A Voice of Conscience

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, December 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Voice of Conscience


Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


For decades, novelist Imre Kertesz was unknown even in his native Hungary. When he published a semiautobiographical novel in 1975 called "Fateless," it went almost unnoticed. But two weeks ago Kertesz made literary history when the Swedish Academy awarded him this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily for the moving book, in which he chronicles the year he spent as a young Jew in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It is the first work in Hungarian and the first to deal with the Holocaust to win the honor. Kertesz spoke with NEWSWEEK's Stefan Theil after picking up the award. Excerpts:

You've said you feel lucky to have been at Auschwitz. Please excuse me for finding that shocking.

I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. You cannot imagine what it's like to be allowed to lie in the camp's hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labor. To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.

Your writing focuses on the Holocaust, which you say is a legacy for all of Europe.

Auschwitz is the ultimate embodiment of a radically new event in European history: totalitarian dictatorship. Europe's 20th-century totalitarianisms [fascism and communism] created a completely new type of human being. They forced a person to choose in a way we were never forced to choose before: to become either a victim or a perpetrator. Even surviving involved collaboration, compromises you had to make if you wanted to bring a bigger piece of bread home to your family. This choice has deformed millions of Europeans.

But didn't Europe's age of totalitarianism end in 1989?

After 1989, no one accepted that they made the choice to collaborate. Overnight everyone became a dissident. One lie replaced the other, and that's a problem all of Eastern Europe still has to deal with.

After decades of being cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain your native Hungary will join the European Union in 2004. Is Europe's long division now over?

We might be growing back together economically, but there are a lot of psychological traumas we haven't dealt with. The old nationalisms that exploded in the Balkan wars are an example of that. And Eastern Europe doesn't trust the EU, which waited much too long after 1989 to reach out. Back then we were all enthusiastic about a reunited Europe, and what happened? …

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