Imre Kertész

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 823

Imre Kertész (KEHR-tays) was born to a Hungarian Jewish couple in Budapest on November 9, 1929. His father owned a small factory and his mother was a housewife. In 1944, between 500,000 and 600,000 Hungarian Jews and Gypsies were belatedly sent to Nazi labor camps after the German army occupied Hungary, a wavering ally, in the spring of that year.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Kertész was fourteen years old when, on June 30, 1944, he was rounded up on a city bus with others wearing the mandatory yellow Star of David on their clothing. In a freight car carrying sixty people, he was first sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland and then to the Zeitz and Buchenwald camps in Germany. Earlier, his father had been shipped to the Mathausen labor camp in Austria. The year young Kertész spent in the concentration camps was to be the signal event in his life and later writings.

Liberated by American forces in May, 1945, Kertész returned to Budapest to find that his father had died at Mathausen, his stepmother had remarried, and strangers were now living in the family’s former home. Even more shocking to the repatriated Kertész, according to his autobiographical novel Sorstalanság (1975; Fateless, 1992), was the indifference, even hostility, Hungarians showed to the returning prisoner, who was still wearing his striped camp uniform, as he searched for his mother. Being a secular Jew, he had never given much thought to his Jewishness until, he explained, it was foisted on him by the Holocaust. Even in the concentration camps he was sometimes derided because he did not speak Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jewry, or Hebrew, the language of their faith.

After completing high school in 1948, Kertész found work with a newspaper, Világosság, in 1949, but he lost his job in 1951, when the newspaper adopted a strictly Communist and Stalinist editorial policy. By then, Hungary had a large Soviet military presence and was part of the Soviet empire. Kertész did a mandatory stint in the Hungarian army. Upon his release, he survived financially as a freelance radio reporter and eventually wrote librettos for musical comedies. He later became a Hungarian translator for German publishing houses specializing in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schnitzler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Bernhard, and other German-language writers, some of whom influenced his own work. In 1953, he married his first wife, Albina, who died of cancer in 1995. The couple was childless because Albina was unable to bear a child.

Kertész decided to remain in Hungary in the fall of 1956, when Hungarians revolted against the country’s Communist government and its Soviet-imposed policies. He later explained that leaving the country would have ended his aspirations to write in his mother tongue. When he was in East Germany in 1962, Kertész revisited the concentration camp at Buchenwald and found things much changed since his departure in 1945.

Kertész worked on the manuscript of his first and best-known novel, Fateless, for thirteen years and eventually found a publisher in 1975, by which time Hungary had become more liberal than its previous hardline Stalinist incarnation. Still, very few Hungarians knew of or read the book. Fateless is Kertész’s own story of an adolescent’s coming-of-age in the midst of humanity’s ever-recurring cycles of barbarism. Like Kertész, the boy, György Köves, survives the Holocaust and later survives his liberation by blending into anonymity and silence during Communist rule.

Kertész authored several other novels and nonfiction books, a few of which were translated into English and other languages.

With the fall of communism and the Soviet Union from 1989 through 1991, Kertész took advantage of his new freedom to travel to Israel, Western Europe, and the United States, where his second wife, Magda, had lived since she escaped from Hungary in 1956. Magda Kertész is fluent in English and has been an articulate spokeswoman and translator for her husband.

Kertész was catapulted into fame and relative affluence in October, 2002, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. When Kertész, the first Hungarian to win the prize, returned to Budapest after being honored in Sweden in December, 2002, he was greeted as a hero. Some seventy thousand copies of Fateless were sold within a few weeks, and the Hungarian parliament revoked the tax that would have been due on his $1.1 million award.

Despite the fact that Kertész continued to characterize himself as a secular Jew, he still blamed Hungarian society for its participation in the systematic elimination of much of the country’s Jewish minority during World War II. Even after his triumphant return to Hungary, he spent as much time as he could in his Berlin apartment rather than at his Budapest home, since, in his judgment, the Germans have accepted their responsibility for the Holocaust much more readily than the Hungarians, and he believes that Hungary is still suffering from a continuing latent anti-Semitism.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Essays