Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Imre Kertész

Struggling to make sense of the Holocaust, one Hungarian novelist came to the startling realisation that the 20th century’s darkest moment might not yield any lessons for posterity, writes Alexander Lee.

In April 1945 Imre Kertész was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp. Not yet 16 years old, he had been transferred there after narrowly escaping death at Auschwitz the previous year and had endured months of cruel mistreatment at the Nazis’ hands. 

Though still weak and malnourished, Kertész eagerly made his way back to his native Budapest. But when he arrived, he struggled to adapt to his new life there. Although much was familiar, the city felt alien. The streets were not as he remembered; buildings had been made unrecognisable by shellfire; even the people seemed different. He already knew that his father had died in captivity and he soon found that many of his other relations had disappeared, too. There were still some friends and neighbours from the old days. They showered him with kindness and encouraged him to talk about what he had been through in the hope that it might help him to put it behind him. But when he tried, he could not. He did not know how. Every time he attempted to give them some sense of what Auschwitz had been like, he would mention the trains, the barbed wire, the inspections and the gas chambers; but it always seemed uncomfortably impersonal and remote – as if he were describing something that had happened to another person. Deeply dissatisfied, he avoided the subject, saying little and writing nothing. In time, as the shadow of communism fell across Hungary, his memories began to grow dim; until eventually, all that remained were ‘a few muddled impressions, a few anecdotes’. 

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