Arnošt Lustig: remembering a great Czech writer

Arnošt Lustig, photo: David Vaughan

This week would have been the 90th birthday of Arnošt Lustig, one of the great voices of contemporary Czech fiction, who died in 2011. As a child he survived Auschwitz and the experience was to define his career as a writer. For all the horrors they describe, Lustig’s books are characterized by an overriding humanity, as humour, passion and compassion endure in the most brutalizing of circumstances. Several of his novels, including Night and Hope and A Prayer for Kateřina Horovitzová, have become international bestsellers, and Lustig continued to write novels right up to the end of his life. In Czech Books this week David Vaughan looks at Arnošt Lustig’s legacy with the translator Pavel Theiner and we shall also catch a glimpse of the writer’s childhood through the memories of two of those who grew up with him in pre-war Prague.

Arnošt Lustig,  photo: David Vaughan
Pavel Theiner has been working with Arnošt Lustig’s children Eva and Josef to commemorate the anniversary. In the course of this month there have been readings, films, concerts and theatre productions, reflecting Lustig’s huge popularity as a writer and person. Pavel’s own connection with the writer goes back a long way.

Pavel Theiner: “I translated some of the work that Arnošt hadn’t had translated – essays, a play – and that was a follow-on to a personal link which was from my childhood, when my father George Theiner translated two of his most famous books, Night and Hope and Dita Saxová. My father, who came back to Czechoslovakia as an eighteen-year-old in 1945, wasn’t allowed to travel after the communists took over and it was by a miracle, thanks to Arnošt Lustig, that he actually saw London again in 1963. Lustig insisted he wouldn’t go to London to plug the book Dita Saxová without him as the translator.”

Your father and Arnošt Lustig were of the same generation.

Pavel Theiner: “My father was just six weeks older than Arnošt Lustig. They both would have been ninety this year. My father had Jewish parents, but in their case they were lucky in that they all managed to get to England between 1938 and 1939 and they spent six years in England.”

Arnošt Lustig’s family was less lucky. During the Nazi occupation, the entire family was sent to the Terezín Ghetto. Against the odds, Arnošt, his sister Hana and their mother survived the camps, but they never saw their father again.

The family had lived in the Prague inner suburb of Libeň, to this day an atmospheric part of the city, where the 19th century synagagogue was – and still remains – one of the most prominent landmarks. It was a place where most people were neither rich nor desperately poor. To give an idea of Arnošt’s childhood, Pavel Theiner recorded the memories of his sister Hana Hnátová and their childhood friend Helga Hošková, both of whom, like Arnošt, survived Auschwitz. Helga remembers that as a little boy Arnošt was not exactly a model of good behaviour.

Helga Hošková,  photo: David Vaughan
Helga Hošková: “We were assimilated and weren’t at all religious. But we did all go to classes with the rabbi instead of religious education at school. We were usually taught by the cantor, Mr Šapíra. He lived next door to the synagogue which is still standing in Libeň. It’s from there that I know Arnošt Lustig, although he didn’t turn up very often. He was such a rascal. He only had to enter the classroom for Mr Šapíra to shout, ‘Lustig, out!’ And Arnošt once said, ‘I just wanted to ask if I have to come at all, given that you always throw me out anyway.’”

Arnošt’s sister Hana paints a similar picture…

Hana Hnátová: “Yes, it seems that Arnošt really didn’t enjoy the classes very much. He behaved very badly, and the cantor wagged his finger at him and said, ‘Lustig, just you watch out. God sees how you’re misbehaving.’ ‘But Mr Šapíra, the blinds are pulled down. God can’t see it.’ I sometimes think that Arnošt’s childhood as a naughty lad running wild in the streets of Libeň and the hills around helped him to survive the conditions in the camps. They’d play cops and robbers and things like that. He wouldn’t come home till evening, and then Mum would force him to sit down and do his homework. Mum was strict but Dad spoiled him.”

Helga Hošková: “… I don’t know whether it really helped him. We were the nicely behaved little girls and we survived too. It was just chance. In the end it depended on the mood of the SS guard, whether he sent you to the left or right. I think I survived by chance and by a series of lucky coincidences.”

Pavel Theiner: “He lived on the streets and didn’t really take much notice of schoolwork or books. This, allied to his positive nature, is interesting. He tried always to make the most of life and, most importantly, people like Arnošt Lustig, who went through the death camps, tried after the war to come to terms with it and made a conscious decision to describe what is in effect impossible to describe, but nevertheless made a damned good job of it.”

Hana Hnátová: “When Arnošt returned from the camps the first thing he did was to go to the school to find his old teacher, Mr Jouza. He asked Arnošt what he had been doing for the last three years, and when Arnošt began telling him, the teacher just stroked his shaved head and Arnošt came to the conclusion that he didn’t believe him. That was what got him wondering about how to communicate what he’d been through. He started by writing articles and from this he went on to write more complex things. And his only subject was the Holocaust. He only wrote three books that were about his life after the war.”

Hana Hnátová,  photo: Adam Kebrt
He chose to try to write about the unimaginable things that he had lived through in the camps, but what remains extraordinary about his writing is that the humanity of the characters, both the perpetrators and the victims, is always present; they behave in ways which are complex and contradictory, and, despite the bleakness of his stories, there is always an element of love, even erotic love.

Pavel Theiner: “I think he was basically somebody not much capable of hatred and somebody who enjoyed life and looked on people’s foibles and mistakes as something that happens to all of us and is natural.”

You have in front of you one of Arnošt Lustig’s best known novels, Night and Hope, in your father George Theiner’s translation into English. You are going to read us an extract from the book. Can you put it into context?

Pavel Theiner: “It’s about Hynek Taussig, who is being loaded onto a cattle truck and taken to the Terezín Ghetto, and it’s something that Arnošt Lustig experienced, having been taken to the gathering site in Prague and then loaded up onto trains, which took some few hours, either to within three miles of Terezín or later right to the ghetto, when an extra spur on the railway was built.”

Towards morning Hynek Taussig was loaded into the cattle truck. He was delirious with joy. He had been the eighty-fifth, the last to go in the truck. Full up! The truck was sealed and, together with thirty-seven others, sent off to Terezín. The clanking noise of the bar on the outside of the truck’s sliding door many hours later meant that they had reached their destination – the ghetto. Despite the fact that mere chance ordained that he should one of the three who fell out of the overcrowded truck as soon as the door was opened by Jewish and German guards – and who were immediately slapped and kicked by Commandant Mönderling by way of welcome – he had the unassailable conviction that the third link in the chain of his good fortune had just been forged. The third and most important, he kept repeating to himself, or – as the saying went – third time lucky.

Here we see a typical Arnošt Lustig paradox, with the young man going into the cattle truck “delirious with joy.”

Pavel Theiner: “Yes I think we see in Lustig’s work an unquenchable optimism, of there being hope of light at the end of the tunnel, even though what they experienced, I think, destroyed a lot of the people who went through there, not just physically, but even those who survived were quite often severely damaged by their experience.

Pavel Theiner,  photo: David Vaughan
“He would have been ninety this year and it is worth remembering his books, especially his early books, published in the sixties and seventies, and more so his efforts to try and make people not forget what happened at Auschwitz, in Treblinka and other places like that.”

As a young man after the war Arnošt Lustig spent some time in Palestine, later Israel, and then he came back to Czechoslovakia, initially as an enthusiastic communist.

Pavel Theiner: “To be fair, yes, Arnošt Lustig was a member of the Communist Party and I would say that he saw the light fairly soon and, importantly, unlike many other people, he was actually quite honest in his later life about this aspect. And I would also like to say that I personally find it difficult to judge people who survived the death camps. Remember too that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. I’m not able to judge in any way and I think Arnošt Lustig has always behaved as a human being. As I said, he was up-front about it. So that’s one thing. The other thing is that I think his wife [Věra, whom he met in Israel at the time of the War of Independence] would have felt quite comfortable living in Israel, but as far as I’m aware Arnošt Lustig’s outlook on life didn’t quite tally with kibbutz life. I don’t think he felt quite comfortable there. I think he felt much more comfortable in Europe or America.”

You have another extract from your father’s translation of Night and Hope. What are you going to read us now?

Pavel Theiner: “It’s following up on Hynek Taussig, and how he felt having arrived.

But Hynek Taussig could not sleep. He kept thinking that there were a great many things in a human being, something of the beast too, but that it was up to him to choose; maybe nobody was going to ask him about it after the war. Perhaps he would not have to answer the question: were you in a blue funk, old fellow, or did you not give a damn? After the war, if only he lived to see it, life would be completely different. No one would need to know anything, either about himself or anyone else. One could live without that, just as one did before. Everything would be plain sailing. Good morning and good-bye. Without being kicked and called names.

As a child, Arnošt Lustig was a bit of a rascal. Even in later life he kept something of that quality. He loved women and for a while he was editor of the Czech edition of Playboy in his early seventies. It’s quite an unusual story for a Holocaust survivor.

Pavel Theiner: “Yes, I think he was a one-off, but I think these things made him more interesting. I think that people generally liked him and I would say that maybe those that didn’t weren’t as generous of life as he was. He clearly saw that life had a beginning and an end and whatever bad experiences one had, one should make the most of it, without actually hurting others. I think he made a good attempt at that and his mission was to pick up the stories he saw for himself or he heard from others and turn them into worthy material for people to read. The fact is that he succeeded. His books have been translated into many languages and after Havel and Kudera he’s probably the most widely read author outside the Czech Republic.”