Imre Kertész: The Holocaust as a Culture

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: Archívum, English

Imre Kertész:


In the course of a walk one day in 1989 in Vienna where I visited for the first time in my life, I found myself in a picturesque square in the inner city. A flight of steps led towards the Danube, and the narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets were lined with quaint shops and gates. The spectacle could not have been more serene, except for a single unusual disturbing phenomenon: at the corner of a sloping passage I saw policemen on guard in berets and with machine-guns in their hands. Upon my enquiry I learnt that one of the buildings housed the offices of the Viennese Jewish religious community, and next to it was a synagogue,. It was some fifty years ago, when I was a student, that I last attended a Jewish religious service—I suddenly felt the urge to go to the synagogue. The entrance was, however, blocked for me. Two well-built young men in embroidered round caps inquired about my intent. It is not so simple to enter here. A couple of years ago there was a terrorist attack against the synagogue; hence the policemen. They want to know why I want to enter and who I am. I tell them I am a Hungarian writer who has broached issues of Jewish existence in his writings. Can I prove this, they ask. No, I cannot. Can I say a few words in Hebrew? Not one comes to my mind. Do I know at least, they keep on interrogating me, what kind of an afternoon is this? I cannot come up with a reply, which is eventually offered by my escort, Austrian, blonde and Catholic: it is Friday afternoon, the eve of Sabbath. At last we are allowed to enter.

Just as I was standing at the entrance to the synagogue in Vienna, irrelevant, unrecognised, a stranger, so I am now standing, Ladies and Gentlemen, before you. I am about to speak to an audience that can hardly know my work. Maybe I should begin with some kind of explanation and give justification of my competence or provide some evidence why I am in possession of the exceedingly dubious privilege of eligibility to speak publicly about existence branded by the Holocaust and of Jean Améry. The truth is, I do not mind irrelevance at all. What is more, I believe I recognise in this irrelevance an ever diminishing chance to speak up, a symbol of the obscure, transitory and unrecognised situation in which a survivor such as Améry must exist, and that this existence is then elevated—through a tragic gesture perhaps, as in his case, or in some other way—and manifested as fate. The Holocaust has its saints just as any subculture has and if the living memory of what happened survives, it will be thanks to the martyred lives.

With this I have more or less drawn the outlines of what I am about to speak on to you here. From the first moment, when it was far from being revealed to the world, when it was as yet unnamed, taking place as it was in the cover of nameless depths from day to day, a secret shared only by the participants, victims and henchmen—from the very first moment, there was a terrible anxiety, a fear of forgetfulness attached to the Holocaust. Anxiety extended beyond the horrors, individual lives and deaths, beyond the eager thirst for justice; Beyond Crime and Punishment (Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne), to quote Améry’s book that is the topic of our talk today. This anxiety was, from the very beginning, informed of some metaphysical sense characteristic of religions, of religious feelings. And yes, it can most appropriately be described by an biblical quotation: “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.” When I said before that the Holocaust is a subculture, i.e. a mental and emotional communion united by some kind of spirit, one may perhaps say cult spirit, I did so on account of this passionate fight against oblivion. I took this need for my point of departure, a need that is increasing in time, rather than diminishing; and whether culture in the wider sense will eventually recognise, accept and incorporate it, depends on the extent to which this need is justified.

Well, you see, our words have channelled us into a certain context unawares. We said ‘subculture’ and then we fitted it in world consciousness, more precisely in the European–American civilisation to which, in the last analysis, all of us who have gathered here to speak about Améry, belong. And yet, what has a lonely outcast to do with all this? What concern is it to the stranger, the branded one whose “trust in the world” (Weltvertrauen), a natural right of all humans, was beaten out of him with black-jacks? In the first chapter of his book, entitled “On the Borderline of Intellect”, Améry makes a radical reckoning with intellect and with the ‘intellectual’, the ‘spiritual man’ as the embodiment of the cultural phenomenon. “In its essential, reduced form as it forces itself on us, the question is this: Did spiritual education, an intellectual attitude, in any way help the inmate of a concentration camp at the decisive moment? Did it make it easier for him to stand suffering?” he asks. And his radical answer is: No. No, it did not, because, among other reasons, “intellectual and aesthetic assets have passed into the possession of the enemy questionless and unquestionably.” “The German Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz had to give up the entire German culture, from Dürer to Reger and from Gryphius to Trakl, for the benefit even of the most beastly SS man.” An intellectual’s position was in any case aggravated by education, Améry says. The most severe temptation of thinking, however, into which historical knowledge and education could have driven the intellectual, was self-denial: What if the enemy is right? For is not power always right? What if the power of the SS was so “terribly”, so “unconquerably” towering over the prisoner of Auschwitz that he eventually felt its logic was “rational”?

These are inevitable thoughts, ladies and gentlemen. All the prisoners of Auschwitz, all who were not dependent on some religious, racial or political idea, all who had neither faith, nor people nor calling, no more than a fate and sheer existence—all lonely intellectuals put these questions to themselves. They all compiled an indictment of culture in themselves. Hegel’s statement that the intellect is universal proved to be gravely erroneous; nor is culture universal. Culture is privileged consciousness: such consciousness objectifies, and the right to objectify belongs to privileged consciousness. Hence the terrible anxiety that culture will eject from itself the knowledge of the Holocaust, knowledge of Auschwitz. “Can you remember how I loved Plato?” another prisoner of Auschwitz, the Polish Catholic Tadeusz Borowski wrote in an immortal short story. “Now I know he lied. For it is not the idea that is mirrored in earthly things; blood and sweat-soaked human labour is.” And he goes on to say: “What shall the world know about us if the Germans win? They murder our families, the sick and the old. They butcher children. And no one will know about us. Poets will shout us down, as shall lawyers, philosophers and priests; creators of beauty, goodness and justice; founders of religions.” Jean Améry’s words twenty years later echo this feeling: “All recognisable omens show that the moral demands our ressentiment has posed will in the natural flow of time be diverted and eventually obliterated … We victims will appear as truly incorrigible and implacable, anti-historical reactionaries in the strict sense of the word, and the fact that some of us have survived will appear a defect, an accident.”

These are inevitable thoughts, I repeat. Nothing could be more foolish than fighting, challenging or labelling them. What you do have to label is the situation that provokes the inception and formulation of such thoughts. And once we do so we realize that these thoughts are not only inevitable but also fully justified and rightful. On the other hand, we cannot but notice that these thoughts and their mode of appearance are, in the last analysis, manifestations of culture or cultural products even. Améry turns to the denied intellect. He was far too witty to have been able to hide this paradox. The very title of his book—Beyond Crime and Punishment—refers to Dostoyevsky and Nietsche at the same time. Another of his books bears the title Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre, a reference to Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, thereby summoning Goethe as witness. His language is the finest literary German, his style chiselled fine on French essays. In Auschwitz, the intellect was no help for him at all; after Auschwitz, he called the intellect to help articulate the charge he held against it. He moved from culture to Auschwitz and from Auschwitz to culture as he did from one camp to another, and was surrounded by the linguistic and spiritual world of the given culture just as he was by the barbed wire of Auschwitz. He survived Auschwitz, and if he wanted to survive his own survival, if he wanted to give it meaning, then he had to recognise the only chance to do so, being a writer—self-documentation, self-examination, objectivation; in other words, in culture. “‘Just like a dog,’ K. said, and thought that his shame may survive him.” However, if he really wanted to survive it, he had to articulate his shame cleverly, and put what he had articulated into a lasting form; i.e. he had to become a fine writer.

The paradox may be carried to the extreme. If he wanted to combat mortality and amoral time, then he had to stake his life on writing—until he cast it off too. Whether his suicide belongs in his work or not, is another question which we can only tackle perfunctorily and timidly now. “In seiner Niederlage findet der Gläubige seines Sieg”—“In his defeat the believer will find his victory”, Kierkegaard says. Even more telling is the subtitle Améry gave his book: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigen, which translates approximately as “A Prostrate Man’s Attempt at Conquering”. But how can a writer get the upper hand? By taking over power? Yes, in a certain sense he does so. We have said that the right of objectivation is a right of the privileged, it is a power of sorts. A man branded and condemned to death, whom power had defeated, now reclaims the right of objectivation. This may be the hidden message lurking deep in the famous chapter of his book “Ressentiments”. In a novel another Auschwitz survivor writes: “… in the end I can find no other explanation for my persisting passion—I may have started writing in order to take revenge on the world. To take revenge and win back from what it had excluded me. My adrenal gland, which I had rescued from Auschwitz in a healthy state, may be producing too much adrenal. Why not? After all, representing something entails power, and in its course it may lull aggressive instincts and bring about compensation, a transitory peace. I may have wished that perhaps, yes, I wanted to capture reality, if only in imagination and by artificial means, which holds me in captivity and very realistically too; I wanted to change my eternal objectivity into a subject, I wanted to become a name-giver, instead of being named.” This Auschwitz survivor is standing before you now. The title of his novel is The Failure, and at the time he wrote these line he never even heard the name of Jean Améry.

In the chapter entitled “Torture”, Améry challenges a definition ‘totalitarianism’ that washes together party dictatorships of all hues, especially Hitlerite and Stalinist party dictatorships. By equating Hitler with some ‘obscure’ notion, such as ‘totalitarianism, rather saying he was the executioner. Wary of making a detour towards political essay, may I point out emphatically that I thoroughly understand Améry’s distinction. A tortured man bearing the burden of the fate he has undertaken, with the weight of his personality and its consequences, refuses to bargain with a general principle. Where would his liberty remain? His Fate? His personality? And on the other hand: who shall he square accounts with? Against whom shall he feel and practise his ressentiment, if everything is as understandable, simple and impersonal as the abstract concept of totalitarianism? Améry found himself vis-à-vis “hostile men” (Gegenmenschen); it was not totalitarianism beating him up with a black-jack and hanging him up by the chained hands; it was a lieutenant speaking with a Berlin accent, called Praust. Moreover, whatever they said of him and he of himself by way of a description, he was above all a German writer and philosopher, and it was German nazism that looked atrocious in his eyes; for him, Russian Bolshevism could only be a runner-up. This is as it should be, and no serious man could put a mark of equality between the two phenomena. “I am convinced that torture was not accidental to the Third Reich: it was its essence,” Améry writes. It needs to be added though that torture was not an accidental element of the sickle-and-hammer type of state totalitarianism either; it was its essence. In any case, torture is essential to all exclusions raised to state level, to dictatorships that swell power to tyranny. Améry acknowledges that too. Yet in certain questions he appears to dig in his heels. He is ready to speak of anti-semitism as though it were the same prejudice as it was in our grandfathers’ time. This is exactly what the Nazis—and all those who follow them to this day in East or Western Europe or anywhere—wanted people to believe. However, it is our duty to recognise the difference of quality. 19th-century anti-semitism could or would hardly have conceived Endlösung. Auschwitz, therefore, cannot be explained in terms of the common or archaic, shall I say classic, anti-semitism—this is something we have to understand very precisely. There is no organic connection whatsoever. Our age is not an age of anti-semitism, it is of Auschwitz. And the anti-semite of our age no longer loathes Jews; he wants Auschwitz. Eichmann confessed at his trial in Jerusalem that he had never been an anti-semite, and though the audience at the trial burst out laughing he may have been right; I find this quite possible. In order to kill millions of Jews, the totalitarian state in the last analysis needs good organisers, rather that anti-semites. We have to see clearly that no totalitarian party or state can do without discrimination; and the totalitarian form of discrimination is by necessity mass murder.

I needed to make this detour in order to return to what Améry had specified with a painful precision as “accident”. No man could have been more aware of his own accidental existence as someone “prostrate” because of his Jewishness, who tried to perform his attempts at “gaining the upper hand” under the so-called socialism. The proletarian dictatorship disliked any mention of the Holocaust; and since it disliked it it suppressed such voices too or else channelled them into conformist euphemistic clichés. If anyone was bold enough to think that Auschwitz was the greatest event for Man since the Crucifix—for man who got over European ethical culture traumatically, and if he wanted to approach these questions with proper seriousness, well, then he had to reckon with being condemned to total loneliness and isolation. His books were printed in a limited number of copies, if at all, and himself banished to the margins of literary and intellectual life, into the deaf silence of controlled criticism as into a solitary cell; in other words, his work was then condemned to death just as he himself had been condemned to death at a time.

Why the sickle-and-hammer type of totalitarianism identified itself with the swastika type in respect of the Holocaust has obviously had good reasons, some of them not so mysterious either; however, now I want to speak about its use. For some time now I have given much thought to the fact that the Holocaust reached its intended victims not only in the concentration camps but also decades later. The liberation of camps merely postponed the verdict which then those selected for death had executed on themselves: Paul Celan, Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Améry committed suicide and also Primo Levi, though he had challenged Améry’s determined existential radicalism in a pamphlet. If I confront my fate with theirs, so demonstrative from several aspects, I have to think that I had been helped to get over the past decades obviously by a ‘society’ that after Auschwitz, in the form of the so-called Stalinism, proved that there was no possibility for liberty, liberation, great catharsis, etc.—everything that in more fortunate climates intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers not only spoke of but also obviously believed in; that guaranteed a continuation of a prisoner’s life for me, thus excluding even the possibility of erring. This is clearly the reason why I had not been affected by a wave of disillusionment that those with similar experience living in freer societies had fled from and which reached their feet first and however much they tried to speed up their steps it slowly reached up to their throats. Since I was a captive and so was the nation in which I lived, I had no problems of identity. Now that the prison walls have come down, amid the din amongst the ruins the hoarse wailing of post-Auschwitz anti-semitism, i.e. anti-semitism demanding Auschwitz, is heard again. I greet the cries of hatred as brotherly voices, just as the hero of Camus’s L’étranger did. What have I to do with them? The post-Auschwitz, programmatic anti-semitism is today a private matter which might destroy me still, but this would be anachronism itself, a mistake in which, as Hegel would have put it, there is no world spirit present; it would be provincialism then, lack of culture—“entirely a matter for the anti-semites, their shame or their sickness,” Améry writes. On the other hand, it opens up my eyes to my genuine position, should a ephemeral illusion of recaptured freedom make me forget about it for a passing moment.

This situation in itself would not deserve much attention. It is the situation of a survivor who tried to survive his own survival and, what is more, interpret it, and who belongs in the last generation of survivors and as such knows full well that, with his generation gone, the living memory of the Holocaust will disappear from the world. His being here is a mere accident, it is incidental, something that calls for constant justification, even though it is unjustifiable. Yet does not the situation resemble Man’s general and cosmic condition, as we have been accustomed to it in the interpretation of modern philosophy and anthropology? When he analyses his alienation, loss of his “trust in the world”, his social loneliness and his plight as an existential outcast, Améry surpasses the confines of his work, I believe, in the strict sense, and speaks simply about human condition. The survivor is but an extremely tragic upholder of contemporary Man’s condition, who has experienced and suffered the culmination of this condition—Auschwitz, which is looming up in the horizon behind our back like a vision of the world conceived in a deranged mind, and as the distance grows between us, paradoxically its outlines seem to be expanding and growing, rather than fading. Today it is obvious that survival is not a personal problem for survivors: the long, dark shadows of the Holocaust are projected onto the entire civilisation in which it took place and which has to go on with the weight and consequences of those events.

I exaggerate, you may say, for you can hardly meet any traces of these consequences; the world has for long been speaking about something else. The importance of such issues will be decided by whether they are vital issues or not. If we examine whether the Holocaust is a vital issue of European civilisation and European consciousness, we find that it is because the same civilisation must respond to it within whose framework it had been carried out—otherwise itself will become an accidental civilisation, a disabled protozoan drifting helpless towards its own destruction. Consequently, it cannot avoid coming to a decision about it. What do I mean by that, when it seems to have brought its decision already? It seems that Améry’s and Borowski’s fears that the murderers will be right proved to be groundless: annihilation, state-controlled genocide, has no culture in Europe, it only has a practice. This practice is unjustifiable though, and should it once become justifiable morally, that would mean the end of life, and everybody is aware of this. A host of social scientific and historical works tried to ‘process’ the phenomenon of the Holocaust. The widest possible range of interpretations were offered, from the banality of murder to demonological works. I even read, in a study by a lady philosopher, that the Holocaust cannot be fitted into history—as though history were some chest of drawers and whether something fitted into it or not depended on the size of drawers. However, in one respect the lady philosopher was right: the Holocaust, by its essence, is not a historical event, in the sense that the Lord giving Moses two tables of stone with letters engraved in them on the Mount of Sinai is not a historical event.

I wonder if the outlines of what I want to say have now emerged. All the while I have spoken about one question, and it is something that is not usually posed openly, maybe it is something that is ‘not done’; and yet this question should be settled along that mysterious and lengthy way and mode in which great ethical questions are eventually settled. And the question is this: Can the Holocaust create values? For as I see it, the process that has been going on for decades, in the course of which it was first suppressed and then documented, is now grappling precisely with this question. Being documented proved to be insufficient; as I said, we have to decide about it, and this involves judgment of value. If we are unable to confront our past, we are condemned to repeat it forever—we have learnt this from Santayana. A viable society must keep alive and renew constantly the knowledge and consciousness of itself and of its own criteria. And if the decision is that the grave, black funereal ceremony of the Holocaust is an inalienable part of this consciousness, the decision rests not on some compassion or atonement but on living judgment of value. The Holocaust is value because it has led to immeasurable knowledge through immeasurable suffering; therefore it has an immeasurable amount of moral reserves in it.

The tragic knowledge of the world possessed by morality that has survived the Holocaust, if preserved, may as yet fertilise the crisis-hit European consciousness, just as the Greek genius confronting barbarism and fighting the Persian war created the drama of the Antiquity, an eternal model. If the Holocaust has by now created a culture, as it has and as it is undeniably happening, its literature may take inspiration from these regions—the Bible and Greek tragedy, the two main sources of European culture—in order that irredeemable reality gave birth to atonement: spirit and catharsis.

It may well be that you will think this is an Utopian view and say that you cannot see a trace of it in real life. Moreover, in real life you see the opposite: indifferent masses, cynical ideologies, amnesia, murder and chaos. However, important events are not always reflected in contemporary, direct reality. In any case, I am speaking about a process whose outlines I can see, I think, but whose outcome is naturally unknown. As I said at the beginning, we live in the context of a culture, and in this context we cannot see Jean Améry’s body elsewhere than in a memorial of the Holocaust which is constantly being built and in which he placed it as though a blood-soaked flower.

Address given at the Jean Améry Symposium held on 23 October 1992 in the assembly hall of the University of Vienna.

Imre Kertész was born in 1929 in Budapest. He was still a secondary-school pupil when in 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz because of his Jewishness. He was released in Buchenwald in 1945. He finished his secodary-school studies in 1948. Between 1949 and 1951 he was a journalist on the daily Világosság which was later relaunched under the title Esti Budapest. He was sacked in early 1951. Between 1951 and 1953 he did his military service. From 1963 he has been a free-lance writer and translator.

Works: Sorstalanság [Fatelessness], novel; A nyomkeresô [The Pathfinder], novel; A kudarc [The Failure], novel; Kaddish a meg nem született gyermekért [Khaddish for an Unborn Child], novel; Gályanapló [Diary on the Galley], diary novel; Az angol lobogó [The British Flag], Jegyzôkönyv [Minutes], short stories; A holocaust mint kultúra [The Holocaust as Culture], three essays; Valaki más – a változás krónikája, 1992–1995 [Someone Else – Chronicle of a Change, 1992–1995], novel.