In June of 1944, an anonymous diarist in the Lodz Ghetto wrote, “The human language is too poor to describe the suffering of Jews in the ghettos of 1944. Where would the expressions come from, the descriptions, adjectives, that could only superficially describe our pain?”
This diarist kept his diary in four languages, exploring the possibilities and limitations of saying what needed to be said, searching in each of the languages for those elusive words that might reveal the truth.
Those who have attempted to describe the experience of Nazi persecution have searched insistently and in increasingly more experimental ways for a suitable combination of language, grammar, vocabulary and form that would support the act of witnessing this extreme event. It has repeatedly been the case that the most revealing testimonial texts have been crafted in unexpected forms.
After the war, Imre Kertész, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, wrote about his experiences as a teenager who, following his arrest in the spring of 1944 in Budapest, spent the remainder of the war in multiple concentration camps including Auschwitz. Kertész explored the possibilities of expressing his truths about the Holocaust by experimenting with genre. He did not keep a diary during the war, and following the publication of “Survival in Auschwitz,” “The Diary of a Young Girl” and “Night,” he decided on the novel as the genre best suited to support, at least initially, his articulation of what he intended to express about the war and its aftermath.
In the decades following the war, Kertész sensed a formula emerging in the memoirs of Holocaust survivors, a narrative pattern and a growing collection of ready-made phrases used to describe what was becoming, for the readers of these texts, a seemingly familiar, rather than terrifyingly unexpected and differentiated, set of circumstances that ended with liberation and survival. His novel “Fatelessness” (1975) disrupted the emerging genre of “Holocaust literature” in numerous ways. Rather than sentimentality and the writer’s device of reaching out to connect with an imagined audience, Kertész used the form of the novel to perform an act of jarring testimony that is steeped in irony and estrangement. Rather than support the reader toward a shared understanding, Kertész intends for the reader of “Fatelessness” to experience “the sense of being abandoned … of losing one’s footing.”
Kertész, who passed away at his home in Budapest on March 31 of this year, was a polemicist and provocateur; he challenged many of the accepted and popular notions about the Holocaust. Regarding the word “Holocaust” as a referent for the German genocide of the Jews, Kertész wrote, “I use the word because it has been made unavoidable, but I take it for what it is: a euphemism, a cowardly and unimaginative glibness.”
Elie Wiesel declared, “A novel about Auschwitz is not a novel — or else it is not about Auschwitz.” Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his testimonial novel about Auschwitz. His memoir, “Dossier K.” (2006), is written in the form of an interview where Kertész plays both the role of interviewer and interviewee. Clearly, Kertész found the key to tapping into something essential about this history through a masterly manipulation of genre.
In both “Fatelessness” and “Dossier K.,” Kertész forces the reader to consider the Holocaust and its aftermath in complicated and unexpected ways. He relentlessly works to dismantle clichés and euphemisms as they threaten to overtake and obscure what is real.
In an interview in Berlin in 2011, Kertész reflected, “When I finished my novel ‘Fatelessness,’ people told me: ‘Imre, what a fine novel! But nobody is interested in that anymore.’ That was in 1973. But what happened? It continued to worry our souls, and now it knocks from inside that cabinet where we thought we had locked it up.” Now Kertész is gone, and the words that he wrote similarly knock from the pages of the books that he left.
Bryan Davis is executive director of the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center and director of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Jewish Community Relations Council.