“Auschwitz,” he famously said, “is everywhere.”
In essence, this was a principal argument of the Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész, a Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor, who died Thursday morning at age 86. As a teenager, Kertész was among the nearly 440,000 Hungarian Jews deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp between May and June 1944, in the final stages of Adolf Hitler's Final Solution. He emerged from that horror into a world that replaced Nazism with Stalinism, but the Holocaust would remain the eternal subject of his fiction.
"Fatelessness" (1975), his best-known novel, is the semi-autobiographical story of a teenage boy in Auschwitz; it is the first in a series of works that includes "Fiasco" (1988), "Kaddish for an Unborn Child" (1990), and "Dossier K." (2006), the memoir that followed his 2002 Nobel Prize in literature. For Kertész, the Holocaust was ultimately a metaphor for what was always immediately beneath the surface of a seemingly civilized modernity: “It was not very likely, of course, but then all kinds of things are possible, after all,” he would write in "Fatelessness."
As he said when criticizing Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster 1993 film, "Schindler’s List," the point of Holocaust-related art was to emphasize that fundamental immediacy: “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.” Auschwitz, in other words, is everywhere.
In 2013, Kertész, then in the final stages of his battle with Parkinson’s disease, gave an extended interview to the Paris Review at his home in Berlin. The writer described how the Nazi regime “was a machine working so efficiently that most people did not even have the chance to understand the events they lived through.” As he would say of his literary motivations: “I tried to wrangle out the truth somehow, to tell a story that cannot be told.” And then this: “I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon’s head.”
What he was, in the end, was a witness. As he told the Paris Review:
"I was able use my own life to study how somebody can survive this particularly cruel brand of totalitarianism. I didn’t want to commit suicide, but then I didn’t want to become a writer either — at least not initially. I rejected that idea for a long time, but then I realized that I would have to write, write about the astonishment and the dismay of the witness — Is that what you are going to do to us? How could we survive something like this, and understand it, too?"