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 Zeitz, a work camp where he labors in a quarry. He begins to understand that, despite everything, he and his fellow prisoners are still not completely under the rule of the Nazis; they are free to dissent from the Nazi perspective and to resist its perverse logic.
George describes this resistance to himself as stubbornness. His own detached perspective is one instance of this stubbornness; another is the way the prisoners help one another rather than descending to the law of the jungle as the Nazis expect them to do. For instance, a fellow prisoner makes sure that the young George’s food ration is not purloined. Even more important, a fellow Hungarian, a resourceful twenty-year-old man named Bandi Citrom, befriends George. Bandi gives him numerous tips that will help him survive the hardships of his circumstances.
Bandi’s belief in the value of an ordered, ethical daily life rescues George from confusion and despair and represents another way to dissent from the demoralizing, dehumanizing world of the camps. Another form of resistance is George’s imagination: Even though he is captive, his imagination is still free, and he can travel backward in his mind to memories of safety and comfort, as well as imagining hopeful future scenarios. The idea of the future is crucial to George’s ability to resist the Nazi regime. An important aspect of his developing philosophy of life is that he understands that the future can always bring change, new possibilities, and alternatives unforeseen in the present.
At Zeitz, the young boys with whom George was originally arrested have been dispersed. Having lost the sense of adventure with which they began their imprisonment, the youths have either died or become old before their time. In another sign that things are changing for the worse, food becomes more closely rationed, enfeebling and emaciating George. Already weakened by a leg wounded while working at the quarry, George’s health fails to such an extent that he hovers near death. Although he is dying, however, he knows that the Nazis cannot deprive him of his will to live or of his appreciation of life itself, which, even in the concentration camp, he finds beautiful. Just when George is at his lowest ebb, things take an unexpected turn when, instead of being delivered to the crematorium, George is brought to the infirmary, where he is nursed back to health and given extra food by two compassionate attendants. On top of this almost miraculous change in his fortunes is the surprising and...
(The entire section is 1,926 words.)