The Doors Of Holocaust Memory Are Closing

Like me, the Nobel laureate Imre Kertész was in Budapest when the Nazis came for the Jews. Now it is too late to ask him about that time

Imre Kertész: A bit of a lark, then the horror of Auschwitz (Csaba Segesvári CC BY-SA 3.0)


Imre Kertész is dead. Another door has closed. Kertész, the only Hungarian ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a survivor of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and subsequently decades of Communist rule in his native country. There was a very special reason why I so wanted to meet him. It was not to be. The Hungarian author was 86 years old when he died in March.

I felt it more urgent to fix an interview with the 96-year-old Lord Weidenfeld to ask him some frankly awkward questions about his dealings in the early 1950s with the notorious SS Sturmbannführer Wilhelm Hoettl, whose potted autobiography he published. But Weidenfeld too died this year, before we could meet again. In a much earlier conversation, I had felt it impolitic to raise my doubts but wished to give him a chance to address them before the curtain of death descended. Hoettl was in Budapest at the time of Kertész’s deportation from the city at the end of June 1944. Hoettl had been the Nazi intelligence officer responsible for south-east Europe. His memorandum of March 11, 1944, was the immediate reason why the following day Hitler signed the order for Operation Margaretha I, the “restricted occupation” of Hungary. A week later, Adolf Eichmann was in Budapest. In less than four months more than 430,000 Jews had been deported, almost all of them to Auschwitz. Yet documents declassified by the CIA show that Hoettl in 1944 was already in touch with Allen Dulles, head of the CIA’s precursor, the OSS, in Switzerland. The United States was interested in using the Nazi intelligence apparatus against Stalin after the war. Weidenfeld’s dealings with Hoettl less than a decade later are intriguing, to say the least.

Coming back to Kertész, it was the journalist and author Sarah Helm who stimulated my determination to take advantage of the last chances to speak in detail with Holocaust survivors. While she was researching her fine book on the concentration camp for women at Ravensbrück (If This Is A Woman, Abacus, £10.99), she had contacted a French former doctor who had been an inmate. The lady urged her to come soon since she was in her nineties. Following Helm’s example, I have talked with extremely elderly people, including some already suffering from loss of memory about the here and now, and found them to be founts of information about their wartime experiences. Memories which they previously had suppressed or deliberately hidden now came to the fore. They spoke with a new openness about intimate secrets.

To Kertész, a central point of his teenage life and a key part of his main novel, titled in translation Fateless or Fatelessness, was his mordant description of his deportation from Csepel Island in Budapest to the brickyard in the northern suburb of Budakalász. After a few days there, he was packed onto a train bound for Auschwitz. As he acknowledged in a later “self interview”, the hero of the novel was a version of himself.

Following Albert Camus in The Stranger, Kertész resorted to fiction as a way to convey the seeming absurdity of his extreme experiences as a 14-year-old. Starting normally with everyday angst about his confused family life and with a mild early flirtation, he suddenly and seamlessly found himself forced to work at the Shell Oil refinery on Csepel, an island on the Danube just beyond the city boundary of Budapest. That was because he was Jewish, though his family’s lack of religious background meant that he hardly realised what it meant to be Jewish and why certain people considered it a problem. Being taken from school to carry out compulsory labour was a bit of a lark. It also gave him the right to use public transport to reach his place of work. This was something denied to other Jews in Budapest after Hitler’s meeting with his Hungarian ally Admiral Miklós Horthy at Klessheim Castle and the subsequent semi-occupation of the country by the Germans on 19 March, 1944.

One day at the end of June 1944, what was still something of an adventure moved into a new phase. It still seemed pleasant enough. Kertész and his young work companions joined a walk from Csepel. The group became ever larger as others joined from different directions. When he found himself in a brickyard together with thousands of other Jews, he didn’t know what to make of it. The five days that followed were a blur, except that one morning he ran up an incline to see what was going on, when there was a noise of falling bombs.

Then, “all they announced was that anyone inclined to do so could present himself for work, specifically in Germany. Just like the rest of the boys and many others in the brickyard, I found that idea immediately attractive. In any case, we were told by the men, identifiable from their armbands as belonging to a body called the ‘Jewish Council’, one way or another, willingly or forcibly, everyone would sooner or later be resettled from the brickyard to Germany, and the better places, not to speak of the concession of being able to travel no more than sixty per carriage, would be granted to those who volunteered first, whereas later at least eighty would have to.” Days later, he arrived: not in Germany but at Auschwitz.

What started out in such undramatic fashion was to become the defining experience of his life. He worked for years on the short, tightly-worded masterpiece he published in 1975.

I speak only two words of Hungarian. The rest of the language was lost when I came to England at the age of four to a family which spoke no Hungarian. So it took a long time for me to hear of Kertész, still less to read a translation of his work, which reached an international audience after he received the Nobel Prize in 2002.

I made a discovery. The brickyard at Budakalász was where I was taken, as an infant of 12 months, during precisely the days Kertész was there. Our onward destinations were completely different. But we shared a crucial week in our lives. I yearned to hear from him what it had really been like, what he had felt, what some of the details omitted from Fatelessness had been.

It is, in fact, surprisingly hard to find such subjective information. A problem for me is that I found it impossible to engage during her lifetime with the only adult member of my family who was in a position to remember. All I would receive in reply would be a declaration — probably well-deserved — of her own heroism combined with more dubious, and certainly intolerable, denigration of other family members. Inability to speak with older relatives is not at all unusual for Holocaust survivors.

Would it not be possible to make use of other testimony? There are severe difficulties here as well. Thousands were gathered in the Budakalász brickyard and at a second site in Monor. The report of the Hungarian gendarmerie records that 24,128 people were deported from these two places between 6 and 8 July on eight trains — the destination: Auschwitz. Most were gassed. Others died from appalling conditions of slave labour, the policy of Vernichtung durch Arbeit (death through work), death marches and starvation. Most of the select band left alive in 1945 died over subsequent decades.

Moreover, victims were assembled for slaughter at so many points in so many places that there tend to be few formal accounts relating to any one of them. The Holocaust was such a massive series of events that people wishing to find out in detail about any one of them may well find relatively little. The crimes were like a forest so that the many individual trees, each representing the deaths of hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands, are all too easily obscured. For instance, Roman Vishniac’s classic but misleading book A Vanished World showing pre-war photographs of poverty-stricken Hasidic Jews in the town of Munkács (now Mukacheve in Ukraine, with a population then nearly half Jewish) portrays one of the main Jewish centres of Carpatho-Ruthenia. Yet, as the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer later told a potential Australian researcher, Anna Berger, there had been no adequate account of it after the war. Late in the day, she conducted a set of interviews. Her valuable work leaves the reader asking for much more.

What of the more than 50,000 video interviews conducted under the auspices of Steven Spielberg’s celebrated Visual History Archive of the Holocaust now based at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles? The core difficulty with much of this and of other collections is that one of their main objectives was to provide a bastion against Holocaust denial. Therefore interviewers tended to ask a routine set of questions in order to prove for the umpteenth time that some six million Jews were starved, ghettoised, shot and gassed. They do indeed prove this again and again but at the cost of downgrading the detail and understanding which could have emerged from a smaller number of in-depth testimonies.

Kertész protested about Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (he dismissed it as “kitsch” writing and said “the whole film lacks credibility”). He also objected to the sheer number of Spielberg interviews. In his self-interview published in English translation in 2013 as Dossier K, Kertész expressed his dislike of “the interviews with elderly survivors in that Spielberg series”. He went on: “I hate all those kind of statements like ‘They herded us into the stables . . . They drove us out into a courtyard . . . They took us off to the brickworks in Budakalász,’ and the like.”

While working with Holocaust survivors on the campaign for slave labour compensation, I discovered that it took years to win sufficient trust for them to impart their feelings and key experiences about events which could be considered shameful, which reflected on fellow survivors, or which were simply too painful. The director of the Imperial War Museum told me that a survivor who became one of my closest friends had entrusted testimony to remain unpublished while his children lived. He could not cause them needless suffering.
Kertész was one of the few people with whom I could hope to relive the few days we went through but which I cannot remember. His lifelong search for “authenticity”, his descriptive and emotional skills, could assure that. I could ask about details not included in his published works.

There was a further, equally important motive for my quest. The days after June 30 when we both were immured in the brickyards were a particularly important juncture in the Final Solution. There are hints of them in his narrative. The events of those days have left several vital unresolved historical questions. One is the continuing controversy about the negotiations between the Zionist-led rescue committee in Budapest and Eichmann. This separated his fate from mine: a baby of 12 months, as I was, would have been sent to the gas chambers on arrival at Auschwitz. I was included in about 20 families out of the thousands at the brickyards saved in the ransom deal. The Jewish Council, which Kertész mentions as aiding the deportation process for the likes of him and for the vast majority, helped to save a privileged few. Perhaps it is survivor’s guilt, apparently a common phenomenon, which made me want to speak with him.

My good luck derived from the fact that a  cousin, Ernő Marton, had edited the Zionist newspaper in the Transylvanian town of Cluj. His deputy was Rudolf Kastner, the man who led the negotiations with Eichmann in 1944. The merits of attempting to “deal with the devil” continue to exercise Jewry. To many, Kastner was considered a collaborator. On the night of March 4, 1957, he was assassinated outside his Tel Aviv home.