by Lisa Lieberman
I could not swallow that idiotic bitterness that I should merely be innocent.
Imre Kertész, Fatelessness
Something akin to survivor's guilt is at the core of Imre Kertész's novel, Fatelessness (1975), a fictionalized account of the year he spent while still a teenager interned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Published during the so-called “soft dictatorship” of the communist leader János Kádár, the book did not sell many copies in Hungary, and no wonder: György Köves, its young narrator, does not want us to feel sorry for him. “I was aware that I was about to start writing a novel that might easily turn into a tearjerker, not least because the novel's protagonist is a boy,” Kertész said in a recent interview.
He needn't have worried. György insists that he was complicit in his fate. “Everyone took steps as long as he was able to take a step; I too took my own steps, and not just in the queue at Birkenau, but even before that, here, at home.” This comes perilously close to admitting the charge that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter, that through their passivity, they colluded in their own destruction. As if anticipating the objection, Kertész voices it through one of his minor characters. Old Fleischmann, György's former neighbor, was not deported, escaped being murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross, and endured the siege of Budapest. He lived while others (including György's father) died, and yet he cannot hold himself to blame for his survival. “So it's us who're the guilty ones, is it? Us, the victims!” But György refuses to back down. Even though he recognizes the futility of explaining his views to those like old Fleischmann, who urge him to put the horrors of Auschwitz behind him in order to live, “it was not quite true,” he maintains stubbornly, “that the thing ‘came about'; we had gone along with it too.”
Blaming the Victim
The most famous—or perhaps I should say notorious—articulation of this argument is Hannah Arendt's criticism of the Judenräte. Jewish councils set up by the Nazis in the ghettos of cities in occupied countries containing large Jewish populations (and in smaller Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe) helped implement the Final Solution, surrendering their members for deportation in the misguided hope that by cooperating with the Germans they might save at least some from extermination. In fact, the Nazis counted on this cooperation. Without it, Arendt claimed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1961), “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.” The Nazi functionary who was “just following orders” was no more and no less a monster than the Jewish leader who distributed Yellow Star badges, organized the relocation of Jews to the ghettos, put together transport lists and raised money from the deportees themselves to defray the expenses of their travel to the death camps. Each refused to accept moral responsibility for his actions, yet each could have chosen otherwise.
Arendt further blurred the distinction between Nazi perpetrators and victims in the essay “Personal Responsibility and Dictatorship” (1964), her response to those critics of the Eichmann book, including her friend Gershom Scholem, who said that we should not judge the Judenräte because we were not there. Not only the Jewish leadership, but even ordinary Jewish citizens in Hitler's Europe enabled genocide to take place, she contended:
The extermination of the Jews was preceded by a very gradual sequence of anti-Jewish measures, each of which was accepted with the argument that refusal to cooperate would make things worse—until a stage was reached when nothing worse could possibly have happened.
György's response to old Fleischmann is very much along these lines, and decades later, Kertész continues to assert that he brought his fate upon himself. “I behaved in a way that made me a member of the tacit, looming conspiracy against my life.” But he allows his protagonist a measure of peace at the book's end. “I am here,” György thinks, looking around his old neighborhood, “weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises.” He will accept any rationale as the price for being able to live; it is only human, after all, to want to live.
Such generosity comes as a surprise after the bleak and bitter chronicle leading up to it, especially since it follows the heated exchange with old Fleischmann, the only time György loses his cool. In the space of a page, Kertész abandons his detachment, the accusatory tone of his narrative voice, forgiving himself as well as his audience. Reading Fatelessness as a work of Holocaust testimony, this redemptive turn feels forced, unearned. And yet the 2005 film version, Fateless, for which Kertész wrote the screenplay, ends in exactly the same way. Further complicating matters, the author resists the label of “Holocaust writer.” Kertész used the ordeal of the death camps to talk about something more universal, and more timely: daily life under under a totalitarian dictatorship. He wrote about Auschwitz in the extended present, he said in a speech he delivered in Berlin in 2000.
The Tastes of Auschwitz
Kertész gained a perspective on the brutality he accommodated himself to as a boy in the Lagers by recognizing the degradation he continued to tolerate as a man during the Kádár era. The Stalinist regime under which he came of age, with its torturers, its secret prisons and work camps, its network of informers and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, mirrored the world into which he was thrust at age fourteen. In Dossier K (2006), the memoir he published after receiving the Nobel Prize, he claimed that he would never have understood his ordeals had he grown up in a democracy. The regime “revived the tastes of Auschwitz,” he said, in much the same way that Proust's memories were awakened by dipping a madeleine in a cup of tea.
Here too, I find parallels with Arendt. The key feature that united both Nazism and Stalinism, she noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), was how both systems reduced people to the condition of children in order to manipulate them, persuading them to sacrifice their principles and beliefs, to degrade themselves, in return for not having to take responsibility for their immoral acts. Kertész chose to make his narrator a boy not simply because he himself was a child at the time he was deported. “I invented the boy precisely because anyone in a dictatorship is kept in a childlike state of ignorance and helplessness.” But ultimately he refuses to condemn his protagonist or himself. Looking back on his younger self after he returned from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész sees only “a fundamentally cheerful young man, who is greedy for life and will not allow anyone or anything to put him off.” Naturally he collaborated with the regime, naturally he took steps; “there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally,” György says at the end of the novel.
What Kertész cannot accept are the artistic renderings of the destruction of Europe's Jews that employ euphemisms—including the word “Holocaust”—that obscure the reality of the death camps. Or voyeurs like Steven Spielberg “who integrate the Holocaust into the aeons of suffering in the history of the Jewish people and, ignoring the mountains of corpses, the rubble heap of Europe, the breakdown of all values,” as Kertész sees it, “celebrate the eternal story of survival to the accompaniment of triumphal music and color photography.” Equally offensive are accounts that focus on the gruesome details, the “ugly literature of horrors.”
When he wrote the screenplay for Fateless, Kertész struggled to translate the stark, matter-of-fact language of his book into scenes and images that would not betray its essence. The film has a terrible beauty, a power to unsettle even as it draws viewers in through a combination of stunning cinematography (the director, Lajos Koltai, is first and foremost a cinematographer) and Ennio Morricone's moving score. The fact that the film was made after the fall of communism makes it less universal, perhaps, more of a witness testimony, but one that continues to speak to the Kertész point in Dossier K, that even after Auschwitz, the world order has not changed. The mass movements of the twentieth century, the nationalism and fundamentalisms of today: how is is that the lessons of the death camps have not been absorbed? In the end, I believe he would say, it still comes down to simple decency.