Author Arnošt Lustig dies at 84

Arnošt Lustig, photo: CTK

The Czech Jewish writer, Arnošt Lustig died in Prague on Saturday at the age of 84. A survivor of several Nazi concentration camps, he made the Holocaust the central theme of his work that includes novels Dita Saxová, A Prayer for Kateřina Horovitzová, Lovely Green Eyes, and many others. He also worked as a reporter at Radio Prague in the 1950s.

Arnošt Lustig,  photo: CTK
Arnošt Lustig would have perhaps never become a writer if it weren’t for the Holocaust. He wanted to be a traveller or an aviator, he said in an interview, or a judge. But in 1942, he and his family were taken to the Terezín concentration camp, and later to Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

This experienced formed Arnošt Lustig as a man, and as an author. When he told people after the war about what he saw in the camps, no one believed him – so he decided to put it down. In an interview for Radio Prague in 2007, Arnošt Lustig recalled how he started 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.”

His first book, a collection of short stories entitled Night and Hope, came out in 1957. Five years later, he published one of his most famous novels, Dita Saxová, about what it was like to go on living after going through the camps. He went on to write more than 50 other books, including Lovely Green Eyes which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

After the war, Arnošt Lustig became a reporter. He covered the 1948 Israeli-Arab War and later worked at Radio Prague, the international service of Czechoslovak Radio. He joined the Communist Party hoping the new regime would establish true democracy, freedom and tolerance. But he lost his illusions about communism when he was asked to agree to a death sentence for Milada Horáková, a democratic politician who was put on a show trial and executed in 1950.

“I was in the radio when a comrade from the Central Committee came and explained that Milada Horáková was a super-traitor, an arch-traitor, and that she would be executed. He asked if we agreed with it. Everybody agreed, including me.

Arnošt Lustig,  photo: CTK
“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.”

Arnošt Lustig left Czechoslovakia after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, and lived in Israel and the United States before returning to Prague after the fall of communism. His friends said he kept his good humour and optimism until his demise to cancer in a Prague hospital on Saturday.