Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Although his perspective is cool and calm, the story George Köves tells of his arrest and incarceration by the Nazis builds to a harrowing vision of evil. His ordeal begins in his home in Hungary, where things are already unraveling. George’s parents have divorced, and his father, because he is a Jew, has been forced to relinquish his successful business and work instead in a German labor camp. Although George’s Uncle Lajos tells him that he must accept what is happening and understand that such persecution is the Jewish fate, George does not agree. Similarly, he resists his little girlfriend’s suggestion that his Jewish identity is fated by biology. George upsets his uncle and his playmate when he refuses to accept the premise that his life is somehow in the hands of a predetermined collective destiny. Nevertheless, it is as a Jew rather than for any more personal reason that George is first forced to labor at an oil refinery outside Budapest and then sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. His identity is made even more impersonal and abstract when his name is taken from him in the camps and he is known only as #64,921.
Along with the other boys with whom he was arrested, George has claimed to be one year older than he really is because he has been told that as an older boy he is more likely to be put to work rather than slaughtered in the gas chambers. After a short time at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, George is transferred to...
(The entire section is 1052 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The book’s title refers to the fact that there was no certainty in the destiny of those sent to the Nazi labor/extermination camps. It is a disturbing novel about a guileless Hungarian Jewish boy’s experience in the last months of World War II, including the freezing winter of 1944-1945, at the Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald camps. As such, it is a highly autobiographical tale about the coming-of-age and survival of an innocent youth, whose lack of sophistication makes him focus on everyday questions of existence rather than on his dismal and threatening environment.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, the most notorious camp in occupied Poland, the boy is advised by other prisoners to add a couple of years to his declared age so he may be assigned to a work detail rather than be “eliminated” as excess baggage as a matter of course. The narrator, György Köves (Imre Kertész), dwells on the minutiae of daily camp life, also of concern to his captors, so that perpetrators and victims are perversely though unintentionally bonded. For example, the narrator is constantly worried about his daily turnip and kohlrabi soup, concerned whether his portion will be ladled out from the top of the urn, so he will get mostly broth, or whether he will be lucky enough to receive his share from the bottom, where there are vegetables, and, on a lucky day, even a potato or a piece of sausage.
In the camps he tries to adjust to his situation by imposing the...
(The entire section is 616 words.)