By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Imre Kertész, the Hungarian-Jewish author who survived Nazi death camp Auschwitz as a teenager and later won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his Holocaust-inspired works, has died.
The 86-year-old passed away Thursday, March 31, at 4 am local time following a long illness, said book publishing firm Magvető Kiadó in a statement. Kertész was the first Hungarian national to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, though Hungarians had already won Nobel science awards.
He once told a BosNewsLife reporter that the Prize had been “the biggest surprise” in his life. He called it “the highlight” of his writing career he had dedicated to his experiences in Auschwitz.
The Swedish Academy said it awarded Kertész the $1 million Nobel Prize because the author “upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.”
It singled out his 1975 debut novel, “Sorstalanság” (“Fateless”), in which he writes about a boy who is detained and taken to a concentration camp but conforms and survives.
“NO EXCEPTIONAL OCCURRENCE”
“For him Auschwitz is not an exceptional occurrence,” the Academy said about the author. “It is the ultimate truth about human degradation in modern experience.”
Kertész, a Jew born in Budapest, was only 14 when he was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. “As a child you have a certain trust in life. But when something like Auschwitz happens, everything falls apart,” he once said.
But he also told Newsweek magazine in 2002: “You cannot imagine what it’s like to be allowed to lie in the camp’s hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labour.” And Kertész noted: “To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.”
Kertész was among the few people who survived that camp and was later transferred to the Buchenwald camp in Germany from where he was liberated in 1945. Some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, including as many as 600,000 Hungarian-Jews, according to several estimates.
After returning to his native Budapest, Kertész struggled to make a living. He worked as a journalist and translator, but faced tensions with the Communist regime that ruled Hungary for decades following World War II.
Besides journalism, Kertész spent his time translating into Hungarian the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Elias Canetti in what he described as a small apartment overlooking the Danube River.
And he tried to find a new way of writing, including operettas, to make a living. “A friend suggested that I write operettas, so that’s what I did. He was a very successful Broadway author…,”he told The Paris Review magazine in an extensive interview in 2013.
It took him between 1960 and 1973 to write novel Fateless, the story of a boy’s survival in a concentration camp.
“I would spend my evenings at this friend’s house, talk about operettas and all manner of things, but all of a sudden I would start thinking about my novel. A sentence would come to me. I wouldn’t talk about it and would just sit there—no one would’ve been able to tell, ” Kertész said.
“‘I like the turnip better than the carrot’,that kind of sentence, declarative and unspectacular—I can’t reconstruct the sentence exactly, but at one point it dawned on me that this was going to be the method of my novel’,” the writer recalled.
“Unremarkable as such a line may be, it illuminates the novel’s fundamental principle—my having to craft a new language. It’s quite funny that one sentence should bring this whole business to life.”
Fateless was rejected for publication at first by Communist censors and was finally released in 1975. But it was largely ignored in Hungary, though hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were killed by the Nazis backed by Hungarian fascists.
That changed in 2002 when the Nobel Prize helped him to become one of Hungary’s most appreciated authors: The film Fateless was produced and his book became part of the national curriculum. Asked by Hungarian journalists what he would do with the $1 million Nobel award, Kertész asked understanding that he had lived in a twenty-eight-square-meter flat with his wife, had faced troubles in war and communism, and that he hoped to improve his life somewhat, a BosNewsLife reporter recalled.
However most of the years following his award he remained in Berlin. He was disappointed in politics and anti-Semitism in his and other countries. “The world doesn’t know that to be anti-Semite means something else before Auschwitz than after…Those who are anti-Semites after Auschwitz want a new Auschwitz…,” he said in an interview in 2011.
In Hungary he wasn’t optimistic about the political changes following the collapse of communism in 1989. “I am very said that one didn’t make use of the [more than] 20 years that have passed,” Kertész explained, referring to the deep divisions between the opposition and government.
“And they don’t even know why they didn’t make use of it. [More than] 20 years ago Hungary was in a unique situation, to create something new, a new ideology, but they didn’t take the chance, to reconsider everything and to see how they lived in the past,” he stressed.
Kertész warned: “As long as there is no political will to create a progress of cooperation and consensus, nothing will happen. Of hatred and sour stomachs one cannot create politics.”
In a reaction, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schultz, said on his twitter website that he is “sad to learn” about the passing of Imre Kertész. He said the author had been a “witness of the lowest point of humanity.”
Yet, in his life Kertész learned that even post-Auschwitz, good is still out of the ordinary. “Modern life is organized so that you benefit at the expense of the other, and the most extreme example of that is a camp,” he once explained.
Imre Kertész is survived by his second wife, Magda. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.