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By Imre Kertesz
Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press, 1992
ISBN: 0-8101-1024-5
191 pages

Bob Corbett
January 2015

15 year old George lives with father and step-mother in Budapest in the early spring of 1944. Theirs is a Jewish family. His father had been called away to a work camp and even young George is required to do war work locally and eventually is simply taken away while on his way to work on day. Only Jews were singled out, recognizable by the yellow star which each was required to wear on his or her clothes.

Much of the novel reads like a detailed diary of George’s experience. Given that, what was most fascinating and horrifying were the tiny details of it all. The following of orders when one had no idea of what it meant or what was really happening; of the desperate need on the sealed trains of water; of the conflicting and even contradictory rumors which spread on the transport trains.

He was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Upon entry German Jewish warders made it very clear to George that he MUST say he was 16, not 15.

“I . . . can now indeed remember my first day most precisely, indeed more exactly, when I think of it than all the ones that followed.”

And a bit later he says:

“I remember far fewer details from the subsequent days.”

After just three days at Auschwitz he was transferred Buchenwald. It was close to Weimar and not primarily a crematorium but a work camp. Very soon after this he was sent to Zeitz. This camp seemed to not be cremating people but did have a crematorium which he believed was only used for the bodies of those who died at the camp. He never did have a tattooed number but had a number which he (and those like him) had to memorize and were they to forget it they would be brutally punished.

There were about 2,000 people at Zeitz. Their dominant feeling was hunger:

“I had become a pit, a form of empty space, and my every effort, every attempt, was directed toward eliminating, stuffing, or quieting this bottomless pit, this constantly voracious void. I had eyes only for this: my mind could be in the service only of this, and if I didn’t eat wood, iron or stones, it was only for the simple reason that they were not chewable or digestible. For instance, I did try to eat sand, and if I spotted some grass, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Unfortunately grass was difficult to find both in the factory and in the camp.”

Shortly later he tells us:

“I can say for certain that nothing is more awkward, nothing more discouraging, than noticing day after day, keeping track day after day, of how much we have rotted away. At home, even though I paid little attention, I was still generally in harmony with my body. I was found of it, let us call it, this machine.”

There is a certain irony that once he collapsed, near death, with horrible pain in sores on his leg, they carried him to the camp hospital and treated his injured or decaying leg. It would seem that the Germans saw that they were losing the war and that the Allies were closing in and they wanted to do what they could to give the prison camp some look as though they there were trying to do something for the sick and wounded prisoners.

After a while, as he doesn’t heal, they shipped him back to Buchenwald.

Very shortly after the Allies liberated that camp and as soon as he was able to move about on his own he was sent home on his own. In sum he was only away from home for about a single year.

Upon his arrival home he discovers that his father did die in one of the camps and that his mother had remarried and moved away. His relatives don’t much want to talk about what happened to him or what to make of it. He, however, has to talk about it and about how he survived and simply THAT he survived. He feels a complete alienation from his relatives since they seem to want to forget what happened and not to deal with it but to just quit talking about it and get on with life. He is disgusted with this approach.

There is great similarity of the life and experience of author Imre Kertesz and his fictional character. They were the same age and had very similar concentration camp experiences. Yet it was 30 years before this, his first “novel,” appeared. I do think there is a very strong case to make that this is less a novel that a slightly fictionalized autobiography of his own experiences and feelings.

Is it a deeply touching and disturbingly vivid and gripping account of this young boy’s prison experience.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett