a first-person monologue by a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz praying in order to drown in the grotesque memories that keep him afloat. Seeking to place impulses of this kind in perspective, Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1986) provides a gloss to survivor literature in general.
The survivor, says Blanchot, is “awaiting a misfortune which is not still to come, but which has always already come upon [him].” He has the double consciousness of different kinds of knowledge, which interact and intersect continuously. He exists at the site of anguished experience where the disaster is taking place, and simultaneously in the time frame of the normal world, where the disaster is present only as an absence—as the “un-story” that he is fated to enact to its end:

you are dead already, in an immemorial past, of a death which was not yours, which you have thus neither known nor lived, but under the threat of which you believe you are called upon to live; you await it henceforth in the future, constructing a future to make it possible at last—possible as something that will take place and will belong to the realm of experience.

Death is the “un-story” in Kaddish, expressing itself as the need to pay off a debt for not having died, death invading the space of survival again and again—“absence in its vivacity” making “the real impossible and desire undesirable” (these are the words of Blanchot). The unnameable narrator in Kaddish keeps himself going by writing, creating personae through whom he enacts his death, paradoxically killing himself in order to keep himself alive, atoning for continuing an existence in which his death is always due.

Blanchot says that a mute protest rises out of the crushed victim’s refusal to be blamed for the crimes of his persecutors, and also out of his tormented need to be held accountable, to “answer for the impossibility of being responsible.” His continued existence is both an atonement and a bond of “friendship for that which has passed leaving no trace.”

The survivor of Kaddish is thus driven, agitated and inconsolable, through an unalterable existence. He no more sees himself, despite ceaseless self-analysis and explanations, than we are given sight of him physically—except for his occasional, or even numerous, benumbing moments (crises, even) of self-recognition, which he eventually buries under an avalanche of words.

He begins his story, out of one such crisis of self-recognition, with the implicit question of why he is writing about himself (again). He never quite poses the question and loses it altogether in the course of his explanations. He says one can’t any longer trust one’s instincts. Anti-instincts are more reliable. It is a miserable truth that people don’t know what they want or feel. He proclaims that he’s a special case, anything but robotic, owing to introspection, ceaseless self-analysis, and a maniacal compulsion to explain things. True enough, this faculty of his probably prevents him from living. It also seems to him that his compulsive need to speak reveals something else, easily recognizable in his excessive politeness and a free hand with gratuities, that is, an urgent need to apologize for his existence, for the way he lives—survives. “I work all the time,” he says—he’s a writer and translator—“not simply forced by necessity, but because if I didn’t work I would have to exist . . . while I work, I am; if I didn’t work, who knows if I’d be?” This explanation explains nothing, although in the end it may be an ironic testimonial to Arbeit macht frei. Writing constitutes—not merely sustains—the existence of writers, who feel, when disengaged, a nihilistic contempt for the waste of life that goes into writing and at the same time terror at the thought of ceasing to write. All this so far serves as unfocused preface (not at all like the playful malice in service of an agenda to be found in the utterances of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man), and probably his explanations really always amount to nothing but an interminable, unspecified preface, preliminary “spadework” toward a self-recognition he cannot bring himself to see.

By way of making conversation, Dr. Oblath, professor of philosophy, asks him whether he has a wife and children. Oblath is a recurring point of reference in the pain-inflicting universe his mind inhabits, a station in the circuit of his thoughts. Kaddish is a testament to life as disaster, anti-Wordsworthian in its every aspect. It is spoken from despair, in “the absolute passiveness of total abjection” (Blanchot), by a man who writes to impose silence, by making a continuous background noise that soothes his agitation. What is paramount in Wordsworth, communion with the invisible world, is identified with Auschwitz in Kaddish.

To Oblath, then, or rather (prior to Oblath) to his ex-wife on the question of his parenting a child, “‘No’ something screamed and howled within me immediately and spontaneously”; and then, addressing the imaginary child, “my existence in the context of your potentiality?”—inflected to exaggerate the absurdity of such a proposition; and then back to Oblath, who tells him that he regrets not having fathered a child, of feeling old and superfluous, and fearing emotional atrophy.

This nexus of memory—Oblath’s innocent question, the narrator’s violent “no” to his wife’s desire, Oblath regretting his childlessness—initiates the writing of Kaddish, says the narrator, turning to his imaginary child: “Yes, as if you led me, nay, dragged me, by your fragile little hand on this path which in the final analysis leads nowhere, or, at best, to a totally unseen, totally unalterable self-recognition.”

He writes Kaddish to explain his “no” to the unborn child—and possibly, in the process, to be granted the will, or permission, to end his life rather than continue to tread water like a sewer rat in the filthy stream of his memories (this metaphor is his). His moments of clairvoyance, when he is granted sight of himself and the path that he’s on, become prayers for mercy.

His ex-wife, a medical doctor, meets him occasionally at a café where she writes him prescriptions “so that I will bear it as long as I have to . . . all doped up.” Getting the ill-fated and short-lived marriage into emotional focus seems a logical point of departure. But customarily with him, there are only wheelings and circlings, and no telling whether there’s any locatable carcass to fall upon. The memory of these prescription meetings at the usual café dislodges another memory that epitomizes his feelings about his own Jewishness. As a little boy, he’s horrified at the unexpected sight of his aunt, “a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror”—his life’s “first great, spectacular metamorphosis,” he calls it. His father explains to him that “Polian women shave their heads for religious reasons and wear wigs,” but the image of Judaism as grotesque remains indelible. Later, when being Jewish is a death warrant, “then I suddenly found myself understanding who I was: a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror”—that is, a freak, an anomaly of nature, buffoonish, repulsive. Surviving Auschwitz didn’t eradicate this feeling. The question is, why didn’t he, like others, “turn his survival into a triumph” by making “the prolonged and multiple survival of himself?” through descendants—by begetting “you”? The thought of having a child never entered his mind, he says.

He recalls having met his wife after a lecture at which somebody said (quoting the fashionable saying of the time), “Auschwitz cannot be explained,” and he was set off like an explosive—as if Auschwitz were the aberration: Auschwitz, “like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting to finally drop on one’s head.” The lyricism and moralizing implicit in the remark that “Auschwitz cannot be explained” express an impulse to deny what happened—to deny that people with recognizably human faces could have done such things. It is an impulse that induces amnesia, a forgetting and so a disclaiming of responsibility for everything that made Auschwitz possible. It is the impulse to embrace Hitler, “to look for the original, the extraordinary . . . the greatness in him”; to believe the world comprehensible, sufferable, “a habitable place for people.”

As for his wife-to-be, the beautiful “Jewess,” as he recalls thinking of her as she crossed the carpet toward him, the marriage is fated to fail for a whole slew of reasons. The peculiar appellation, “Jewess,” may have a great lot to do with the failure—that is, the perception of the freak before the mirror that is every Jew makes him cynical, too cunning to be taken in. Besides, if he appears a cruel bastard to women, it may be out of a Kafkaesque ambivalence about compromising his freedom “to write, maniacally, with crazed diligence and unceasingly.” Also, equally to the point, and quite in line with Kafka, it is the case that tormented affairs with women serve to inspire his writings—his “transcendentally problematic” writings (like Kafka’s). To sum up, his marriage is doomed because he discovers creative powers in pain—because, well, he’s really very much like Kafka, “on the long, long road of self-conscious self-annihilation,” and he can tolerate no distractions. Of course he wouldn’t deny that his literary allusions, logorrhea, and confessional writing are prophylactics to guard against the register of genuine feeling. He’s like an ancient mariner embodying a doom he somehow survived in order to keep suffering a penance for having survived.

At the time he meets his wife, and subsequently, he lives in a rented room. A rented room is all he’s willing to afford. More will cost him his independence, not to mention a tubercular hemorrhage. But then he grasps a deeper motive for resisting these dangers (and his wife’s wishes) and clinging to his life as a transient. Several days after the allies have liberated his camp, he enters the lavatory and is shocked to find a German soldier doing a Jew’s work. Unshakably he lives with the feeling that this topsy-turvy turn of affairs augurs the inevitable return of the old Commandant. “I believe I was born to be a hotel guest . . . I could only be the inhabitant of camps and rented rooms.”

Whenever he was possessed by the feeling of impermanence—belonging nowhere, sensing a “pristine homelessness,” judging himself in some indefinable way guilty—the thought would come to him that there was something else to understand, and that it was his task to show the blueprint of a new world, a world uncontaminated by “monsters.” This means, perhaps, that he hearkened to the glozing dream of communism (Tadeusz Borowski possibly came to his mind), or was inspired by the teachings and exhortations of Father Zossima (like Camus). Something short-lived and hopeful seemed to have occurred.

And probably his marriage did get off on the right foot. He believed at the time, he says, that he married for the sake of the future and happiness: “judgment doesn’t come suddenly; process gradually becomes judgment,” he says, facetiously quoting Kafka.
Soon enough he discovers that he cannot write a novel that will be a monument to their marriage—to the redemptive power of love, to the accomplishment of the journey from darkness to joy—though they discuss such a novel lovingly, endlessly, during their early days. “I don’t write to find joy; on the contrary, it turns out, I seek pain, the sharper the better, bordering on the unbearable.” Inevitably he becomes secretive about his writing, senses her resentment, expresses pained denial, and is driven by the “devilish mechanism”—killing her love with defensive reflexes—to inspired, all-absorbing work and periods of heightened sexual passion. It is during this phase of destructive intensity that his wife says she wants his child.

Did he understand at the time, as he subsequently does, that she was trying to save him? It doesn’t matter one way or the other. The furious discharge of memories, disgorgings, at that moment and on and on for weeks, makes clear that his “no” is not defensive. From this point, the remainder of Kaddish is given to psychic uproar and expulsion into light of those memories that give imaginative shape to his loathing of the world and predetermine his fate. One assumes that his interior life is a minefield, and that the explosion into the hell of memory is triggered at every turn. In this instance, Oblath sets it off, and he remembers again “everything” in the context of his “no” to his wife.

Uniquely in Kaddish, Auschwitz remains a black hole sardonically afflicting his whole existence, the past as well as the future, even, if not especially, his childhood, which is rendered grotesque “in the mirror of all-accomplishing depravity.” It is as if, to Kertész’s survivor, his childhood rather than Auschwitz is the site of the disaster, accountable for his “anonymity,” “loss of self,” “loss of all sovereignty,” “utter uprootedness,” “radical alienation” (all terms from Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster).

Unexpectedly, devastating memories of his own childhood overcome him at the idea of his fathering a child:

“No”—I could never be another person’s father, fate, god,
“No”—It should never it happen to another child, what happened to me: my childhood,
“No”—something screamed and howled within me, it is impossible that this, this childhood, should happen to the child . . .

His future, his freedom, his very being is impaled on “this, this childhood.”

Why, he asks, is he renting a room in the very quarter of the city in which he grew up, “so that I never knew in which unspeakable scene, saturated with tortures and outrage, I would unexpectedly find myself?” And he answers that “this is the place where he must do penance,” and that it is possible he never left: never left the boarding school (inmate years between five and ten) where he was always hungry, he tells his wife. In the evening he prayed in German, which he learned quickly but didn’t understand. They punished him in the “carcer: a dark, bug-infested storage room.” Then he appears to conflate his memory of a recurring event at the boarding school with the selection for gassing at Auschwitz:

my stomach was queasy all afternoon: steps on the staircase, then loud, earth-shattering steps in the corridor. The others. They are coming, I whispered to myself, deathly pale, like news of a catastrophe.

And he goes on to add that he never told anyone of his migraines, that he was bound to keep them secret, “like the other things, like everything,” his secret “sin.”

The director of the boarding school, a short, stocky man with a protruding belly, was surrounded by immense authority—not authority based on endowments, but institutional authority, organized awe and fear. He descended rarely from “the castle,” his apartment on the second floor. The children “lived in the shadow of the cloud-castle.”

Memories pour from him; he vomits them out. His ostensible aim is to explain why he could never bring himself to have a child. But subconsciously, the purging may be a kind of prayer for a world that would not be a place so damaging and disgusting for a child.
He recalls for his wife the episode when a senior boy and a new girl waiting tables are caught together locked in a room in which they had fallen asleep. The miscreants wouldn’t open the door. Diri, the director, is summoned:

He pulled on the doorknob like the Gestapo. . . . Today I know the reasons for my sense of sin, guilt, fear, and shame then, that suffocating something that I felt through the whole procedure; today I know what sort of a ritual I witnessed then in the father-substitutional paternalistic institute: I witnessed a public castration, which happened for the sake of our intimidation and with our cooperation, that is to say, they castrated our pal with our cooperation in order to intimidate us; in other words, they made us the ultimately perverse participants of an ultimately perverse act, I told my wife.

And he adds that it is irrelevant if it was done unknowingly.

However, “the afternoon rapports every Saturday” were precisely calculated to shape the boys for their imminent future. The game room was turned into an interrogation room. He pictures for her the endlessly long row of tables covered with white tablecloths. The boys, “the inmates,” line up at the far end of the room. One of the teachers soberly enters carrying the rapport-book, a large black book containing every boy’s sinful and virtuous actions of the week. The Diri enters at the head of the faculty and sits among “enthroned majesties” at the table. The boys are called one at a time, “trembling and lonely.” The director reads the entry, confers in whispers with his faculty; a verdict is pronounced:
what really mattered, what only mattered was the act itself, the procedure. . . . this act was like the Appel at Auschwitz, I told her, not yet real, of course, only in jest.

The fact that this director was later gassed at Auschwitz, and went up in smoke with the others, he “[takes] . . . to be the fruit of the successful education I received at his hands, of the culture in which he believed and for which he prepared us pedagogically.”
With his father, who took over his education at the age of ten, the preparation was the same (he tells his wife), but with a difference. Rebellion against his father, in an effort to make him seem ridiculous—to topple his father’s authority—ultimately left him feeling threatened and lonely. “I needed a tyrant to reestablish my world order,” he confesses to his wife. “Yes,” he tells her, “I was a modestly eager, not always unobjectionably progressing member of the quiet conspiracy woven against my life.” Yes, it made me into a Jew—passive, acquiescent, creeping near the earth at shows of authority, spineless, eviscerated by guilt, lowing like the other cattle at the smell of the slaughterer. “Yes,” he tells his wife, father, God, Auschwitz “resonate the same echoes in me.”

When she leaves him, she tells him what he had come to recognize—who knows how many times in acutely benumbing moments of clarity. Finally she had to see “that there [seemed] to be no way out for [him] from [his] awful childhood and monstrous tales, regardless of what she [did].” His is “a sick consciousness,” she tells him, “a sick and poisoned consciousness . . . which . . . must be eradicated, must be fled; if one wants to live one must flee from it.”

He only responds when she tells him that she met someone whom she’s planning to marry, someone, she says, who is not Jewish. (Probably she means one Jew like you is enough for a lifetime.) “Who do you think I am?! I screamed at her then, some kind of a perverse race-preserver?!” And he goes on screaming that being Jewish has kept him alive. With his upbringing, assimilation was impossible. Surviving would have been impossible if he had not learned how: “labeled a Jew, I was allowed to be in Auschwitz and that on account of my Jewishness I experienced and survived something and faced something.” This is spoken without a trace of irony—this screaming that Auschwitz saved his life from his Jewish upbringing.

One scene remains to these confessions, this arrangement of memories with commentary, which can be thought of as his answer to Oblath’s innocent question about a wife and kids. He describes a meeting with his ex-wife at the customary café, to which she brings her two young children, a boy and a girl. “‘Say hello to the gentleman,’ she told them.” Then he goes on to utter in a final paragraph the excruciating loathing he feels for himself, and he prays to be allowed to die.


If the narrator of Kaddish is the same person as the boy narrator of Fateless, only twenty years older, what happened to that earlier promise? The answer, I think, might involve a defeat by changelessness and submersion. In the post-Holocaust reality of Stalinism, a remarkable new world was always under construction in which there was ultimately to be no more violence, and for which no sacrifice would be too great. On the one side stood the inert, torpid mass of humanity, and on the other, leaders, giants and geniuses, magnifying self and will in an orgy of license—destroying the culture, destroying the personality, disregarding meaning and pursuing only one aim, regarding the individual as nothing more than raw material for a beautiful future.

In light of the postwar horror—everything different and nothing changed—young George’s spiritual awakening would seem preposterous: his not giving in to hatred, not making any concessions to violence, not allowing passions to become blind. He would have learned there could be no effective response to human evil. He would have had to consider Camus’s understanding of hubris in The Rebel, a work that finds humanism writ large culpable for totalitarianism: nation-state, proletarian dictatorship, modern technology all worshipped the same divinity—human empowerment itself.

Here he was, he must have thought mockingly, enveloped as ever in a closed system of injustice and violence, striving for the impossibility of justice. One can surmise that a chemistry combining revelation and mockery transforms him from Kertész’s survivor of Fateless to Blanchot’s survivor of Kaddish.

In truth, he would have recognized, he was nobody, a cipher, worn down past the nub to the point where all values had been exterminated, and driven by an inner need to pay off an unpayable debt for not having died with the others. Worse, perhaps, comes the frenzied thought that he has been made into a bald child in a red gown and made to stand before a mirror—horribly molested without a moment’s relief, in preparation for his future, with the approval and cooperation of his mother and father. Their bitter divorce put him in that boarding school for five years, when he was just a boy of five; he’d been relentlessly reduced and molested by his Jewish upbringing from the time of his disgusting childhood.

So the George of Fateless becomes the crushed victim of Kaddish, which hardly means that he has grown indifferent to politics. Rather—as one victim has put it, “if you could lick my heart you’d know how I feel”—he now wants what he judges to be the vile satisfaction of justice. Justice requires rage and hatred in order that the perpetrators may be swept into the truth of their atrocities. He would drag the German people through the foul swamps of hell, the collective lot of them—civil servants, businessmen, army officers, scientists, physicians, healthcare workers, judges, lawyers, academics, clergymen, ordinary people believing murderous anti-Semitism to be respectable and normal. The mountainous pile of dead Jews simply did not shock them: people from good families, young people with mothers and dreams, who drowned Jews in urine and pools of excrement.

His point, he sees, drawing himself back from such atrocities, is that the good Volk felt no pity or guilt. Chuckling, they continue to chuckle, chuck chuck. And if he does recall that when he was liberated from Auschwitz there hovered a moment of grace, a warming, a flooding of hope, when he was able to mourn without bitterness, the memory now enrages him. Chuck chuck:

The Jews have plenty of banknotes,
But they only pay pennies to you.
They take a bath on Thursday,
And on Friday night they screw.

One wonders whether Kertész has managed to escape the bitterness of his narrator in Kaddish. In Dostoevsky there is only one way beyond such feelings, the way spelled out by Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, with Ivan specifically in mind: one must shun, above all things, indignation at the evildoings of other people. The love that makes a proper Russian bow, humbling himself before the temptation to judge and taking upon himself the crime of the person his heart is judging, is the moral force necessary to reform human nature. Thus Ivan, who declares his allegiance to the earth, to the senses, and to his Euclidean mind—who concludes that there can be no justification for the horrors of the world, and that no apology for God is possible—is frozen outside the circle of Christian love. Zossima’s teachings end with the instructive example of Ivan’s spiritual condition. Having denied his “precious mystic sense . . . with the higher heavenly world,” he has willfully cast himself out into Augustine’s “region of unlikeness,” apart from God where, incapable of love, “[he lives] upon [his] vindictive pride like a starving man in the desert sucking blood out of his own body.”13

The implied narrator in each of Dostoevsky’s great novels orchestrates a debate between the claims of justice and those of compassion, which invariably comes down to egoism versus obedience to God (understood through worship). At stake in the end is freedom, a resurrected new beginning—the possibility of being fateless, in the sense of being bound by nothing foreordained. Dostoevsky shows the implied narrator’s deep personal investment in these debates in the self-portrait he drew in 1854 just after being released from penal servitude:

I can tell you about myself that I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, and the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And, despite all this, God sends me moments of great tranquillity, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others; and it was during such a moment that I formed within myself a symbol of faith in which all is clear and sacred for me. This symbol is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn’t, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that—if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.14

For Simone Weil, in contrast, there is no argument between the logic of human justice and the mysteries of divine will. Although Weil (the Jewish-born French philosopher and Christian mystic who died in 1943) probably never discovered that Jews were being slaughtered in death camps, she seems to have the Shoah in mind in her late essay entitled “The Love of God and Affliction”:

Affliction . . . stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement which crime logically should produce but actually does not. Evil dwells in the heart of the criminal without being felt there. It is felt in the heart of the man who is afflicted. . . . and it even seems to be in proportion to the innocence of those who are afflicted.15

It marks them, Weil says, as a wounded hen attracts the other hens, who attack it with their beaks. The afflicted are despised, scorned, and hated as if they themselves were the criminals, and they consent to the scorn, hatred, and revulsion, and turn them inward to “penetrate to the center of the soul and from there color the whole universe with their poisoned light.”

And what is the meaning of God, and where is God, during such a disaster, in which even small children know themselves to be accursed? Her answer: “All the horrors which come about in this world are like the folds imposed upon the waves by gravity.” Thus men cannot escape crude necessity; but they have the choice of whether or not to consent to it. Those who consent “[appreciate] in necessity the infinite sweetness of obedience.” By consenting, the afflicted share the experience of the abandoned Christ on the Cross, who wavers but does not cease to love God. “He whose soul remains ever turned in the direction of God” “can . . . come into the very presence of God.” Understood in these terms, being a Jew in Auschwitz can be a supreme opportunity.

I think nothing could be more radically antipathetic to Kertész than Weil’s inspired obedience. If someone succeeded in proving to him that Weil’s conception of the scheme of things was absolutely the truth, he would sooner remain with his imperfect understanding, even if the alternative meant being like his narrator in Kaddish. Better the intoxication of bitterness than going to the mass grave in the company of the rabbi and other distinguished citizens, all wearing their prayer shawls and tefillin, carrying the Torah and singing songs on the way. “[B]eing touched by a belief in an otherworldly order, in providence, in metaphysical justice,” he says in his Nobel Lecture, is “falling into the trap of self-deception, and thus running aground, going under, severing the deep and tortured ties with the millions who perished and who never knew mercy.” “No, there must be love,”16 Kertész said in a 2002 interview, by which he means, however, human love, which is the only hope for recovery, the only miracle. That is what he means when he says in that same interview, “Auschwitz is my greatest treasure.” The narrator of Kaddish is lost because he cannot finally open his heart to human love. Kertész prefers the truth to being redeemed by what he judges to be a lie, and his is a bitter truth, sustained in the face of agony by the possibility of human love. For this writer, clarity about the Holocaust’s insidious and tormenting reality demands unfailing vigilance, and he has shown himself to be a guide familiar with the depths.


1. Imre Kertész, Fateless, trans. Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992); Imre Kertész, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, trans. Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1997). A third book by Kertész will be published in English in October 2004: Liquidation, trans. Tim Wilkinson (New York: Alfred K. Knopf).
2. Samuel Beckett, Stories & Texts for Nothing (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 114.
3. György Spiró, “In Art Only the Radical Exists,” The Hungarian Quarterly 43 (Winter 2002), 29–37.
4. Kertész, “Luck and Catastrophe,” interview with Iris Radisch, 17 October 2002, published in Die Zeit (Hamburg, Germany), reprinted in World Press Review, January 2003: 33.
5. From Nobel Lecture, “Heureka!” given 7 December 2002, at the Swedish Academy. Available online at
6. Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, trans. Justin O’Brien (1960; reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 62–63.
7. René Char, entry 123, “Leaves of Hypnos, A War Journal (1943–1944)” Hypnos Waking, ed. and trans. Jackson Mathews (New York: Random House, 1956), 129. René Char wrote this war journal in 1943–44 and dedicated it to Albert Camus.
8. Albert Camus writing to Jean Grenier, 21 January 1948. See Correspondence, 1932–1960, ed. Marguerite Dobrenn (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), 141. Quoted in Susan Tarrow, Exile from the Kingdom: A Political Rereading of Albert Camus (University, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1985), 139.
9. Nobel Banquet Speech, 10 December 2002, available online at
10. Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
11. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
12. Aharon Appelfeld, Katerina, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (New York: Random House, 1992), 29.
13. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Random House Modern Library, 1950), 384–85, 388.
14. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Selected Letters, ed. Joseph Frank and David I. Goldstein, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 68.
15. Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting on God, trans. Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1952), 66.
16. Kertész, “Luck and Catastrophe,” 33.