Arnost Lustig: writers are like clowns

Arnost Lustig, photo: Chad Evans Wyatt

The life of Arnost Lustig (81) is like an excursion through modern Czech history. The internationally renowned author of novels such as Dita Saxova, A Prayer for Katherine Horowitz and Lovely Green Eyes spent three years in Nazi camps, joined the Communist Party and left his homeland in 1968. In this week's edition of Arts, Arnost Lustig talks to us about his eventful life.

Arnost Lustig is one of the best-known as well as most popular Czech writers. In his work, he has been trying to achieve what many others thought impossible - reflect on probably the greatest tragedy of mankind, the Holocaust. But that was not the only occasion when his own experience proved too distant, or too direct, for others to grasp. After Czechoslovakia was occupied by Soviet Union and its allies in 1968, Arnost Lustig left the country and only returned after the fall of communism in 1990.

"It was not difficult, it was sort of funny, but I understood that there was a gap between their experience and mine. The truth is that the freedom fell into their laps as a kind of accident of history. They did not have to fight for it. They adjusted sort of easy to the occupational power. They accepted it with the exceptions of few a hundred dissidents among some ten million people. Czechs were taught by history to adjust to occupations. They thought that we, who emigrated to the West, had it easy. It was funny, you couldn't convince anyone. There was a grain of truth in that we didn't understand them just as much as they didn't understand us. They have kept this illusion that it was easy for us. They had illusions about the West."

Sharing his experience of what he had gone through was much harder after the end of the Second World War, when Arnost Lustig came back from Nazi extermination camps. Being Jewish, he was sent to the ghetto in Theresienstadt (Terezin) in 1942, a month before his 16th birthday. The difficulty or even impossibility of telling others what happened and making them understand brought him to writing.

"For example, I liked my school teacher a lot. When I told him where I came from and what happened, he started petting my head. He treated me like a silly, crazy, sick man, he didn't believe it. I thought it was impossible to share this experience. So I started writing, and they accepted it because they considered it very authentic. And then I discovered the magic of writing. It is a magic, and you get paid for it, so you can choose it as a profession."

After 1945, Lustig joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Outraged by the war and by the way western democracies betrayed his country, he believed, like many others at that time, that communism could be an alternative. But his first encounter with communists had already taken place before the end of the war.

"In the camps, the best and most unselfish people, the toughest anti-fascists were communists. They behaved very well in the camps, and I wanted to be like them. They told me I was too small, but if I survive, they will send me to schools and that I will have a good life. For me, being a communist meant being for democracy, for freedom and tolerance. Nothing happened, but it took ten years before we discovered that it didn't work according to the ideals; it was a utopia that ended in murders. But you don't know this when you are 18, when your life is just starting. The beginning was like a love affair and in the end, the Party was like a jealous mistress hating the fact you don't love her anymore. But you know, you would have to write a book about it. It is impossible to say it in a few words."

Arnost Lustig
Arnost Lustig worked as a reporter and was sent to Israel to cover the War of Independence in 1948. After he came back, he worked in Radio Prague for five years. He says he learnt a lot about writing, but the beginning of the 1950s was also a time when the Communists were tightening their grip of the country.

"It was an excellent school for me to be in radio, I really liked it. It was very good except some things happened that - reflecting on them later - disturbed me. There was this woman called Milada Horakova. She was for democracy and criticized things she felt were bad about communism that we didn't feel. And they put her on trial and sentenced her to death. She was the only woman sentenced to death. I was in the radio when a comrade from the Central Committee came and explained that she was a super-traitor, an arch-traitor, and that she would be executed. He asked if we agreed with it. Everybody agreed, including me. But then I came home and asked myself, how can I agree with the execution of someone whom I don't know? This was the first disturbing feeling I had, and from then on, I never raised my hand for anything I was not convinced about."

The disillusionment of Arnost Lustig and others with communism rose. In 1967, the 4th congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers was held in Prague and writers such as Ludvik Vaculik, Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera openly criticized the regime.

"Milan Kundera and I joined the presidium. I suggested that censorship should be abolished because if Marxism is so powerful that it can explain everything, and if the party is omnipotent, why do we need censorship. They said I was naïve and that I don't understand. One man tore his shirt and showed me his scars from the Spanish Civil War. He said he would never betray the party. I said it was not betraying the party, it was suggesting."

After the Soviet led-occupation of Czechoslovakia, Lustig decided to leave the country and live in exile. He lived in Israel before in 1970 settling in the United States, where he became a lecturer at the American University in Washington, DC. But he never stopped writing and his bibliography now contains more than 30 novels and collections of short stories, including some well known works such as Dita Saxova, A Payer for Katherine Horowitz, and Lovely Green Eyes which was recently published in Great Britain and sold more than 50,000 copies. With many characters in his books being women, does Arnost Lustig prefer heroines to heroes?

"It is appealing to write about them. One of the features of a writer is empathy, feeling what other people feel. And I have empathy for women. I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau with women, and they humiliated women more than men. When a man is naked, well he is naked. But when thousands of women standing close to each other are naked and some 18 or 19-year-old boys are looking at them, it is very humiliating. I came from the camps with a respect for women."

"You know, writers are like clowns. When you applaud them, they are ready to dance forever. Today, a book was published; it is called 'The Unloved'. It is about a girl in the camp who becomes a prostitute but has a talent of Anne Frank. When I wrote it, I was not sure how it was going to be received, but it got the National Jewish Book Award in America. Today, the fourth edition was published in Czech, with a beautiful cover. You met me when I am very happy, like old clowns, and writers being praised."