New Work by Geo Kozmos
Geo Kozmos lives in Budapest, Hungary and is currently working on his PhD degree. An excerpt his novel, Nijinsky the Golem can be found on SF Salvo.
Psychological Portrait of a Pre-1945 Antisemite
A Review of Imre Kertesz's Fateless
by Geo Kozmos
Nolens volens: Id-ens
Rogers Brubaker’s ideas can be seen as a new attempt to show the shallowness of communitarian, unitary, social-activist and religious “identity-seeking”.
In this article I would like to look closer at the deconstruction of the concept of “identity” in Rogers Brubaker’s articles, presenting it as consisting of three layers.
In the last part of the article I will try to focus on the limits of the effectiveness of his endeavour, claiming, that the most important part of the usages of "identities" refers to "honor" and makes its use always ambiguous.
Brubaker finds three layers in the word “identity”. The first layer (conforming to the Latin word id meaning the gender-neutral level of "it", of self, of "that-ness" , a directional pronoun) consists of “selfness” /or thing-ness/. In the first part of the article I will concentrate on this level - showing that this level has it’s share of responsibility for the notion’s subsequent misuse in an essentialist bias, as Brubaker describes it.
Thing-ness is leading to an “essentialist” usage of the term “identity”, since it points to something apart from us or bigger than us.
The second level is referring to the comparing gesture involved in “identity” - “sameness” , the factor of continuity in change. It is based on the Latin word “ens”, the “be-er”, being-ness. In the second part I will try to show that Brubaker sees the contradiction, that “being” is too general and abstract a notion to convey the very variability and flux of “sameness”, and he consequently argues that the term itself is useless in an analytic context.
The third level comprises the denotative function of “groupness”. In the Latin original version it can be related to the suffix “-as”, relating to the formal adverbial quality, the “ness-ness”, which is responsible for the concept’s reifying capabilities, that Brubaker deplores.
Id’s very gender-neutrality caused the fashion of using “identity” as a basis of self-description, especially since one of the main novelties in post-nationalist “group-belongings” happened to be the “discovery” of new gender identities as viable alternatives to old engagements.
This neutrality leads us frequently to "reification", as Blubaker points out:
' The problem is that they are used …in a reifying manner, as if “nations” , “races” and “identities” “exist” and that people “have” a “nationality” a “race” an “identity”.' / Brubaker, Rogers and Frederick Cooper: Beyond Identity (I: Theory and Society, 2000 August. p. 10./
The Second Level
The problem with word “ens” (in Greek “on”) begins with the fact that it is the name of the Unique God in the Hebrew tradition (the Be-er, Existentiator if we translate the word “ya/h/v/e”), and it is clear that a word which encompasses simply everything easily changes its character. It is from this overarching quality that the notion gets its extreme strength and (at least periodical) salience and validity, not to say “authenticity” (which stems from the same word).
It is on these first two levels that the word’s “unifying”, “decoupling” “discriminating”, “just-this-ness” rests.
Those thinkers who consider identities “soft” or “multiple” have always had difficulties with the word, Brubaker claims.
For example James Waldron speaks about multiple identities, seeing that identity has in fact no connection to integrity and unification. A modern man does not think of himself as determined by just one culture, he can live in Budapest and be of Polish ancestry, singing Schubert songs, learning Arabic on a Chinese VCR and meditating in a Jewish way, eating American, wearing Italian shoes, Waldron argues. We can use the term ‘multiple identity’ without getting engulfed in ambiguities and we also are able to listen to multiple inner voices - Waldron considers the self to be like “a group of friends” -, all these together will not destruct our personal identity (nor will our integrity be deficient for all this.)
Some groups point to the existence of hyphenated identities, like Italo-American, says another scholar, in which one is the political identity, the other refers to a cultural identity with no political claims.
/ Michael Walzer, The Politics of Difference Statehood and Toleration in a Multicultural World in The Politics of Toleration, Susan Mendus ed. p.251. /
The “-as” (of “identitas”) , the “-ty” : the adjectival-adverbial use of the word makes the group-ness application possible, since adjectives are connecting different “entities”.
Brubaker wants to minimize the use of the term “identity” because he thinks that its “solidity” (that can be “had”) causes emotional and possibly political disturbances. As Bikhu Parekh similarly argues, nationalism (even if presented by the liberal wing, like David Miller’s version) is dangerous, because it forces us to identify with ancestors or co-citizens and both can lead us to excess.
'Conservative nationalists see the nation in the image of a family, invest it with familial emotions and think of historical predecessors as ancestors and forefathers (but not foremothers) who deserve to be approached in a spirit of piety and reverence. …they argue that…nations lift their members above their petty individual lives, link them up with something bigger and more enduring, give them a sense of meaning and.' / Bikhu Parekh, The Incoherence of Nationalism, R. Benier ed., Theorizing Nationism p. 298/
'David Miller argues that accounts of origin contain much falsehood and mythology but it is fully justified if it supports valuable social relations. Miller thinks that dismantling assimilation involves an unacceptable degree of moral and cultural coercion.' / op. Cit. P. 304./
Parekh adds to this the paradox that the fact of belonging to a nation (“hungarianness”) maybe gives some “meaning to life”, but it is always illusory and transient.
Parekh says that we all are bearers of multiple identities, being gendered, engaging in professions, speaking languages, belonging to religious communities.
It is quite frequent, he goes on to argue, that people do have parallel loyalties, being attached to several countries.
A very conservative person will not have much in common with a bohemian even if they come from the same national background. The main problem with nationalism being that their guardians tend to give too much power to the state (which they consider the material side of the nation), and that nationalists are afraid of diversity and finds it difficult to see outsiders in an accepting manner.
We all probably meet an ever growing number of people who do live in “mixed heritage” families. I met many people in my generation, who were raised in an ambiance where national groupness or identity terms were not mentioned, so people tended to find out about their ancestors only after the collapse of the “socialist” regime. Statistics of Andras Kovacs (in: Kovacs, Andras and Fischer, Gyorgy, Anti-Semitism Among Hungarian College and University Students, International Perspectives 27. 1994. 8 20 pp.) show that contrary to the pre-war period the majority of Jews today live in “mixed marriages”. That can help to develop a less nation-centred mentality, but must not necessarily lessen the cohesion of a group. The same is true of traditional “civil war” mentality that did split ancient groups and still did not decrease the feeling of national unity permanently. Tsadikim and Pharisees, Karaites and Rabbanites, Reformers and Orthodoxim, Hasidim and Mitnagedim, Assimilationists and Zionists and Religionists can have prolonged intense conflict and still consider each other “brothers/sisters” in everyday life.
It is important to present Michael Ignatieff’s thoughts on the matter, because he simply cuts off the dangers of "groupism" by stressing the importance of individualism.
Michael Ignatieff says that individualism is the most important antidote for extreme nationalism.
He thinks that intolerance sees only the group differences and ignores the differences between individuals... Intolerant people are not curious, or interested in the individuals of the groups they despise. They don’t see “them” as individuals at all. ‘They are unable to perceive themselves as individuals.' / Michael Ignatieff: Nationalism and Toleration, Blood and Belonging: Journeys Into the New Nationalism , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, p. 83./
'The notorious phrase ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’ recognizes in bitter joking form the uncomfortable lack of consonance between actual real individual Jews one knows and the abstracted stereotypes one persists in believing in. When Othello is tormented by jealousy towards Desdemona he finds himself struggling with a process of abstraction in which the Desdemona he loves is reduced by paranoia from the particular woman he loves to a white woman it is conventional for black man to hate. A camp commandant who begins to spare his Jewish lovers will not be a camp commandant very long…/Ignatieff, op.cit. p. 103. /
'One side has a standing interest in keeping relation enclosed within the abstraction of collective prejudice…to prevent those moments of human recognition which make intolerance ashamed.' Ignatieff thoughts show that individuality can help to control the excess group-belonging, but also that if we are able to focus on individuality, then group identities are not imposing or frightening in themselves. They can be relished in as interesting features of our fellow citizen. Brubaker has difficulty imagining anything valuable in group identity. For him ‘identity’ sometimes simply equals ‘groupness’.
Brubaker’s contention, that the overuse of the word “identity” corrupted some of the talk on “identity” rests on two pillars: the conceptual development of linguistically based philosophies (post-modernist thinkers finding new usages of old words) and the historically relevant changes in the (collective) perceptions of the proliferating and co-existing new worlds and subcultures of different “identities”.
In the last part of this Article I would like to mention a few questions concerning the deconstruction of “identity” in Brubakers’ papers.
He describes a few instances in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in which he finds hope, that extreme nationalist discourse and acting out will not be overwhelming in these newly independent regions.
Although it is probably arguable that “nationalism” and groupism is not always sweeping and even if it is only for a short period - I think that the concepts he proposes (though only for analytical use, which he sharply distinguishes from everyday usage) are not able to contain all the necessary practical, real-life connotations.
' The boundary between Hungarians and Romanians in Transylvania is sharper...The language of politics and everyday life is rigorously categorical, dividing the population into mutually exclusive ethno-national categories. But this code, important though it is as a constituent element of social relations, should not be taken for a faithful description of them. …The code masks' fluidity arises from mixed marriages, from bilingualism, from migration, from Hungarian children attending Romanian language schools, from intergenerational assimilation and from sheer indifference to the claims of ethnocultural nationality.
Identity is always already there as something that individuals or groups have even if the context and the boundaries are conceptualized as always in a flux. / Brubaker, Rogers and Frederick Cooper: Beyond Identity (I: Theory and Society, 2000 August) p. 47. /
Brubaker states, that ' "Group" functions as a seemingly unproblematic, taken-for-granted concept, apparently in no need of particular scrutiny or explication. As a result, we tend to take for granted not only the concept "group," but also "groups" -- the putative things-in-the-world to which the concept refers. This is what I will call groupism: the tendency to take discrete, sharply differentiated, internally homogeneous and externally bounded groups as basic constituents of social life, chief protagonists of social conflicts, and fundamental units of social analysis. I mean the tendency to reify such groups, speaking of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Albanians in the former Yugoslavia, of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, of Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, of Turks and Kurds in Turkey, or of Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the U.S. as if they were internally homogeneous, externally bounded groups, even unitary collective actors with common purposes.' And he adds, maybe even more importantly: ' In this very general sense, groupism extends well beyond the domain of ethnicity, race, and nationalism to include accounts of putative groups based on gender, sexuality, age, class, abledness, religion, minority status, and any kind of "culture," as well as putative groups based on combinations of these categorical attributes.' / Brubaker, "Ethnicity without groups" op. Cit. P.2. /
Self-understanding, comparison and groupness are beautiful analytical constructs - the ambiguity and emotional projectability conveniently lacks in them. But, when we look closely at the original “it-ness”, “being-ness” and “communality” we find the lack of the possibility of value-assertions (practically self-respect and feeling of belonging / which, some contend, raises the level of serotonin the hormone-like material responsible for satiety and satisfaction. /
Sometimes Brubaker seems to perceive this:
He criticizes Calhoun /writing on Tienanmen 3 june 89 /, that he subsumes honor (as an imperative) under the rubric of identity bravery to the point of apparent foolishness /C. Calhoun, The Problem of Identity in Collective Action in Joan Huber ed,., Macro Micro Linkages in Sociology , Newbury Park CA Sage 1991, (p. 24.) in Brubaker, Rogers and Frederick Cooper: Beyond Identity (In: Theory and Society, 2000 August)/ p. 68. /
“ Identity politics is a demand for recognition. A fair exchange of reasons will determine which identities are reasonable and so worthy of recognition and which are unreasonable and so either prohibited or at least not publicly supportable.” / James Tully: Multicultural and multinational citizenship….? P. 227. /
'Toleration emerges as a doctrine, within the concept of reconceptualization of society itself, a s an organism bound together, not by ties of birth and ascription, be they ethnic or confessional, but by the new ties of interest, property and rights.' / op.cit. p. 91./
‘Elements of Personal dignity and pride connected to economic performance were summarily stripped away by the operations of the capitalist market, dignity and pride came to repose exclusively in the one unlosable marker of identity which was skin colour…Tattoos of flags can be seen wherever individuals are forced by economic circumstances into exclusively collective routes for assertion of personal identity and pride. Racism is the pride of those trapped in collective identities. If the market fails…20 mill unemployed in Europe…then it does create the conditions in which individuals must turn to group hatreds in order to assert and defend their identities. / Brubaker, Rogers and Frederick Cooper: Beyond Identity (In: Theory and Society, 2000 August). 102./
I think, that all three levels of the brubakerian "identity" re-construction are connected to "honor", self-esteem. The determining factor in "id", the "sameness" (and comparing) in "ens/entis" and the abstract "belonging" (groupness) of "-tas/-ty" are all participating in the construction of (individual and group) self-esteem. The concept of "identity" is a bridge between "groupness" (like nationalism, racism) and individuality. Consequently, there will always be limits of minimizing its ambiguity.
Brubaker tries to explain part of that ambiguity by making a sharp distinction between the practical use of the "identifying" terms and the analytical one:
'One does not have to take a category inherent in the practice of nationalism -the realist, reifying conception of nation has real communities - and make this category central to the theory of nationalism. Nor does one have to use “race” as a category of analysis - which risks taking for granted that “race” exists - in order to understand and analyze social …practices oriented to the presumed existence of putative races.
We should avoid reproducing or reinforcing such reification by adopting categories of practice as categories of analysis.' / Brubaker, Rogers and Frederick Cooper: Beyond Identity (In: Theory and Society, 2000 August) P.10/
He is also stressing the fact that most "identity conflicts" are less critical, and their solution is more elusive, than it is supposed in most everyday (or journalistic, propagandistic) use:
' 'nation' belongs to the class of "essentially contested" concepts: the chronic contestedness is therefore intrinsic to nationalist politic…the search for an overall "architectural" resolution of national conflicts is misguided in principle and often disastrous in practice.' / Brubaker, Myths and Misconceptions in the Study of Nationalism, p. 9. In: John Hall, ed. Ernest Gellner and the Theory of Nationalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998. /
' ethnic and nationalist conflict has been both less violent and less salient than many commentators have suggested...a kind of "background noise" occurring far from the focus of everyday life, rather than acute and exclusive' / Brubaker op. Cit. P. 15./
Although I do agree that on an analytical level the emotion-less usage of the term is highly commendable, and this might help us to see those aspects of the problem, that make it (identity crisis) less frightening, still, Brubaker sees clearly, that we cannot change the everyday (and political) usage of these terms, and they will continue to be "often disastrous".
Psychological Portrait of a Pre-1945 Antisemite
A case study of Pre War Writer Emma Ritoók
by Geo Kozmos
Emma Ritoók, (1868-1945) the well-known Hungarian writer had a period as a political propagandist of Anti-Semitism, while having had intense contacts with important Jews of the 10s and 20s: G. Lukács, B. Balázs, and Ernst Bloch were her friends.
From her manuscript diary and from her novels one can discern a woman who was not comfortable in her gender role as a woman and her political views served to cover her inner void and the anti-Jewish (and other) phobias serve to create a feeling of self-worth and of “we”, of an (endangered) community, and its task is to rally siblings - it is quite possible to argue, then, that those prone to this compulsive hatred are people with certain patterns of emotional deficit, as Langmuir proposes.
But apart from the Jewish-ness (“Other-ness”) of several main characters it is important to note the other constant and deviant theme: the relation of women to men. When the protagonist is a woman as in her Straight Way All Alone, Big Chance and in Spritual Adventurers, we see women who are finding their mates, but prefer to stay alone. Emma Ritoók had a “great novel” plan, in which she would describe her women ancestors from different generations back to 400 years. The direct ancestor of the Ritoóks are the Homonnai Drugeths (one married to the first Transsylvanian King, John of Szapolya, who was a relative of the Hungarian King, Matthias of Hunyad.)
In view of the co-incidence of Emma Ritoók having been enamored with and befriended by Béla Balázs at the same time as he (Balázs) was in love with the daughter of High Rabbi Immanuel Löw, ( described in Balázs’s Diaries) it is worth mentioning, that it was common knowledge, that the Löws are descendants of the Prague “golem-maker” Rabbi Löw, who was called “Masshiah” (“Anointed”) by his contemporaries in the XVIth century because he was of “Davidic” descent (like e.g. Rashi, Maimonides etc.).
In connection with her pride in her historical kingly ancestors, (self-proclaimed "Hungarian Massiahs", like Prince Bocskai or Bethlen) it is easy to imagine a special amount of jealousy. In several of her novels the main character has a princely marriage in view, like the hero in the Erring Ones (Tévelygők, 1938) who is plotting to marry a friend to the daughter of the Tsar. The plot’s recurring psycho-dramatic role: being lured and then left by a monarchic Marital Fantasy-Father.
She turns to judeo-phobic chimaeras to fill up on her inner emotional vacuum and in order to court a mass popular acceptance, and still she remains echo-less /probably because of her individualistic and liberal stances in art and her immature "love" stories/ in her life-time.
Understanding this special case helps us to see more clearly the sore points of potentially dangerous Anti-Semites, without which we could be unable to defend ourselves effectively.
A Review of Imre Kertesz's Fateless
Published by Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL 1992
Reviewed by Geo Kozmos
For me - a third generation "survivor", my grandfather having been killed in 1944 because he happened to be the Responsible Editor of the German-language newspaper Pester Lloyd, as they said in my family, "not because of his Jewishness", my mother becoming mentally disturbed all through her life and consequently I spent my first months (9 years after the war) in an orphanage, so for me it was not easy to read Kertész' novel on his deportation. But he did indeed cause me a great sigh in relief - in his writings he manages to show the continuity between Auschwitz and the life in after-war Hungary, the life in the "socialist camp", with it's humiliating absurdity that was still somehow hilarious in the same time.
He causes this sense of relief in the reader by the raw documentary style he uses, by the near-quotation dialogue parts, by showing the banal everyday life that makes terror and humiliation even boring, and by showing that life in the camps did not lack happiness either.
Kertész describes in the beginning of his novel the last day (before the labor camp) of his father at the beginning. He is presenting everything through the eyes of a 14-15 year old boy, who is - maybe unconsciously - critical of the grownup world. 'I gave him [the teacher in school] my father's letter asking if I could be excused for personal reasons. My teacher wanted to know the reasons. I told him my father was being conscripted into the labor service. That ended any further objection.' (op. cit. p. 3.)
He is quoting - but not using quotation marks, the quotes sound hilarious, as if said with a tongue-in-cheek restrained irony: 'She said she hoped that on this our dark, dark day she could count on my good behavior.'
'In my fifteenth year as a grownup boy, I could fully grasp the weight of the blow that had fallen upon us. This was her phrasing. I nodded. I saw that this satisfied her. Her hands moved in my direction, and I was almost afraid she was thinking of hugging me. But that did not happen.' (p. 4.)
The same ironic effect is reached by the exact quotation again, in the case of the shopkeeper: ' the shopkeeper said: might I be permitted to ask if perhaps you are shopping for labor camp service? ' (p.8.)
But this 14 year old Jewish boy has a keen sense for reality, his eyes are not to be deceived: 'He tossed me a a piece of bread a few grams short of the allotment. And somehow from his angry glance and his clever movements I understood at that moment why he had no choice but to dislike Jews. For if he liked them, he’d be left with the unpleasant feeling that he was cheating them. This way he acted according to an ideal, to his convictions, and that made everything different, of course.' (p.9.)
Kertész is describing the last evening, the last supper of his father (departing for the labor service): '… my stepmother asked, Are you hungry , I answered, ravenously, straight on, not thinking of anything else, because, after all, that was the case. She piled some food on my plate and barely put anything on hers. My father noticed this and asked why. She said something along the lines that at this particular time her stomach was unable to keep down any kind of food and then I recognized my mistake. ' (p.11.)
With a few words he can show us the typical and common sense hypocrisy and awkwardness of this family gathering: ' I wished my father had already gone. It was a very bad wish, but I felt it clearly. Afterwards I could have cried, but I didn't have time for it because some guests were arriving. My stepmother mentioned earlier: Only the immediate family is coming. After all they want to say goodbye to you, its perfectly natural. The bell was already ringing. Uncle Lajos said of course the happy years of childhood had been brought to a close by today's sad events Jewish fate of millennium of continuing persecutions.' (p. 12.)
He then describes the alienation of the assimilated boy from his ancestors' religious customs: 'I had to accompany him to the outer room facing the courtyard. There we prayed surrounded by some old, unused pieces of furniture. God had to be addressed in Hebrew and I don't speak that language. In order to follow Uncle Lajos, I had to watch closely the movement of his lips. So that the only memory of this event that remained was the spectacle of those very moving fleshy lips. Indeed we had accomplished something about my father's affairs.' (p.16.)
Again, by the lack of quotation marks he can depict the repressed emotions and the strange good-bye from his father: '...tears were going to flow My father, I sensed, was pleased that it happened. He sent me to bed. I was very tired. But so I thought myself, we were still able to send him, poor dear man, off to labor camp with the memory of a beautiful day.' (p. 20.)
The boy is then working with other Jewish boys in a Csepel factory.
A policeman makes him descend his bus, he is sent slowly, through different waiting stages to the Brick Factory and from to Auschwitz. He is using his terse boy-language to describe a few typical survival tactics. We are encountering the expert and the man with the bad luck. The expert is always trying to communicate with higher-ups, pretending he was German and indispensable in the Factory. The man with the bad luck is immersed in his "bad luck" (that he just wanted to bring some medicine to his elderly mother and barely reached the bus and anyway it was so difficult to get the necessary papers to leave the city). Both will die.
The expert is also trying to bribe the policeman - which the boy (at first) cannot understand: 'Then a certain confidential sugary smile appeared on his face and at the same time he gradually turned around and approached the policeman. At the same time I noticed a strange motion. I didn't completely comprehend it at first it seemed as as if he was trying to reach for something in his inside pocket. Some important document maybe…But he never completed the motion…His hands were running up and down and scratching toward the policeman's breast. He looked like a big hairy spider or rather like a small sea monster looking for a chink through which to penetrate the policeman's coat.' (p. 39.)
The young boy with the ambiguous feelings toward his stepmother cannot suppress his real feelings of relief as he grasps that he does not have to go home to his fake stepmother: 'I had unexpectedly dropped into the middle of an absurd theater play where I didn't know my exact role and partly I had an urge to laugh because of a passing image that caught my imagination: the face of my stepmother when she realized that she wouldn't have me at home for dinner that night.' (p. 3.)
It is clear, that he is looking forward to this German labor camp, as if it would be an opportunity…Many young people did in fact apply for jobs in Germany or some "naughty" boys were even sent by their father. (My third cousins uncle, the Interior Minister of the Gömbös government, Miklós Kozma sent his son to one of the labor camps to straighten his ways. The boy enjoyed it - the father writes in his diaries - , but subsequently died in a car crash. )
'Whoever wanted to could apply for work in Germany and like the rest of the boys...I immediately appreciated the idea.' - Kertész writes, conveying the hidden humour - that can be felt only afterwards - in this fatal misunderstanding. (p. 44.)
The hero ( the young Kertész) is slowly getting a bit more sophisticated during his journey: 'I remembered and understood somewhat better what the man with the seal face tried so hard to discuss with the policeman.' (p. 45.)
The others are still engrossed in their survival games: 'The man with bad luck looked exhausted…they found medicine in his knapsack…it was useless to explain that he had his permit and that for his part he had always respected the law…How hard I tried to get that permit…In no way would he have believed that his affairs would end this way. If he hadn't had bad luck…if the bus hadn't…' (p. 46.)
Another figure, the Rabbi reminds him of his Uncle Lajos (the one he prayed with) : 'Just like Uncle Lajos…others called him Rabbi. He implored all of us ”Do not quarrel with the Lord!” We should avoid that not only because it is sinful, but also because that road would lead us “to deny the noble purpose in life”,…we were lost. But faith in the final mercy…His logic, I admit, seemed quite clear, but I noticed that he never let us know exactly what we were supposed to do and he wasnt able to give any good advice …whether they should volunteer or stay on here…' (p. 49.)
We will not lose from sight the expert - he is still busy finding a way out: 'The expert adviser…had the opportunity of speaking directly with a German officer. … “The supervison of the production was inconceivable without him…Who profits from this. I am an engineer and a German. I am somebody and I know something. I'd like to work according to my abilities. That's all I ask. Then the officer advised him to enlist. ..this was the “correct and realistic” choice. Those were his exact words.' (p. 51.)
Many times Kertész is not using quotations, but we feel the quotation marks - here he uses the marks and adds that he is quoting - another source of his dark humour.
He does not miss any opportunity to show the "human" - or banal - side of the horror: "We teased Silky Boy with a girl"… (later the girl will be pregnant and consequently will be killed.)
It is again quite surprising as he shows us the peculiarity of the human minds and the naíve misinterpretation of the situation: 'The name of the place was Waldsee. When I was thirsty thew promise contained in that name invigorated me.' (p. 54.)
Also, even death becomes "banal", "everyday event", completely "understandable under the circumstances": 'A woman died she was sick and old…the event was completely understandable under the circumstances.' (p. 55.)
Kertész is recalling the wonderment of the boy when he sees the striped jackets of the camp inmates, whom he considers to be "real convicts", more real than himself, of course: 'First time in my life that I set eye on real convicts...clad in stripped suits of criminals…They were very much interested in our ages…Vierzehn funfzehn…They immediately protested with their hands, their heads their whole bodies. Zescajn they whispered from every direction I was astonished Warum? Willst du arbeiten? He asked me back. Naturlich, because, on reflection, that's the reason why we had come here after all. At this he grabbed me and shook me: Zescajn vesrtaajst du? It was very important to him ..so I yielded albeit with some humor: Okay I will be sixteen years old…They said, dont get tired dont get sick!' The intersection "on reflection" gives the incident its tinge: Kertész is conveying again the exact opposite - since the boy had no way of real "reflection".
They are then slowly realizing the presence of the chimneys and their smell. But they are told people are incinerated because of an epidemic: 'The smell…of a factory chimney. It was a leather factory as many later told us. If there was no typhoid or other epidemic, we would move on to a friendlier place. …Is there an epidemic? Yes, was the answer… What happens to sick people? They die. What happens to the dead? They are burnt. In truth it gradually became clear I don't quite know when, that the chimney opposite us was not really a leather factory but a crematorium. It was a chimney of a cremating establishment as they explained me...as if someone chopped off its top… noticed one, than another and still another chimney….They pored fourth smoke just like ours. Is the epidemic so great that there are as many dead?' (p. 79.)
Kertész tries to find words to describe how he felt at the time: 'Reminded me of a student's practical joke…Made us undressed with the help of the idea of X rays…' (The x-raying then did not take place.)
They are then sent to Buchenwald and to Zeitz. Kertész does not lose his tongue-in-cheek "understating" humour: 'I soon noticed that those favorable opinions that I had been given in Auschwitz concerning labor camps as institutions were probably based on somewhat exaggerated information.' (p. 99.)
He shows how we humans (at least how they) always try to adjust ourselves to the most unpleasant situations: 'Somehow things would work out, because it never happened that they didnt work out. So Citrom has thought me most important detail was to keep well washed..."Clean your genital area too…/because of lice/ (p. 107.)
A few people try to escape from the lager - but a few days after they are back - dead - with an inscription on their neck: "Ich bin wider da" (p. 118.)
Hunger is constant - and diarrhea is also permanent: but it is difficult to ask for permission in case of diarrhea. Once he drops a sack of cement - and he is then followed intensively by the German, but Kertész is again using humuor to conquer his persecutor in his recollection: '"Never drop again a sack du verfluchter Judehund"…And in the final analysis I had to recognize that this proved him right.' (p. 125.)
Kertész mentions, that slowly he became oblivious to the pain inflicted: 'I can say that after all those attempts all those useless trials and exhaustions after some time I found peace, quiet, even relief. Cold, wetness, rain no longer disturbed me. They couldn't reach me. I never felt the hunger any more…' (p. 126.)
Then he is put into a camp hospital - 'I remember a shoulder onto which I was thrust' (p. 139.) - and he is surprised by the way Pjetyka, the male nurse is doing is doing his work with care and even kindness. Even bigger surprise is to him to learn that the doctor is in the camp since twelve years (for he was a Communist probably).
Again, the writer uses his "documentary" quoting style to involve us and make us feel his alienation : '"Uvaga", said the loudsperaker and we heard the noise of a distant battle - " SS men leave the camp immediately" …They said they will prepare some goulash soup for us. Only then did something relax within me, only then did I myself begin to think seriously about freedom.' (p. 172.)
He sees himself in a mirror for the first time since months, his face is old and "sinful" and his flesh is "like cheese".
Slowly they are arriving back to Hungary. On the tramway in Budapest, the conductor does not realize the awkwardness of the situation - asking money from someone coming back from a camp (about which he probably never heard). A stranger does recognize his moral duty and pays for him: "Give him a ticket!" (And Kertész mentions, pointing to the forced "neutrality" of some bystanders: 'The old woman continued to stare outside.' (p. 179.)
His saviour asks him where he had been, and he had heard of this “pits of Nazi hell”. When the stranger asks him what does he feel, he answers "Hatred" Against whom ? "…Everyone" is the answer.
Then the stranger asks: "Did you have to go through many horrors? I answered, that depends on what you call a horror. Naturally…Why do you keep repeating natural when they are not natural at all?" And the hero's answers : "In a concentration camp they are perfectly natural." (p. 180.)
The stranger wants to persuade him to talk to others about his experiences. 'What should I talk about? About the hell of camps. I did not now nothing about hell. I knew concentration camp a bit but I knew nothing about hell…In hell you can't be bored…but in a concentration camp you can be bored, even in Auschwitz…How do you explain that? Because time helps.
By the time we know everything , we slowly come to understand it. You don't remain idle for a moment…If all that knowledge descended upon you once right in one spot than neither your brains nor your heart could bear it. (p. 181.)
And the writer's technique was exactly the same: he showed us how these events unfolded, how the hero had no time to grasp what was happening - how he survived because of all this. And he ends the dialogue:
'You cant imagine it…that's why you say hell instead..' And when his interlocutor disappears in the street, he tosses away the piece of paper.
He finds his old home - the appartment is occupied by complete strangers. The stepmother married his (deceased) father's former foreman (strohman) Mr. Suto.
Kertész is then showing the strange discussion between the neighbouring old Jews (whom we know from the family gathering at the beginning), who cannot easily accept that someone could suffer more than they did. 'Life wasn't easy at home either' is their Leitmotiv (p. 185.) They give him the advice to forget the whole thing - but 'I could not command my memory to follow orders.'
He tries to philosophize, but his less-suffering acquaintances will not let him to draw this conclusion: 'Every single minute could have actually brought about a new state of affairs, but it didn't …The point is in the steps. Everyone stepped forward as long as he could. Now I could tell Anne Marie what it meant to be a Jew it had meant nothing for me until the steps began. ' (p. 188.) 'Given situations and concomitant givens within them…I lived out a given fate. It wasn't my fate but I am the one who lived it out to the end. I can content myself with assuming it was a mistake, an aberration, some sort of accident…that never really happened. I could see clearly that they I took my steps. No one else did it if there is such a thing as fate there is no freedom…if there is freedom there is no fate that is I stopped to take a breath, WE OURSELVES are the fate. I recognized that with such a clarity that I had never seen before…Whether I should take the local tram or the bus to on the way to Auschwitz (they too took their steps) Uncle Steiner stared at me: What? He screamed Are we now the guilty ones - we, the victims?' (p. 189.)
The conclusion reached is also presented in the Kertészian tongue-in-cheek humour : 'Everybody will ask me about the deprivations, the terrors of the camps, but for me, the happiness there will always be the most memorable experience, perhaps. Yes, thats what I will tell them the next time they ask me: about the happiness in those camps. If they ever do ask. And I don't forget.' (p. 191.)
I don't think I could add much to this awesome novel after having read it again. I ave met the author several times at different "writer's gatherings". We even did talk about this and that - my "mentor", György G.Kardos did introduce us to each other - , but I always felt somehow unable to raise any question about his "fatelessness". Not because I felt so self-conscious : with other survivors I did have sometimes interesting conversations. I think that simply, there are left no more questions open concerning Auschwitz and the German deportation camps. I think Kertész managed to give a clear and understandable picture of this. I f I would say a word on it, I could only betray that I failed to grasp his book. But I think, I did tell him, that he was causing me some kind of relief - he took away the burden of not-being-persecuted-and-humiliated: because he made it clear in his writings that yes, the survivors of Communism are also real survivors of inhuman treatment by fellow humans.
But al this begins to change now. First, because present day anti-semitism has a distinctly special flavour: those anti-semites before the war were trying to hide their killer side and their "nationalism" had a logical, understandable side to it…But those who are beginning to talk about "minorities" after the war and the camps and even trying to deny what happened then…well this cruelty is frightening. I am envying even the naivety of the hero of Kertész' book.
Now I am busy studying history - I am almost 50, but I found out about my Jewish family (the descendants of the Prague Maharal, and thus of Rashi and the Talmud's sages up till Hillel and the Biblical kings) only some twelve years ago. And my Hungarian gentry side (my father's ancestors) were discovered only a few years ago in a diary of a great-aunt (Emma Ritoók): it turned out, that /through the Homonnai Drugeths/ we are related to King Matthias, King John Szapolyai, King and Prince Bathori and Bocskai and Bethlen /not to speak about most Hungarian aristocratic and gentry families, like the Rakoczis, Wesselenyis, Keménys, Nádasdys, Esterházys, Hallers/. Naturally, there were many incidents between my Hungarian noble family members and my Jewish relatives in the last five-hundred years. (I could not refrain myself to describe the two discoveries in two novels in the nineties.)
Szapolyai's father has burned personally more than hundred Jews in 1494 (causing the Prague Rabbi's father to flee from Buda to prague). Bathori, Bocskai and Bethlen had Simon Pécsi as secretary, the Hebrew translating Unitarian Shabbatian who spent years in prison for his "judaizing" faith. Prince György Rákoczi the First had Chmelniczki as his ally (to plunder Poland while killing thousands of Jews in 1648). In the eighteenth century there was a Haller relative who forcibly baptized a Jewish child (in spite of the Vienna Emperor's displeasure). My great great-grandfather was the secretary of count Széchenyi (a Hungarian reformist hero, but not a great friend of the Jews) and - as I mentioned - I had a Horthy-ist minister also in the family (responsible indirectly for the Kamenec Podolsk massacre).
I think, that there was not yet enough public effort to think about the relationship of the Hungarians and Jews: we are the first generation, when the majority of Jews in Hungary are also family members of Hungarian families (according to studies made by András Kovács). There used to be a "Hungarian Jewish" discourse that was stressing the affinity of Jews toward certain Hungarian cultural items (from horses through verses and folk music and science etc.) I think that for this new brand of Jewish-Hungarians our "mixed heritage" makes the reading about Auschwitz twice painful: we had ancestors among the victims , but also among the perpetrators. (Prime minister Bethlen was considered to be of a non-anti-semitic kind, but in the diaries of his minister, M. Kozma, one can read passages about how he humiliated a Jewish vice Finance minister of his when he asked about the money Kozma was paying through his Radio Corp. to the government: "You can go to Palestine, if you continue to ask such questions" Bethlen is quoted retorting him in the twenties.)
So simply I have no words to add to what Imre Kertész was describing. It is among those few books that really were an eye-opener for me and it continues to have this effect ever since I first read it.