Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508
Fatelessness is set in Hungary in the midst of the Holocaust and the Second World War. When the novel begins, Georg Koves (Gyuri) explains to his teacher that his father has asked him to stay home from school. The teacher sends him home. Gyuri’s father is about to be sent away for “labor service,” and this is Gyuri’s last chance to spend time with him. However, his father spends the day at his shop, which Gyuri soon begins to find a bit boring. Eventually he grows so bored that he passes the time by going outside to relieve himself and then washing his hands. Gyuri's father gives over control of the shop to his assistant, Mr. Sütõ, because the latter is “completely aboveboard regarding his race” and will be allowed to run the business. Mr. Sütõ offers to write a receipt, but Gyuri’s father insists that there is no need for such things between the two of them.
Gyuri’s stepmother has a list of the things his father will need in the labor camp. She has procured most of the items at this point, and is tracking down the things that are still missing. Gyuri notes that he feels odd walking around in a group of three, all wearing the yellow stars, but they nevertheless go about buying the necessary items. Most of the shops are quite busy, but there is a lot of room in the shop where they buy the knapsack. Gyuri notices that the shopkeeper is quite nice, but that he tries to avoid having to use the word labor service and instead refers to items that will be useful “where he is going.”
Back at home, Gyuri runs into Annamarie, a girl who lives in the same building. Annamarie, Gyuri notes, is like him, “fourteen years old, or thereabouts.” She invites him to play rummy after supper with her and her sisters, but Gyuri declines the invitation when he remembers that his father is soon to leave. Instead, he returns home, where his stepmother has made supper. Gyuri’s father refuses to eat more than his share of food, claiming that he is not hungry, and Gyuri follows his example. Afterward, they are visited by their extended family, who have come to see Gyuri’s father off. Uncle Willie, who used to be a journalist, claims that he has heard from a confidential source that there is going to be an improvement in their position because of secret negotiations between the Germans and the Allied Powers. It is his belief that the Germans have begun to realize the usefulness of the Jews living in Budapest, Hungary. Another relative suggests that Gyuri is about to share in “shared Jewish fate” of persecution.
The next day, Gyuri’s father leaves, and he tells Gyuri to stay by his stepmother’s side now that he has left. Gyuri reflects that “at least we were able to send him off to the labor camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527
Two months have passed since Gyuri’s father was sent to the labor camp. Summer has arrived, as have new laws limiting the freedoms of the Jews in Hungary. Gyuri has been assigned to work at the Shell Petroleum Refinery Works in Csepel. Gyuri sees the assignment as a sort of privilege, since anyone wearing the yellow star that identifies Jews is not allowed to leave city limits. This work assignment will actually allow Gyuri more freedom than many members of his family, and his stepmother is happy that the work papers will allow him to justify to the guards his existence because he is contributing to the war effort. It is manual labor, but Gyuri does not mind passing the time with his friends. His specific work is to repair damage to the oil works, which are a frequent target of the air raids.
Gyuri is still in contact with his family. His father sends letters from the labor camp. He has maintained his good health and is being treated decently. The family is reassured by the letters, and Gyuri’s uncle, Willie, argues that they must now wait for the Allied Powers to finish the war against the Germans. Life is not easy for the Jewish family, but Mr. Sütõ stays true to the promise he made Gyuri’s father. He brings them money and rations that he acquires through the black market. Gyuri’s biological mother is less pleased with the situation, and she tries to convince Gyuri that he should spend more time with her and that he should demonstrate his love for her with actions rather than words. However, in Gyuri’s view, it remains correct to live with his stepmother because his father told him to. Gyuri wants to remain loyal to his father’s wishes, but he admits that he feels uncomfortable when he leaves his biological mother.
The community members continue to board their windows each evening so as to hide from the air raids. It is while he is hiding during one air raid that Gyuri kisses Annamarie for the first time. At first, they claim their kiss is due to the bomb, but their relationship nevertheless continues. They have their first quarrel when they argue about the nature of “Jewishness.” Actually, his argument is with Annamarie’s older sister, who is bothered by the hate people feel for her when they see the yellow star she wears. She maintains that there must be something different about the Jews, and she wonders what it is. Gyuri returns that it is simply the yellow star and that if she were to switch places with someone who was not Jewish, she would still be the same person and she would likely hate the other person for wearing the yellow star. Annamarie’s older sister bursts into tears at this because it means that everything they are suffering is nonsensical. Afterward, Annamarie does not bring Gyuri to see her family, but when she later asks why he no longer comes to visit her family, he explains that it would seem odd to do so without her. The explanation satisfies Annamarie.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489
Gyuri is on his way to work the next morning when his bus is stopped by a policeman, who asks all of the Jews to present themselves. Confident in his work identification, Gyuri exits the bus with all of the other Jews. However, when they reach the road, the policeman directs the bus to continue along its route. Gyuri is still confused when a group of young men comes out from hiding. They are Jews that Gyuri works with, and they find it funny that Gyuri fell for the same trick they did. Even the policeman is amused when he sends the boys back into hiding before the next bus arrives.
Gyuri introduces the boys around him by their nicknames. “Leatherware” is named for his trade; he is one of the few boys who do not attend school. “Smoker” can always be found with a cigarette. “Fancyman” is handsome and talks easily to women. Rosenfeld is nicknamed “Rosie,” and the boys often defer to his judgment. It is Rosie who finally approaches the policeman to ask whether they will get in trouble for arriving late to work and when the boys will be free to leave. After all, the boys have decided, this inconvenience must be some kind of mistake. However, the policeman admits that he is not sure what will be done with the boys, and for now he must wait for further orders.
The policeman eventually asks the boys to come with him to a “Customs House,” where he locks the boys away. It is hot, but the boys pass the time playing games and singing. The policeman allows the boys to remove their shirts in the heat, which is technically prohibited since the boys are left without their yellow stars identifying them as Jews. The policeman remains polite throughout the day, but Gyuri can sense the frustration that the policeman feels over not having yet received his next orders. Gyuri eventually sees him talk to another police officer, and he senses resignation in their body language.
The orders finally arrive in the late afternoon, and the boys are marched to a new location where they can present their papers to a “higher authority.” The boys are marched publicly through the streets, and Gyuri notes the “hesitant, almost furtive curiosity” in the people watching them. They boys eventually reach a collection of gray buildings. The police officers who have up to now been escorting the column of boys are now replaced by new guards wearing tight uniforms, high riding boots, and slashes of leather. Their commander carries a riding crop, and he declares that the Jewish boys can stay in the stables, which is where he feels they belong. Gyuri finds that he wants to laugh at the oddness of the situation. The moment is interrupted when he finds himself wondering how long his stepmother will wait before she realizes he is not coming home for supper.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465
Gyuri finds himself on a train, thirsty. The others tell him that the initial thirst will go away and will be forgotten. Unfortunately, it will eventually be replaced by another thirst that will not go away. They inform him that people can last six or seven days without water if they can avoid sweating, eating meat, and such. The question on everyone’s mind is how long they will be aboard the train.
The boys have little idea of where the train is going. They were asked if they wanted to work and said they did. They were also told that people who volunteer to work early will be given preferable treatment. For example, they will be put in train cars holding just sixty people rather than eighty. Among the prisoners, there is already a lot of discussion about what to do, but Gyuri feels the choice is obvious: volunteer to work. There is also discussion about the nature of the Germans, and Gyuri overhears some saying that the Germans appreciate hard work and organization, so it is best to demonstrate those traits.
When the train finally does reach its destination, Gyuri learns by reading a sign that he has arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, he still does not realize the nature of the location. A prisoner asks Gyuri his age, and when Gyuri responds, the prisoner says that he and his friends must present themselves as sixteen-year-olds when they are inspected. The boys enter a line and see two groups forming at its end. One group radiates a sense of success and fitness, and Gyuri hopes to join it. The boys present themselves for inspection, thrusting out their chests before the doctor, and claim to be sixteen. They are proud when they are placed in the "fit" group.
Next, they are taken away to be cleaned. They are told to give up all objects of value; those who do not will be punished. They remove their clothing and are told to give up their shoes. All of the hair on their bodies is shaved off, and Gyuri is bothered when his pubic hair is removed. Still, the boys look at Fancyman and tease him that he will no longer have his hair to impress girls. They are sent to showers in groups of three with a single bar of soap. Finally, they are given ill-fitting clothing and new shoes. Gyuri notes that the clothes are worn, that they have blue and white stripes, and that no matter how he looks at them, he cannot deny that they are the clothes of a convict.
Outside, Gyuri has finally arrived at his destination. The boys look at each other feeling dumbstruck by what has happened to them. They look around and see barbed wire and fences everywhere.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503
Gyuri begins to learn about life at Auschwitz. The prisoners are served a bowl of soup, which Gyuri and many of his friends dump onto the ground, claiming that it is inedible. However, they do not realize that the soup is their only source of water and that it, a bit of bread, and the “coffee” they are given each morning are the only nourishment they will receive. On the second day, Gyuri eats the soup, and by his third day, he finds himself looking forward to it. He is also struck by the smell in the air, and he learns that it is produced by a crematorium. He slowly realizes what happens to the people who are not considered “fit.” Gyuri is assigned to a “block master,” and he meets prisoners who have been in Auschwitz for four years. He learns that there are different kinds of concentration camps (Konzentrationslager). Auschwitz is a Vernichtungslager, or extermination camp, as opposed to an Arbeitslager, or work camp.
Gyuri is separated from his friends and placed once again on the trains. This time, he is sent to Buchenwald. The train car contains eighty people, no luggage, and no women. There is one slop bucket in which people may relieve themselves. The prisoners are given food but not enough for the three-day journey. By the time the prisoners arrive, they are hungry and thirsty. At Buchenwald, Gyuri is assigned a number, 64921, and he is informed that he must learn to speak it clearly in German whenever he is asked by a guard to identify himself. The number is printed on a piece of cloth rather than tattooed on his skin, as in Auschwitz. Gyuri is also given a star with a big U in its center, which identifies him as Hungarian. There is a crematorium in Buchenwald, but the prisoners explain that it only disposes of the dead rather than exterminates the living, as in Auschwitz. The camp nevertheless kills inmates, and one prisoner whom Gyuri meets says that working as a stonemason will lead to a quicker death than other forms of work.
However, Gyuri is moved once again. This time he is moved to a camp outside of Zeitz. The journey is shorter, a night’s ride on the train followed by a march. The prisoners are told that since their names come before M in the alphabet that this will be their last transfer. The others would go to Magdeburg. Gyuri is now parted from the other boys. Zeitz is a flat land, and the camp is organized in a square surrounded by barbed wire. Gyuri meets another man from Hungary, who inquires about their country. However, they are interrupted by a guard, who clouts Gyuri in the face to silence him. The guard wears a low number and a green triangle with the letter Z in the middle. Another prisoner, who introduces himself as Bandi Citrom, informs Gyuri that the guard is a Gypsy and a homosexual. Bandi is from the Ukraine.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485
Gyuri begins to figure out how to survive in the concentration camp. He spends much of his time with Bandi Citrom, whom Gyuri observes in order to figure out what to do and what not. He takes care to bathe every day. He learns to save his bread so that he can eat pieces of it each morning and at lunch. He learns to turn the handle of his spoon into a makeshift knife. It is important to stay in the middle of the lines during roll call, and it is better to situate oneself at the back of the soup line so as to get the thicker broth at the bottom of the vat. There is a stubbornness that helps people to survive, but it takes more than that to keep away death. Regardless of the fact that he faces death every day, he also learns that captivity is essentially mundane.
Gyuri considers methods of escape from the concentration camp. It is no easy task to escape, not the least because when people are missing from roll call in the morning, a search party is formed. It is disheartening to see the party return with a dead body. Gyuri spends more of his time escaping into his imagination, where he sees his father and stepmother. Sometimes, they are arguing with his biological mother. Even his imagination has limits.
There is a wide diversity of people in the camp. Gyuri spends much of his time with Bandi Citrom, a Ukrainian. He mentions the first time he sees a Muslim in the camp. He also meets people whom he calls the “Finns.” The Finns do not consider Gyuri Jewish because he does not speak Yiddish. When he attempts to trade his rations for potato peels that a Finn is selling, he suggests that the Finn should lower the price since they are both Jewish. However, the Finn maintains that Gyuri is a “gentile.” When he mentions the Finns to Bandi, the latter suggests that Gyuri not worry over them. After all, they manage to survive even though they refrain from eating sausage.
Although Gyuri learns a great deal about surviving in the camp, he nevertheless realizes that no matter what he does, he is wasting away every day. He compares the work he is able to do now to what he used to do before and realizes that he has become an old man, a process that would take decades outside of the camp. When he carries a bag of concrete, which used to be so easy, Gyuri now spends every step thinking that he cannot go another step. However, when he drops the bag of cement and is beaten, he manages to continue on. Still, he feels that something inside of himself has been broken down to the point that every morning he wakes, he feels that it will be the last. Somehow, he continues.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
Gyuri finds that everything around him has lost significance. He is resigned to his fate, except he is now more irritable than he was before when people touch him. During the roll call, he will let himself lie down regardless of whether the ground beneath him is dry. The people around him in line lift him up, but he does not care. Bandi is irritated by Gyuri’s defeat, and he takes the latter to wash. However, Gyuri tells Bandi repeatedly that he would like to be left alone. Finally, Bandi gives up on him and begins to avoid Gyuri. Now, when Gyuri eats, he does so absentmindedly.
He eventually notices a red swelling around his knee but cannot muster the will to go the hospital. It is far away and it would require him to miss supper. However, when Bandi discovers Gyuri’s new wound, he and several others take Gyuri to the hospital. The doctors have nothing to offer Gyuri for the pain, but they cut the wound and drain the pus that is collecting inside. They then wrap the knee in a bandage and put Gyuri on a bed to recover. Inside, Gyuri observes other patients suffering from fever and other illnesses. He learns that winter has begun, and he sees patients who are losing their toes to the cold. He sees men whose toes have been amputated from the winter. There are lice and fleas in the hospital, and they are swarming on Gyuri. He soon accepts that he cannot defeat them, but he is discouraged when they begin to feed upon his open wound. He is even more discouraged when he discovers a second red swelling on his hip. It, too, is drained and bandaged before Gyuri is sent back to his bed and its worn straw mattress.
It becomes clear that Gyuri will likely not return to work, and so he is loaded onto a train that will take him back to Buchenwald. This time, he must ask the others to pass the slop bucket to him during the journey. However, for the most part, he finds that he no longer associates his identity with his body. It is as though he has been freed from his body’s irritations. He arrives in Buchenwald and realizes that he had never inquired about “how they did it here: was it gas” or was it with medicine, a bullet, or some other way? Gyuri finds himself hoping that death will not be painful. However, when he looks at the Lager and its signs of movement, he is surprised by the irrational thought that he would like to live a little while longer in “this beautiful concentration camp.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424
Gyuri has returned to Buchenwald. When asked whether he has diarrhea, he says that he does not. He considers that it must have been pride that kept him from admitting it. He is picked up and carried, over the shoulder, to recover in a clinic. At first, he has no idea where he is or what is to be done with him. However, he slowly begins to heal. He meets other patients: Czech, Polish, French, and even a Russian. He also encounters prisoners who have the lowest numbers that he has ever seen. Their bands mark them as having “pure German” ancestry. These prisoners wear the striped pajamas when it suits them and sometimes still even have their hair. He sees another prisoner from Auschwitz whose number, tattooed on the skin, is astonishingly high.
As Gyuri spends more time in recovery, he seems to gather a stronger will to live. Two of the doctor’s assistants sometimes joke and even arm wrestle before the patients, and Gyuri admits that he finds their displays entertaining. When he tells the others about the way he was captured, they are shocked. They particularly seem to sympathize with Gyuri because he was taken from his parents without their having any idea what happened to him. Gyuri is surprised by their sympathy.
Gyuri’s wounds continue to require attention, but he is horrified when he realizes that they have begun to heal. The visits to the doctor are now less frequent, not to mention briefer. The doctors now look satisfied when they see his wounds healing.
However, the war is slowly reaching the concentration camp, and the sounds of war can now be heard in the distance. There are measures that inmates and workers are to take at night that will keep them from becoming a target for air raids. There are now orders on the loudspeaker for all prisoners to assemble, though Gyuri and the others do not respond. Later, there are orders for the SS soldiers, and not the prisoners, to assemble and depart from the camp. On a late April evening, the last news arrives. The senior inmate announces on the loudspeaker that the prisoners are now free, and he makes a brief speech afterward. Inmates representing other countries make the same announcement in other languages. They then ask the kitchen staff to continue cooking, and it is only when the cooks declare that they are going to make a strong goulash soup that Gyuri slumps into his pillow and allows himself to seriously consider freedom.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
Gyuri decides to return to Hungary after spending one year in the concentration camps. Along the way, he continuously meets people who ask about the atrocities that he endured. When one man asks about the gas, he explains that he did hear about the gas in the camps. However, he did not see it himself or else he would not be alive now. The man seems unimpressed by this explanation and walks away. He stops to find Bandi Citrom, but his family answers the door, claiming that he is not home. They have had no word of Bandi, but Gyuri cannot answer whether he still lives, as he was moved to a different camp.
He also meets a journalist, who proceeds to ask Gyuri questions about his experiences in the camp. The journalist feels that people must face the truth of the camps, no matter how painful it might be. When asked whether he was beaten, Gyuri responds, “Naturally.” The journalist thinks that this is unnatural, but Gyuri explains that it is perfectly natural to be beaten while in a concentration camp. When their conversation ends, Gyuri explains that he is going home to see his family. The journalist asks whether he might come with Gyuri to photograph his family reunion, but he ultimately settles for leaving Gyuri with his contact information.
When Gyuri does return to his home, a woman answers the door. He does not know her. The woman, trying to close the door, says that this is where she lives. When Gyuri looks up to see the address, she manages to close and lock the door. Gyuri does end up finding his Uncle and Aunt Fleischmann as well as his Uncle Steiner. They explain that his mother is still alive and his stepmother married Mr. Sütõ. She managed to hide away the family’s fortune. They explain to Gyuri how things “came about” while he was away. They encourage Gyuri to put aside his past experiences so that he can begin living again. Gyuri begins talking and finds himself discussing steps and fate. Inside the camps, everyone was in a line and taking steps. He considers fate and he decides that if there is fate, there is no freedom. Therefore, people are their own fate. When Gyuri’s father had been taken away, the family had taken its own steps, as when discussing whether Gyuri should travel by bus or by train. His relatives balk at this, but Gyuri tries to explain that they did not commit a crime. Before he leaves them, he tries to explain that he “could not swallow that idiot bitterness, that I should merely be innocent.”
Gyuri begins to walk to his mother’s place. He looks at the sky and sees that this was the time that was his favorite hour in the camp. He feels a sense of nostalgia and homesickness. He realizes that life in the camp had been “clearer and simpler.” As he looks around, Gyuri finds in himself a readiness to continue his life, even if it is uncontinuable. He thinks about his mother’s plans for him—to become a doctor or an engineer—and realizes that there will be happiness for him. After all, between the chimneys and the torments, there was happiness. Although everyone asks about the atrocities, he decides that he will speak about “the happiness of the concentration camps,” since it might be the most memorable part of having been there—unless he forgets it.