Arnošt Lustig

(b. 21st December 1926)

Aleš Haman

(West Bohemian University, Plzen)

Arnošt Lustig is one of the writers who based his work on the suffering and degradation of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps. He himself experienced these horrors as an adolescent and made up his mind to use his experiences in fictional form to warn of the dehumanization of people in totalitarian regimes. His first works from the end of the fifties shed a new light on the theme of war and the holocaust. Lustig's approach to the subject was new in that he did not write about conventional heroics but concentrated on non-heroic types like old people and children. In his works the moral values recognized by the human conscience are represented as "diamonds" in the "night" of inhuman suffering. These moral values come to the surface in extreme situations where a man's life hangs in the balance and where in spite of everything he is able to overcome the instinct of self-preservation. Lustig's short stories use the film technique of fast intercutting sequences which highlight conflicts in tense situations between individual conscience and external events. In a number of his novels Lustig uses his own experiences, transformed into fiction.

Arnošt Lustig was born in Prague into the family of Emil and Terezie Lustig on December 21st, 1926. They were a middle-class family who lived in modest, but not deprived circumstances, in the district of Liben in the outskirts of Prague. Lustig's novel Dum vrácené ozveny (The Echoing House) gives a faithful picture of the environment in which he grew up. In one interview the author said of his childhood,"I grew up in a district of very poor and unemployed people whom I got to know well. These people fully relied on luck, they constantly dodged problems and responsibilities and even committed petty offences in order to get money and survive. When I arrived in the concentration camp I saw that my life there had become a distillation of the lives of these people. I was better equipped to survive knowing how they had lived. However it was a lot harder there..."

Lustig attended a junior technical school (meštanská škola). He was expelled from it after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1939 and after the introduction of the Nuremberg race laws into the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He got a job in a tailor's workshop and later in a leather goods factory. He used experiences from this period of his life in the original short story version of his novel Dum vrácené ozveny, which appeared in the 1968 collection Horká vune mandlí (The Bitter Smell of Almonds).

However the worst time of his life was still to come. As a sixteen-year old he was deported with his family to Theresiendstadt in central Bohemia. In the days of Austria-Hungary it had been a fortified military town. During the Nazi occupation it became a reception centre, more exactly a ghetto, for the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia. There, in the monstrous system chillingly devised by the Nazis for the ultimate "solution" of the Jewish question, Lustig suffered the most dreadful experiences of his life.

From Theresienstadt the Lustig family, parents, an uncle and his sister, were transported to Auschwitz, one of the most brutal concentration camps. His father died there and his mother and sister were removed to the women's section. (In an interview Lustig remembers seeing his mother, barefoot and wearing a flimsy shirt, stumble along a street in the camp with a group of other women, in foggy twilight.) The adolescent boy was left dependent on himself and his friends. A strong constitution, a cheerful disposition, and the ability to get on with other people made it possible for the future writer to endure the harsh conditions, when his life was always in danger. Several of his experiences from this time provided him with ready-made dramatic stories. All they needed was to be written down and cast in a literary form. In an interview in 1990 for the American magazine The World and I Lustig said of one of these experiences,"'The Second Round' is a story ... about a friend of mine who also appears in Tma nemá stín (Darkness casts no Shadow) . He saved my life in the most incredible fashion. We hadn't had anything to eat for the six days in the transport train, from which we eventually escaped. On one occasion when the train stopped, we drew lots to see who was to go and steal bread, because we were weak and wouldn't be able to escape if we didn't get any food. The lot fell to me. I had only sixty seconds to get to the German provision van and sixty seconds to get back. Ten seconds to get hold of the bread. I was very proud of being able to show how fast I could run. I thought, now my life depends on how fast I am. I was fast. I got there. I counted sixty. The bread was at the bottom of the van, but my arms were too short to reach it. I tried again and nearly broke my arm. You must understand, even in camp your reputation mattered. To some people it might seem strange but it was a question of honour. It was the last thing a man had left. I would have been ashamed to fail. I kept trying till I succeeded. I knew the return journey would be difficult. I had already used up twenty seconds. The guard was shouting "Halt!" Before he could stop me I threw the bread to my friends but they couldn't catch it. I was able to tell the guard I didn't have any bread. He said if I didn't give him the bread before he counted three he would shoot me. I repeated I hadn't any bread, hoping that that would save me. He aimed his pistol at me and began counting. I kept my eyes on the man's pistol and on his thick finger on the trigger. He said 'two' and cocked the pistol. I knew that at three it would be all over. At that moment my best friend leapt out in front of me shielding me from the pistol. The German said 'Shit!' but with a note of admiration. He couldn't believe the courage of the boy who had run between me and the gun. My friend said in very bad German,'Don't shoot! Can't you see he hasn't any bread?' I pointed to three Polish Jews who had grabbed the bread. The guard turned round. The bread had gone. They had eaten it."

Lustig has spoken rarely about the transports of Jews from Theresiendstadt, mostly he has done so in his interviews for various American magazines. He did mention that a few weeks after he and his family had been sent to Theresianstadt, five thousand people were moved from there to the extermination camps. As we have said, Lustig's father was also murdered by the Nazis. In another interview Lustig recalled that tragic moment. "I asked a friend where my father was. He said,'You see, your father didn't take off his glasses.' In Auschwitz, anyone who wore glasses or had grey hair, or seemed old or ill, went to the gas chamber. Because I had worked as a blacksmith and a bricklayer I was strong physically, so they put me among those who were to live. My father wore glasses. They sent him to the gas chamber."

Lustig's mother and sister were sent from Auschwitz to the camp in Freiburg where they worked in an aircraft factory. Later they were transferred to Mauthausen. They survived the war. Lustig was one of the few out of fifteen thousand Jewish children to return from a concentration camp.

In the short story Tma nemá stín, later extended into a novella, the author based the fictional escape on his own dramatic escape from the transport taking prisoners to the concentration camp at Dachau. In the spring of 1945 the train carrying hundreds of prisoners, including Lustig, was attacked by an American dive-bomber. In the ensuing pandemonium Lustig and his friend managed to jump from the train and escape the fire of the guards. Then they set off on the hazardous journey to Bohemia. Several times they were caught by German peasants but they finally managed to reach Prague. There Lustig hid till May, when he took an active part in the May rising of the people of Prague. Again he used his own experiences of this in the story "Chlapec u okna" (Boy at the Window) from his collection Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night). During the revolt the boy, the central character in the story, has to cross a street under fire from the Nazis in order to get food for a hospital full of wounded fighters.

When the country was free again, a number of careers were open to the twenty-year old future writer. Lustig decided on journalism and became a member of staff of Czechoslovak radio. He wrote articles for several journals, particularly for Zidovský vestník (The Jewish Gazette). In 1948-1949 he was a war correspondent in Israel, which was at that time engaged in fighting for recognition as an independent state. The Czechoslovak government of the day supported the Israeli fight for independence (its position changed only to be in line with the Soviet Bloc's position, which came to support the Arab world). In 1949 in Israel, he married Vera Weislitz, the daughter of a furniture maker from Ostrava, who was then in the Israeli army. No doubt it was the young couple's interest in literature that brought them together. Lustig's wife is the author of a collection of poems. They had two children - a son Josef and a daughter Eva.

In 1951-1954 Lustig studied social and political science at university. He also became interested in the journalistic work of the Czech-German publicist and journalist Egon Erwin Kisch. As a radio reporter Lustig frequently travelled out of the country. In 1958, after the success of his first book, he joined the staff of the weekly magazine Mladý svet for two years. From 1960 he was a scriptwriter in the Barrandov film studios in Prague.

Lustig felt that films offered him greater creative freedom than journalism. Talking of journalism and film work and of his own experiences as a reporter, he said in an interview, "Journalism teaches you economy of expression, discipline, humour and humility...You can't wait for inspiration. You have to set out to do and finish whatever your boss tells you to. It teaches you to write with the reader in mind, to use the simplest and most precise expressions to suit the subject matter and the reader. Then after a time it all becomes routine and you stop enjoying it." Although he spoke appreciatively about the work of a scriptwriter, especially about the financial rewards, he was nevertheless clearly aware of the difference between the work of an author and that of a scriptwriter. "Writing is for contemplation, for inner vision. A film is something to be looked at." Scriptwriting was certainly profitable, but a writer's career was what really mattered to Lustig. As he said, "Everything - including films - stems from books."

In the early sixties Lustig adapted a number of his works for the screen and television. In 1962 Zbynek Brynych directed the film Transport z ráje (Transport from Paradise).This was an adaptation of short stories from the collection Noc a nadeje (Night and Hope), the first book that had drawn attention to the author as a new literary talent. In 1964 Jan Nemec made a film of Lustig's second book Démanty noci, first published in 1958. Three years previously the same director had adapted Lustig's story Sousto (A Bite to Eat) as his graduating test piece. Soon other of Lustig's stories, Modrý den (The Blue Day, 1960) and Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou (A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzová, 1965) were adapted as television plays.

The author's first work Noc a nadeje was favourably received by the critics. Readers were impressed chiefly by the unpretentious way he portrayed the passions and lives of weak, defenceless people, crushed by an inhuman system. In the main, the characters were old people and children, victims of violence, unlike the heroes that had been the norm in post-war Czech literature up till then. Lustig discovered in these people flashes of moral courage that came to the surface from the depths of their souls when their lives were in greatest danger. The moments when people showed they were capable of acting independently according to their own conscience, in situations where abnormal, crazy behaviour replaced reason, the author saw as "diamonds" shining in the "night" of man's despair and desolation in a world of evil and violence.

Lustig's successful debut was undoubtedly also due to the fact that the stories looked at the wartime past from a new point of view. At the same time they drew attention to the previously neglected predicament of the Jews, making them a symbol, focussing attention on individuals as members of a group discriminated against by society and on their relationship to a state system producing discrimination. A parallel could be drawn here between Nazi anti-Semitism and the communist tenet of class hatred. Lustig's books about the suffering of the Jews in concentration camps started a series of a number of Czech literary works with Jewish subjects that appeared in the early sixties (Josef Škvorecký, Ladislav Fuks, Hana Belohradská and others).

At the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties Lustig's literary output was prolific. By 1959 he had published his third book of short stories called Ulice ztracených bratrí (The Street of Lost Brothers). Contemporary critics found that not all the stories in this collection were of the same high standard. In some of them Lustig tried to relate his themes of wartime suffering to the present, but where he yielded to contemporary convention, their impact was considerably weakened.Yet even here one story suggested that the author's work might find a new direction. This was the short story "Muj známý Vili Feld" (My Friend Vili Feld). It is the story of a man, once a prisoner in a concentration camp, who had emigrated but had found no sense of security either at home under communist rule or abroad in the West and who longs in vain to go back. The story is told from the point of view of a young reporter who carelessly breaks a promise to the lonely émigré and is indirectly responsible for his attempt to commit suicide. Lustig, as was his habit, reworked this story into an independent novel in 1961.

At that time in Czechoslovakia, art and literature was expected to be basically educational. From that point of view Lustig was criticized for concentrating on a "peripheral phenomenon" of minor importance. However Lustig had hit on the very productive theme of total human deprivation. He reworked it again into an independent short novel Dita Saxová (1961).This is the story of a Jewish girl seeking her place in the postwar world after her dreadful experience as a child in a concentration camp. When she returns from the camp she lives in a hostel with people of her own age. But she cannot find a common language with them. Neither her surroundings nor the ideas of an old Marxist intellectual can reach her through the dark curtain of her past. Nor does she find contentment in the West where she eventually emigrates. On the contrary she is so distressed by the prevailing attitudes in the West that she commits suicide. Dita Saxová had her own concept of the good life, which she could not live either in a world prohibiting pain and imposing joy on people, or in a world offering comfort and luxury at the cost of losing one's integrity and self-esteem. Here the influence of communist ideology, depicting the West as a jungle, is still evident. Lustig later spoke of these prejudices in an interview for an American magazine when he was describing his feelings after he arrived in the USA.

Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou is one of Lustig's most successful novels. It was also made into a film. The central character is a beautiful Jewish girl, whom a rich American of Jewish origin saves from death. He is one of a group of American Jews captured in Italy who try to use their money to secure their release from the Nazis and certain extermination. It is the devilish game played by the German officer on the gullible victims that gives the story its effect. By promising them freedom he inveigles the wealthy prisoners into parting with more and more money. But he is merciless and when they have nothing left he sends them to the gas chamber. The girl Katerina, who has seen through this horrific deception, turns on her torturer at the last moment and, with the gun belonging to the officer preparing the prisoners for the gas chamber, shoots him only to die herself in the murderous fire cutting down the condemned men.

With its dramatic climax, influenced by the fashion of the times, this work shows that the author had learned from his experience in films how to build up a situation and construct a plot. The theme of this story is one that runs all through Lustig's work from the beginning: it is the theme of rebellion and revenge. The author mentioned later in an interview that long after the story had been written, he found out some new facts that radically changed the character of the heroine. The truth was that she had been promised her release in return for collaborating with the Nazis.

In the mid-sixties Lustig was one of the favoured artists and intellectuals who enjoyed advantages and opportunities denied the ordinary citizen. Lustig gave an example of this when he answered a question about this period in his life in an interview. "As an author and scriptwriter I lived well. When I wanted to visit Honolulu... they sent me there twice. When I wanted to visit San Francisco and... look for Jack London's house and grave, they made it possible for me."

Of course the author was intelligent enough to know that the opportunities offered him were at the expense of people who were being persecuted and whose freedom was restricted because they would not submit to political pressure. In the mid-sixties he was invited by high-ranking communist officials to a private showing of Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film about Hitler and Nazi Germany. Afterwards one of the officials suggested that that kind of film might serve as an example for contemporary film-makers. Lustig was deeply offended by such praise for Nazi propaganda and that was one of the reasons he began to look critically at contemporary life. In 1990 he explained this himself in an interview for the National Jewish Monthly. "My ideas began to change when Jewish doctors were charged with the attempted assassination of Stalin and Maxim Gorky. When I first read about the doctors' trial, I came out in a cold sweat. I had joined the Communist party to fight against Fascism. First, I thought that it was not the concept of communism but its leaders that were at fault. Perhaps the greatest thing about communism is its talent for making people believe uncritically in its dogma and forgive the faults of its leaders. And when the people do notice the faults, all kinds of excuses are found for the ideology. However the leaders cannot go on sacrificing victims in the name of the ideology for ever because everybody's life becomes a ghastly absurdity, a continuous nightmare. Instead of inspiring people with pride, communist regimes constantly manipulate the citizens till they become timid mice.The word "man" no longer has a heroic sound..... "

In 1966 Bílé brízy na podzim (The White Birches in Autumn) was published. Although not overtly stated, the theme of the work was provocative. It is the story of an unsophisticated love affair set in the so-called punitive units of the Czechoslovak army, to which criminals and politically unreliable intellectuals were sent. (A satirical portrayal of this social ghetto in the novel Miroslav Švandrlík Cerní baroni (The Black Barons) did not appear until three years later, as the relatively free atmosphere of the Prague spring lingered on.) The author conveyed perfectly this dehumanizing environment by the use of his own special language, by slangy nicknames and by characters that are merely embodiments of the functions they carry out. There is a contrast between the environment and the growing love of a young man, one of these social outcasts, for an unsophisticated village girl prostituting herself with members of the labour brigade. In this way Lustig allied himself with those authors who drew attention to the degradation people might suffer even in a so-called socialist society. Fot the first time novels by writers with experience of communist concentration camps and prisons (Jan Beneš, Karel Pecka, Jirí Mucha and others) frankly exposed the inhuman face of the system that Lustig's work had merely hinted at.

Lustig's turning to the present day for his subjects was also connected with the change in Czech culture and society in the 1960s, when demand for reform and liberalisation of the communist regime began to gain ground. Literature and the arts were the very areas where the reforming movement made the greatest impact. Above all it criticized the aesthetic norms of so-called socialist realism and insisted that aesthetic ideas are not absolute and can recognize different principles.

This was the state of affairs in 1968 when Lustig's ninth book, a collection of stories entitled Horká vune mandlí was published. The centrepiece of the collection was "Dum vrácené ozveny" (The Echoing House), reworked as a novel after more than twenty years. The background is autobiographical. It is the story of a Prague Jewish family at the mercy of the evils unleashed by Nazism. Signs of these evils that were to have a fateful influence on the lives of millions of Europeans were becoming apparent but only a few people were capable of reading them. The majority, represented by the characters in Lustig's story, had not enough vision to foresee the threatening storm that would sweep them off to a cruel death. The bitter smell of almonds was the smell given off by the gas Cyclon B that the Nazis used in the gas chambers. This short story, particularly in its adapted form as a novel, is also a memorial to the author's father, who up to the last moment kept thinking of the family he could not save from a tragic fate.

Contemporary critics regarded this book merely as a return to traditional and psychological realism. However they missed the symbolic, almost mythological imagery - for example the motif of the gasometer, a building typical of the district of Prague where most of the novel takes place, foreshadowing the death of the characters in the gas chambers.

When Horká vune mandlí was published, the shadow of another occupation fell on Lustig's fatherland after the invasion by Soviet troops in August 1968. It was the beginning of the end of Lustig's successful career at home as a writer.

In 1969 when the party and the state were heading towards what they called "normalization", a political clampdown following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, Lustig's most wide-ranging novel Milácek (Darling) was published. In it the author returned to his experiences at the end of the 1940s as a young war correspondent in the Israeli-Arab war. The plot is based on the love of two men, both actively engaged in the fight for Israeli self-determination, for the same woman. The story unfolds through a succession of tense scenes of action alternating, in a fashion typical of the author, with more peaceful scenes representing the love of a Czech reporter for a Jewish woman. In trying to present a wide panorama of the time, Lustig introduces more characters, but by so doing the novel loses cohesion. In places, facts about the progress of the war and locations stand in the way of what the author intended as its basic message; war destroys love through the invisible wounds it inflicts on a man's innermost being. The very subject matter was unacceptable to the communist regime of the day. They decided to confiscate the book and destroy the type-setting , a decision strengthened by Lustig's refusal to return to his occupied country. This was a blow to the regime's international reputation, for Lustig's name was by now well-known abroad.

Lustig's books were translated into English and other languages and with the films made from them they won international acclaim. In spite of that, Lustig did not have an easy time when he left the country for good. He reached the United States in 1970 by way of Italy, Israel, where he lived in the kibbutz Hachotrim, and the former Yugoslavia, where he worked for a time in the Jadran film studios in Zagreb. Through the good offices of The International Writing Program he obtained a grant for a year to work in the University of Iowa, where he lectured on script and short story writing. He was a guest lecturer at Nebraska State University, then in 1973 he went to the American University in Washington. Five years later he became a professor. He is still working there today. He lectures about war in films and literature and about the relationship of literature, films and the work of a writer.

For Lustig going to the USA meant a radical change in life-style and opinions. In several interviews for American magazines he said that when he first arrived he had to overcome certain prejudices and fears about the American way of life. Soon however he came to feel that a free society offered many opportunities to people capable of using them. He decided to revise a number of his earlier works to get rid of some of the conventions forced on them by the communist establishment. The story "Dívka u oleandrového kere" (The Girl Beside the Oleander Tree) ends up in its new form as an indictment of a world where people are manipulated and prevented from enjoying basic human relationships, one of which is the relationship of a man and a woman. Today there are three versions of this story - the original from 1959 in the book Ulice ztracených bratrí, the second from 1973 (in Ulice ztracených, published by Index), and the English version of 1990, which was published in Czech in 1996.

Lustig did not adapt original texts just because of the changes in his life and outlook. He explained in various interviews that he never considered the texts of his works as definitive. For that reason he constantly attempted to improve them. Typical additions are factual details to make the world of his characters more real and to probe more deeply into their inner being so that the reader is better able to understand the working of their minds and their character.

So the original short stories take on the dimensions of short novels or full length novels. This had been Lustig's way from the beginning of his literary career, when, as mentioned above, his short story about a ruined émigré expanded into an independent novel. Lustig never lost his interest in this subject. It gave him the idea of writing a novel that would be a fictional account of the situation of modern Jews subjected in the twentieth century to unprecedented genocide. Lustig has continued to bring out his Collected Works at the Hynek Publishing House in Prague. Most of these workshave been extended and/or partially rewritten, so these are in fact new works, certainly in the case of the novel Propast and Dum vrácené ozveny. Lustig§ s latest work is a collection of stories entitles Ohen na snehu E(Fire on snow) which again deals with Nazi concentration camp themes and also includes a story from Italy after World War Two. The character of Vili Feld appears in this collection and this creates the impression that the volume includes fragments of the planned, but never completed novel Král promluvil, nerekl nic (King Spoke, Said Nothing).

Two stories about Jewish girls ("Colette, a girl from Antwerp", "Tanga, a girl from Hamburg") struggling to gain self-respect in the degrading circumstances of their lives, were probably taken from chapters of the novel and published independently. There was to be a third part about Kustka (A Chick), a girl from Prague. Porgess, the story of the son of a Prague businessman, bedridden as a result of wounds received while escaping from a transport, and "Kamarádi" (Friends), describing life in a Prague boarding school for Jewish boys after the occupation by the Nazis, might have been intended to form the fourth part of a complete novel.

Král promluvil, nerekl nic will be perhaps the most substantial of Lustig's novels to date, but it is not the only one with its origins in his short stories. The novel Dum vrácené ozveny has already been mentioned. Another work, adapted and expanded in similar fashion from a short story is Tma nemá stín, a novella about two boys who escape from a transport. Hungry, dirty and cold they make their way to the Czech border evading their German pursuers. It was mainly the central scene of the short story that Lustig expanded into the novel. One of the escapees clashes with a countrywoman in a lonely spot where he is trying to get food. Here the author portrays the conflict in the mind of the boy who has decided to use force, even to murder, to get food. Ultimately his moral conscience is stronger than the powerful instinct of self-preservation and makes it impossible for him to kill. The end of the story is also interesting. The two escapees are caught by armed villagers and are chased at gun-point from the village. The author himself inclined towards a tragic ending, hinting at the death of the boys. However the end is not quite so simple. If we look at the story as a metaphor for a traditional theme, the road to salvation, then escape cannot be ruled out and this would be in keeping

with its autobiographical background.

In the USA Lustig is considered one of the most important writers on the holocaust and in the Czech context he represents the continuing traditions of Prague Jewish literature. In his work Lustig does not simply make accusations of racial hatred. Its scope is much wider. On this subject the author says," It is important for me to show that my books are universal, that they are for all people... It is important for me to show that the fate of the Jews is the fate of all people of the present age. Even if I weren't a Jew, I would choose Jewish themes to write about... The tragedy of the Jews is the tragedy of the twentieth century."

Lustig's books began to reappear in the Czech Republic after the fall of communism in 1989. The author began to return to the Czech Republic where he was again publicly acclaimed. In 1996 he was nominated for the Karel Capek prize by the Czech P.E.N. Club. In the early 1990s he became editor of the literary section of the Czech version of the magazine Playboy. However critics sometimes differ in their opinions about his new books. The younger ones especially reproach him for a certain superficiality of style. His work represents the new realism in Czech postwar writing and cannot be dismissed lightly. In the atmosphere of post-modern relativism and scepticism prevailing as the century draws to a close, Lustig's work effectively offers the reader hope that there are hidden sources of love, fellowship and dignity. To some people, this is not a very modern idea. His best stories however will remain a lasting part of Czech and world literature.