In 2002, Hungarian author Imre Kertész, won the Nobel prize in literature. It was nothing earth shattering about it. Not too much was said and I who usually take a great interest in who wins and check out if it would be an author whom I would be interested in reading, took no such action that year. I started thinking about why that was, and just discovered that right around that time of the year, in 2002, my husband was told by the health clinic that the spot they had removed from his back, was malignant melanoma. I had more important things to concern myself with, than a Nobel prize winner’s books.
Most Nobel prize winners disappear in to oblivion again, after they have received their prize. Why? Because they were never that much read in the first place. Usually they were only read by a few before the prize, then there is an upswing for a couple of months, when everyone want to know why the person won it in the first place, and then it is only the select few that continue following the winner’s publications, because let’s face it, the books and authorships are often weird. I can not say that I have been impressed with Modiano’s books, who won the prize in 2014. The one author whom I have loved since he won the prize though, is the now deceased Isaac B. Singer. THAT was my kind of author! A true storyteller, who brings you to the streets of Poland, in pre-war Eastern Europe. The smells and the culture is all there in his books, you see the pictures he paints for you!
I can not really say a thing about Imre Kertész. I guess his big seller book is “Fateless”, which later translators in Sweden, have translated in to “The Man without a Destiny”. It is supposedly a very good book and has been filmed, Kertész himself having written the script for it. But it is not a Holocaust book which I have ever heard of before. And after reading his diary, I wonder if it would be worth it?
Kertész has always kept a diary and the book I have just finished, which was a later buy at the yearly booksale, when it was basically over, covers his thoughts and diary from 18 March 2001 to 18 October 2003. And what can I really say about it? It does not seem like UK or US publishers have bothered translating it and perhaps they never will. At least not until after Kertész death, when it might suddenly become interesting to people. Artists often not being appreciated when they are alive. If I should rate the book, I would rate it three stars which is not really fair when you talk about a diary, is it? But so much in the book went way above my head, for the simple reason, that I could not follow along with his reasoning.
That is the problem with a diary isn’t it? WHO do we write it for? Ourselves? To be published? I think that Kertész wrote the diary to be published one day. But at the same time, he did not write it for just anyone. The only persons this diary is really interesting to, are people who have associated with him. Who have been part of his world, have been part of the discussions, read the news, have followed his career and most of all have read the books he has written. He is not full of himself, that would be wrong to say, but he has a real attitude problem when it comes to readers. He doesn’t want to please them at all. He writes for his own sake and that will shut out a lot of potential readers, because at least in this book, you sit clueless a lot of the time.
A diary is not supposed to be a laundry list. That is what I was told when I studied history at the university. Those diaries tell us nothing, 200 years later. What we want out of a diary, is meat on the flesh. What did they think, how did they feel about things, how did they act… I don’t know. When I write a diary, or a blog post, I do write a summary of what it is that has happened and how I feel about it. In classic Mass Observation style. If you do not tell your readers or your descendents what has happened, your thoughts about it will be pointless, because they will have no idea what you are talking about. And that is what it is like to read Imre Kertész’ diary. Things have happened and he is upset, but you have no idea what has happened, what it is that he has read or seen on TV, so his comments make no sense.
Why did I buy this book? Because I have read a lot about Jobbik, the fascist party in Hungary, who wants to kill off all Jews and Gypsies. They are not hiding their thoughts, they have power and even sit in the EU parliament. Hungary can easily be looked upon as the most anti-semitical country in Europe and the country which is ready to do something about their Jewish problem, Hungarians over-estimating how many Jews actually live within their borders. The reason why Kertész has published this particular part of his diaries, is the fact that during the time it covers, he does take the decision to leave Hungary for Berlin and Germany. Why?Because of anti-Semitism. Or so says the backside of the book. When you read his diary, you get another view, that he left because he was not appreciated in his own country and felt less and less at home there, thanks to it. Which of course can be rooted in that the Hungarian society clearly shows the Jews, that they do not belong there. Which makes a Jewish Hungarian author out-of-place of course. When the entire world praised his literature, Hungary remained silent. When Holocaust literature is mentioned in Hungary, they never mention him and his books. That truly hurts him which is something which comes through in the diary. Especially since he has no other language to write in, than Hungarian.
It might sound like I hated the book, but I did not. It is actually a very tragic book. Kertész started out this diary battling with a computer. He no longer could write by hand, because of Parkinson’s. By the end of the book, the Parkinson’s had started to spread all over his body and a lot of his diary entries were about how depressing it is to get old. To have the same feelings and urges still, but the body not functioning the way it should. His thoughts were often suicidal. Especially after it was found out that his wife had cancer. He abandoned his suicide plans when he realized that he had to be there for his wife and help her struggle through surgery and chemotherapy.
He also struggled really hard with his novel. A book he worked on for 13 years, before he was content with the outcome. The way he described that book, I doubt that it is a book for me. It seems too philosophical and weird. But when he writes a novel, he might actually write in another manner? That is what I felt throughout the diary, that perhaps one should not read someone’s diary, unless one has read the person’s literature first? So one knows what one is dealing with? Because I do not know why people would be upset with him, about the way he portrays the Holocaust, nor why his books have offended some? Especially Jews! What is it that he writes which is so offensive?
One does realize in this book that he has problems with being Jewish. It seems like he doesn’t really know what it means or he has no connection with it at all. In the second entry in his diary, from 19 March 2001, he says and perhaps he means himself as well: “The European Jew is defined by others, as of a different human type. He is no longer able to generate any kind of intimate relationship with his forced Jewish state. He can still function as a practising Jew, but then the legitimate question will always arise: Why is he not orthodox? And what does ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ mean, when Jerusalem exists in reality already and that is where the Jews live.” To be assimilated or take a stand point and be different. That must be the big question for every Jew in the world, who has not chosen to live in Israel. And for those who are assimilated and have no connection to Judaism what so ever, it must feel more or less like an insult, when others label them as Jews. Is that a correct interpretation, Kertész? The worse enemies, some days, are Jews themselves, according to Kértesz. Because no Jew defines himself in the same way, it seems. Only the anti-Semites do that, according to Kertész (17 April 2002).
One can feel a bitterness of course, in Kertész. He says some weeks later, that he is part “of a minority which has always been persecuted and reviled, then sentenced to death in 1944 and this sentence has not been revoked to this day.” He can not feel any togetherness with the Hungarian ideology or its mind. Which is dangerous for a Jew, because it does reinforce the anti-Semites prejudices, that “the Jew doesn’t care about the Hungarian”. The Jews always having been accused for not being solidaric with the country they live in and with its people. That they always have their own agenda, a foreign element in the body. Kertész has a very difficult time accepting that the Hungarian nation base its national and historical conscience on passions, romanticism, sentimentality and subjective stinginess instead of on sense and reason. Very Nazi isn’t it? Typical fascist way of looking at one’s country. No factual background at all. So I agree with him.
During this time, Kertész is wrecking his brain, trying to decide whether to leave Budapest or not. He wants to move to Berlin, away from his country’s growing anti-Semitism. On the 24 April 2001 he has read some writing by a Catholic, who can’t understand why his church will not accept the gypsies. Kertész is surprised that the author doesn’t know his own church’s history. “Do you not know the chain of repentances, exclusions, persecutions, physical and abstract inquisitions, which led to the extermination of the European Jewry? Is it unknown to you that each stage in this process, all its laws and regulations, from the star of David to the institutionalised social exclusion and isolation (ghetto is the name, dear friend), was taken over totally by the Nazis from the Catholic church, their “only” innovation being (instead of the burning on the stake and pogroms) the gas chamber in Auschwitz? Are you unaware of that the bishops of your church having voted for the Jewish laws in the Hungarian parliament?”
Kertész has nothing left over for religion at all, actually. Perhaps it is difficult to feel anything after seeing the horrors in Auschwitz and Buchenwald? I can’t agree with him in his statement that faith’s official, institutional and church forms, have been emptied of their content. For some religions, yes, I agree, but when he says that this is true for all religions and churches, then I must object. I sat and watched my own church’s general conference a week ago when inspired men and women gave talks, full of faith and hope, teachings of the Saviour and there is nothing hollow in their messages. They truly believe in what they say and we know what they say is true. Sure, all religions have culture and traditions, that could go through an inspection now and then. By all means, get rid of some of them, which have nothing to do with the religion per se, or should I say faith and doctrine, the gospel in itself. Traditions will uphold religion in many cases but on the other hand, it can make people shy away from the doctrine itself. Them thinking that the tradition is more important than the doctrine. It is important to not pass a judgment like Kertész’s. Look at the religion, not its traditions. In our church we always say, the gospel is true and perfect, but the people are not. You can’t look at a religion and decide it is not true, just because the followers are not perfect! And if one does not believe in God at all, one can not be a judge over religion, because one doesn’t have a clue as to what one is talking about!
On the 15 May 2001, he declares that very few people live in a country out of conviction. Except perhaps in Israel, because a lot of Israelis actually live there out of conviction. But people in Hungary, live in Hungary because they happened to be born there by coincidence. He looks at where he really should be living and draws the conclusion that he has the strongest cultural ties with Germany since they are his audience and his publishers are located there as well. But he feels that he can only feel solidarity with one people and nation, and this being Israel, but the tie is altogether emotional. For Hungary he feels no love or solidarity at all, the language being the only thing that ties him to that country. He says that it is making him ill to live there because it has a false value system and unacceptable morals. One wishes that he would have expanded on things. What is really going on in Hungary? What kind of value system and morals? He doesn’t go in to the background ever, of all his feelings. And I really do not want to sit down and study Hungarian history over the past 70 years, trying to decipher what it is he objects to so much, except for the anti-Semitism.
I must say that Kertész’s diary entries differ very much from my own. I do not usually write particularly short ones. But his are often just a couple of sentences long. One interesting one is about Hitler and that he was a historical anomaly. That his entire way of thinking was passé, a product of outdated thoughts from the 1800s. “But what he accomplished, Auschwitz, is as modern as it gets.”
In a longer entry, he contemplates the disappearance of the history of the Eastern European people and that nationalism has taken its place. And that a great nation or person, can not come in to being unless they have confessed to murder and that they have come to the realisation of the loss that they have caused. Days after writing that, he writes about Poland and how the Polish do not understand why the Polish Jews can forgive the Russians and Germans, for what they did to them, but not forgive the Poles. He brings up Jedwabne. Exactly. How can the Poles think that they can forgive such a thing. It is easier to forgive other people coming in and killing your people, but to be killed by one’s own country men? That is too much. I have bought the book on Jedwabne, which tells the horrifying story of how the Poles staged their own murder of Jews, in the town of Jedwabne in 1941. I haven’t read it yet, since I suspect a harrowing read. It was the town’s people, who forced their neighbours in to a barn and set it on fire and then blamed the Nazis. (English readers will be able to read it from 15 September 2015.)
In August 2001 he had reached the decision to start his move to Berlin. A move that actually turned in to going back and forth to Budapest, but maybe they finally have cut with Hungary today? He claims in August that year that he has lived for 72 years hiding who he is, living in a hostile country, a hostile environment: “They hate you because you are Jewish, they hate you because you are happy, they hate you because you are appreciated elsewhere – they hate you because you exist.” But not only is he convinced that the Hungarians hate Jews, the Hungarian Jews even hate him. Why? That is what the diary does not explain.
6 August 2002, he is once again on the topic of the Holocaust, which seems to never really leave his mind. Someone on TV has claimed that the Holocaust is incomprehensible. “Why incomprehensible? It is very simple. A monomaniac fanatic ceases power, the real men of power and money realise, right away, the possibilities in this man and his ideas, the mob gets to live out its real inclinations – the hatred, the murderous sadism, the servility, the false heroism, and most of all, it is allowed to steal everything left behind for it. And why have they chosen the Jews for their purpose? Because they were the most appropriate, the easiest targets, not the least since the church’s 2000 year hate propaganda had developed all models, for the loosened murder instincts. (Raul Hilberg has shown that the only thing that the Nazis added to the Catholic Church’s praxis, was the final solution technique: Auschwitz.) What is incomprehensible with this?” “The word ‘incomprehensible’ belongs to the pre-Auschwitz language. Before Auschwitz, it really was incomprhensible, but during and after Auschwitz, it was natural.” Creepy thought! But is it not true what he says? Having studied anti-Semitism through the centuries, like I have, and Jewish history, it is true. The worse culprit in history, before the Nazis came along, was indeed the Catholic Church, which is supposedly following the gospel of Jesus Christ. But they have totally misunderstood his message, his sermon on the Mount, and moreover cut away everything inconvenient for their purposes, from the Bible. And what is worse, parts of the Catholic church still reinforces the old insane accusations, in its places, keeping the anti-Semitism alive and thriving. Especially so in Eastern Europe.
On the 2 October 2001, he has been watching TV and an American woman claimed in the program, that everyone blame the Jews and Israel for the Twin Tower attacks in New York. Interesting how Hungarian news got hold of someone who would say, what the fascists in Hungary wanted to hear. Noone claimed such a thing on Swedish news, thank heavens.
He moves on with what I think is his own monologue and not her anti-Semitism. He asks himself how it is possible that the Jews have not been exterminated by now. And what if people succeed, what will happen when they realize that the absence of Jews in the world lead to nothing, no relief at all? Interesting thought! What make people think that it would be such a better place without them? People will just pick a new scapegoat, that goes without saying! The next day he watches a documentary about birds and realizes that smaller birds in the Galapagos, live on the blood of bigger birds. That God did not implant an idea of solidarity in birds. That they do not even have the sense to protect their own interests. He of course draws parallels to Auschwitz. The poor man just can not stop thinking about the Holocaust on almost a daily basis.
When he takes a tram on the 12 October 2001, he starts thinking about pogroms, how people call you names and shove you about, but they will not start to physically attack you until you are on the ground. He doesn’t like to think about it, but the human instinct is to reach out to a person on the ground and give them a helping hand, so they can get up. But we don’t really do that anymore according to Kertész. Humanity has sunk to a level of animal behaviour, which must mean that the world is coming to an end. I can’t say that I disagree with him. Yesterday, I fetched my autistic son at school and he arrived to the car having a total meltdown. A two year older boy had boxed him in the back of his head and in the face. “Boo” was hysterical and I waited to find out what had happened till we got home. The boy had THOUGHT that “Boo” was going to steal his glasses off his nose, when “Boo” accidentally had knocked off his hat (they were practising for a play about a circus). The 11 year-old boy attacks an autistic 8-year-old, who is clumsy, because he has problems with his motor skills. I want to cry. There is no humanity anymore! Kertész decided to escape Hungary’s hate by moving to Germany and I have decided to move my son to another school!
Kertész and his wife arrive in their new flat, 18 January 2002. The day before he was informed that the Jews were going to demonstrate in Budapest, because they are being deprived of their rights, because of the anti-Semitism and it being sanctioned by the government. But the government could not allow the Jews to get the limelight like that, so they decided to counter the demonstration, by getting all the attention themselves. They decided to have an official memorial service for the liberation of the ghetto. Kertész said “they stole the demonstration”. The Hungarian Final solution not having changed a bit since 1944, according to Kertész.
His move is not final for some reason. He and his cancer sick wife travelled back and forth between Berlin and Budapest for years. Her getting chemo therapy of course but also working there. 1 March 2002 Kertész feels sick in the underground, when he sees all the propaganda posters for the Arrow Cross party, feeling that he is back in 1938 again. Three weeks later he discusses a conversation he has had on the airplane, with a German student who can not understand how all students in the world are left-wing except in Budapest, where they are Nazis. This is why I bought this book. Trying to understand why Hungary of all places, have chosen this route. AGAIN! But Kertész is as bewildered as I am and has no answers. He is convinced that the Jews will be exterminated this time, with the help of all Europeans. It rather looks that way, doesn’t it? Anti-Semitism being all over and the first and foremost target being Israel. 3 April 2002, he and his wife have been invited to Israel for some reason, which he doesn’t disclose. But they can’t decided whether to go or not. Feeling like cowards if they say no and realizing that they could be blown up by a bomb at any moment, if they go.
On the 5th April he was still undecided. Looking at the suicide bombers as just bitter people and that their acts have nothing to do with nationalism and wanting a state of their own. Their families being paid $25 000 for the inconvenience. He wonders how anti-Israel demonstrations can take place in Argentine, how that can make any sense, but he answers his own question by saying that 2000 years of hostility against the Jews has frozen the image of the Jews and the hatred against them, for refusing to vanish from the surface of Earth. So it is not strange at all that Anti-Israel demonstrations and hatred take place all over the world. No other picture is presented as acceptable is it??
Kertész travels around all over Europe giving lectures and in Copenhagen he sadly makes the reflection that during the liberal days, Denmark let too many foreigners in and now they can’t handle it, so the right-wing has to sort out the chaos and they do that by diminishing the democracy. And this is taking place all over Europe. Well, 13 years later, the right-wing parties are powerful in all countries. And noone dares to take up the fight against them. Twitter ridicule of them is not enough! In Denmark he meets a Polish Jewess who survived the Holocaust as a child, by being hidden by Poles. But in 1967, she was thrown out of Poland because she was Jewish and considered of “a foreign heart” and having “double loyalties”. In 2002, she no longer felt safe anywhere in Europe.
1 May 2002, Kertész reflects over that this time around, he gets to see how quickly it takes for a scapegoat to be created, begging the reader to take anti-Semitism for serious. What he says is important and I underlined it all in my book: ” Israel is pointed out as the cause for the terror attacks in New York. The Jews are the cause of Israel existing in the first place. The Jews are creating an Auschwitz for the arabs. Palestine-friendly demonstrations take place all over Europe. Their message is just one: Israel must disappear from the face of the Earth.” But it doesn’t end there, because the international Jews turn against Israel in anger, since they are afraid and want to escape the hatred turned against the Jews as a whole. They are recognised as the Kapos of today. He is
convinced that the Jews will be exterminated and he just wonders how it will take place. “I feel that a world war is on the horizon, even if we don’t know who will fight it yet and who the two main enemies will be.” Once again people indulge in collective hateful drunkenness. And he ends the entry by saying that the one thing which has plagued him the most about Auschwitz, is the covered up lie, that people care what happened there. “Now when Europe openly vote for the extermination of Israel, for the extermination of the Jews, in other words for Auschwitz and all it stands for, the air has got more clear.” People in Sweden will never admit to it. The news people in Sweden will pretend they do not understand. But it is the truth, isn’t it? Auschwitz means nothing anymore and for many, the horror they have displayed at hearing about it and seeing evidence of it, have just been pretence, because it was what was politically correct at the time. Now the politically correct thing is to live out your anti-Semitism. Swedes don’t care a straw about Muslims or the Palestinian state! But the old ingrained anti-Semitism has been given a righteous cause. And this does not just go for Sweden, but for all countries. Especially Hungary.
I feel sorry for Kertész when he the 18 May 2002 says to his wife that he has never lived in peace before. In Berlin he finally has received the feeling of living in a country which has peace. In Hungary it was one occupation after the next and in 2002, the streets were still boiling of hatred and “warlike circumstances”. Holland not being much better, since when he writes his entry, the Dutch has elected their own right-wing party. Kertész claims that he always knew that the third generation would adopt Nazism again, hate everything and be fed up with talking about Auschwitz. Now the West can finally approve of the Final Solution and stealing. “They are starved like pets who have not been fed”, just waiting for a leader to step forward.
6 June 2002 he is back in Berlin and wonders why anti-Semitism has not been discussed since Auschwitz. He really fears that Europe’s hatred for Israel will exterminate it and he dreads having to watch it. And of course when Israel is gone, the turn will come to the rest of all the world’s Jews. A month later he says “The new murderers’ anti-Semitic argument: ‘To criticize Israel is not anti-Semitism’ “. How can it not be anti-Semitism? It is not the country which is criticized but the people in it, the Jews. The Jews who are finally taking up defence weapons and saying that they no longer accept to be the victims of humanity. Kertész is appalled by how the European Jew doesn’t come to his Israeli brother’s defence, but instead hates as much as everybody else. Kertész has a theory that the European Jew is so bewildered, that he actually will not be satisfied till he is exterminated himself, that it is the only solution for his weird life. “He will not give up till he has reached his purpose, before he has been beaten, robbed, sent off to a new Auschwitz, before has been forced to dig his own grave, and everything leading up to this event, will amaze him, just like it did the last time. ” What we see, according to Kertész, and I fully agree, is how the Jews in Israel and the ones in the Diaspora, are heading in different directions.
On the 19 September 2002, Kertész is back in Budapest, and I just have to mention parts of the entry where he mentions the restaurant owner Szunyoghi, who has just put up a sign outside saying “Jews and Dogs not allowed to enter”. His most valued customer, Grün, who has been eating at the restaurant for 20 years, asks him “Do you hate me that much?”. The owner says no, of course not. “So you do not mind that I am Jewish?”. -Oh, you are Jewish? Then I must hate you! “Must you or do you really hate me?” -Oh, if I only knew how to differentiate those two! Says it all, doesn’t it?
26 October 2002, he knows that he has won the Nobel prize in literature. The Nazis in Hungary are insulting him and for some reason his fellow Jews in Hungary do not feel that the prize should have been given to him. In a way he is not happy about the prize at all, because it unleashed terrible meanness in Hungary, the Nazis attacking the Jews and Jews attacking Jews. And there one always think that the Nobel prize brings happiness to the winner! Gymnasium students in the town of Hódmezövásárhely were all given a copy of “Fateless” as a gift and they answered by ripping them to shreds since it is “Jew literature”. How sad is that? For an author to have to find out that his books have met with such a fate. As bad as a book burning.
He is horrified at how his Nobel prize is received in Hungary and on the 5 March 2003, he complains that no matter how his friends try to tell him that it is only a small jealous minority feeling that way, the right-wing intellectuals, Kertész points out that “my senses and my intellect would not be healthy, if I did not recognise the insults, as the race hatred for which they are, the perverse and unreasonable fury against those with ‘a strange smell’, against those ‘with a foreign heart’, which they all agree with like parrots.”
22 July 2003, the war in Irak has reaped consequences. It has changed the political consensus in Germany and the bottled up anti-American feelings have been unleashed. People also claim that criticism against Israel is not anti-Semitism. This becoming the starting signal for a new anti-Jewish persecution campaign, with equally threatening perspectives as earlier persecutions. At the same time, the Austrian television wants him to come and talk about block 8, which was the children’s block in Buchenwald. On the 18 October, he has finally decided to not do the interview after all. He has come to the decision that by his authorship, he has stood as a witness for what happened. Through his books, he has been able to get closure and deal with the trauma, getting through Buchenwald and liberating himself from it. In his books, he has resurrected Buchenwald, but as an abstract form, as fiction, which is the only way he can deal with the experience. If she wants to force him to sit in the interview and act as a real witness, like the ex-victim which he is, it will force him to relive those experiences, which he has put behind him, it would force him to go back to Buchenwald and he feels that noone has the right to make him put himself through that psychological torment again.
This is how the book ends. It is strange that he can only deal with his Holocaust experiences through fictional writing. Because it is clear through his two year diary, that it is always on his mind. He has not been able to leave it behind no matter what he thinks. And the neo-Nazis are not going to let him forget either. In everything that happens today, he sees a repetition of what went on during the 1930s and the war. His testimony would carry weight, since so few of the survivors are still alive. People like him has to scream louder and teach the world, that we are heading the same way as in 1933! The anti-Semitism is everywhere and countries like Hungary are going to do something about it, right under our noses, with the blessing of the EU parliament. How can this be allowed in Europe today, in EU?