(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator, B., is a Jewish Hungarian writer and a Holocaust survivor. Sometime near the end of the communist period in Hungary, he attends an academic retreat at a mountain resort. Avoiding the social atmosphere of dinner, B. goes for a walk in the woods one night and runs across Dr. Oblath, a philosopher. The two men begin walking together, although B. is not sure if he sought this company or meant to avoid it. They begin an academic discussion of life, philosophy, and survival, and then Dr. Oblath asks B. whether he has a child. He is childless himself, apparently the consequence of lost opportunity, and worries about being alone in his old age. B., by contrast, is childless by choice: He refuses to create another person who might suffer as he has. Even as he reflects on the life he has not inflicted on a child, however, he wonders what the lost child might have been like: A dark-eyed, freckled girl? A stubborn, blue-eyed boy?

B.’s reflections turn to his marriage, its failure, and his former wife, a woman he categorizes as a “beautiful Jewess.” She was born after the war, the child of Auschwitz survivors. She and B. met at a party, when she approached him to discuss one of his books. With nearly every mention of his wife, B. brings back the memory of that first night, her beauty, and the look of her approaching him for the first time.

At the party, a group of Holocaust survivors begin discussing their experiences, each telling the others where he had been taken during the war. B. dreads having to respond, but the conversation ends before it comes around to him when a member of the group mentions Auschwitz. Auschwitz is determined by the other survivors to be unbeatable in a recounting of horrors, the worst of all the death camps, and ultimately inexplicable. The latter attitude upsets B., who argues that Auschwitz must be explained because it existed, that evil is rationally motivated. What he finds difficult to understand is the behavior of those who were able to do good, even in the concentration camps. B. remembers one inmate, the Professor, who protected B.’s food ration and delivered it to B. at the risk of his own life.

Afterward, B. and his wife-to-be continue the conversation, falling first into bed and then into marriage. She finds in B. a chance to understand and embrace her own Jewishness and...

(The entire section is 962 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The protagonist of this novel, a middle-aged writer and concentration camp survivor, addresses himself to the child he would not have. In his imagination, he is reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for his unborn child. He figures that the horrifying events of the Holocaust, given historical evolution as well as the evil streak in human nature, could recur, as he explains to a friend at a writers’ retreat. He does not wish to bring into the world a child who could experience the same fate (or fatelessness), since in his view the Holocaust was only one example of an extreme form of domination by a public authority at the expense of individuals’ lives, self-respect, and freedom—a pathology of modern society and not an isolated case of Nazi Germany victimizing Jews. “What happened to me, my childhood, must never happen to another child,” he muses.

As he reviews his life he considers his many disappointments, such as his marriage, which failed because of his refusal to accede to his wife’s longing for a child, and his unsuccessful literary career. His sense of void is enhanced when he contemplates the picture of his former spouse’s attractive children from her second marriage, children that could have been his own.

Both the narrator and his former wife are Jewish. Unable to fully come to terms with that aspect of his identity, especially as the narrator lacks the emotional and spiritual ties to his Jewish heritage, he is left to consider writing as the only creative act of which he is ostensibly capable. He is unsuccessful even at that. In the midst of long metaphysical musings, his stream of consciousness is peppered with the intermittently recurring word “no,” the defining trope of the novel, as the author keeps recalling his refusal to have children years earlier. However, his wife, who admits that the narrator had taught her how to live with herself, now wants more—not just marriage but also family.

Kaddish is a bumpy novel, but there is purpose in Kertész’s choice of language, innumerable repetitions, and emphasis on the contradictory. The tone is introspective yet unsentimental.