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Arnost Lustig, Holocaust survivor and acclaimed author, dies at 84

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 6:47 PM

Arnost Lustig, a Czech-born fiction writer who drew on his experience as the survivor of three concentration camps to create unsentimental portrayals of life during the Holocaust, died Feb. 26 of cancer in Prague. He was 84.

Mr. Lustig, a retired professor of literature at American University, had written more than a dozen novels and short story collections since the late 1950s. He won acclaim for his finely rendered portraits of people who confront terrible choices - and manage to commit tiny acts of great heroism - during the most horrific of times.

His books included "Dita Saxova," which traces the struggles of a woman tormented by her survival after so many have died at the hands of the Nazis; "A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova," about a rebellion at the Auschwitz concentration camp; and "Night and Hope," a cinematic collection of stories about the profound losses and small consolations of life inside a death camp.

Mr. Lustig also wrote from the perspective of Germans living under Nazi rule, as in "Indecent Dreams," an acclaimed story collection published in 1988.

He found creative inspiration in the details of his past: As a teenager, he had been imprisoned at Theresienstadt, a Nazi ghetto/concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. He was later taken to Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Mr. Lustig was en route to a likely death at another camp, Dachau, when an Allied bomber strafed his train and he escaped. He later refashioned his story of survival in "Darkness Casts No Shadow," a largely autobiographical tale that New York Times book reviewer Johanna Kaplan called "a hidden classic."

After the war, Mr. Lustig made his way to the United States, where he joined the faculty of American University in 1973. He taught there until 2003, when he retired and returned to live full time in Prague.

During his Holocaust-era incarceration, Mr. Lustig had seen his father sent to the gas chambers - watched as "a purple fire flashed from the chimneys," Mr. Lustig later wrote, "glowing a deeper purple before turning into the evil-reeking black smoke."

He had watched his mother stripped nude and paraded before crowds by Nazi soldiers. Dozens in his extended family were killed.

But he also witnessed the great generosity and kindness of strangers, including Germans. When he was ill with typhus, for example, fellow prisoners held him up by the arms to prevent guards from discovering his condition and sending him to the ovens.

Set against a backdrop of genocide and pain, Mr. Lustig's novels and stories were filled with such moments of morality and humanity.

"I met so many very beautiful people during those years and most of them died," he once said. "The only way to bring them back to life is to write about them. This is my responsibility."

His spare prose earned him comparisons to Ernest Hemingway; his restrained style brought critical praise "for drawing his readers into the orbit of atrocity," wrote the author Lawrence L. Langer in The Washington Post, "without drowning them in a language of passionate outrage."

He was a two-time recipient of the National Jewish Book Award and in 2009 was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. He also was one of three writers who received an Emmy award for the script of the PBS film "The Precious Legacy," about treasures of Judaica stolen by Nazis for the planned "Museum of an Extinct Race."

Arnost Lustig was born Dec. 21, 1926, into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague.

After the war, he reunited with his mother and sister, both of whom had survived incarceration. He also became reacquainted with a young woman named Vera whom he had first met at Theresienstadt.

They married and had two children, Eva and Josef. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Lustig worked as a radio journalist in Prague and began writing stories and screenplays during the brief flowering of Czech film in the 1960s.

In 1968, he was on vacation in Italy when Soviet troops rolled into Czechoslovakia, ending a period of liberal reform known as the Prague Spring. He and his family fled to Israel and then Yugoslavia.

They moved to the United States in 1970 and settled in Washington a few years later.

At American University, he was known for playing pickup soccer with international students - in the German camps, he had played goalkeeper in a league of prisoners, once winning the Nazi equivalent of an MVP award.

Despite his past, Mr. Lustig had a reputation for optimism. "If a man ceases to feel life is a miracle," he said by way of explanation, "he kills himself."

He returned to Prague regularly after the collapse of Communist rule in 1989. In 2001, one of his trips became the subject of "Fighter," a documentary by director Amir Bar-Lev.

The movie follows Mr. Lustig and his friend Jan Wiener - a fellow Czech-born Holocaust survivor - as they retrace Wiener's flight from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

The pair's friendship falters as they confront each other over conflicting memories of the past. The movie asks "unanswerable questions," wrote Times film critic Stephen Holden, "about memory, imagination, history and that elusive thing we call truth."

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