“That’s how his literature got into my stomach!” Arnošt Lustig’s daughter on new book about his life

Eva Lustigová

Among the books nominated for the prestigious Magnesia Litera Award this year was a graphic novel called Arnoštova cesta, describing the life story of the great Czech Jewish writer Arnošt Lustig. I met with his daughter Eva, a writer and documentary filmmaker herself, to discuss the book, and also to talk about the Arnošt Lustig Foundation, which she is in charge of. However, I had to start by asking about an onion which she took out of her handbag upon entering the studio:

Photo: Radio Prague International

“The onion is in my hand because it symbolises the frail nature of our civilisation and humanity. The outer layer, the skin, is very thin and you can start peeling it. In my father’s words, the problem with civilization is its thin outer layer, which you can destroy in a matter of weeks or months.

“To build a civilisation takes much longer than to destroy it, just like it is much easier to find an enemy than a friend. This is the theme of our international traveling exhibit which is called ‘I Want to be Human - Arnošt Lustig’s message to the stars and beyond’.”

This exhibition is part of the Arnošt Lustig Foundation’s work, but I wanted to start by asking you about the book Arnošt’s Journey. How did this book originate? Whose idea was it to create it?

“The idea of the book itself came from Markéta Pilátová, whom I consider to be one of the finest contemporary authors in the Czech Republic. She has been doing a fantastic job for many years.

“However, the book, in my thinking, should have been a synopsis of one of my father’s screenplays, which he left to me and my brother Pepi in the drawer.

Photo repro: Markéta Pilátova a Eliška Podzimková,  'Arnoštova cesta'/Odeon

“We found seven or eight screenplays for major feature films and I approached Markéta Pilátová while I was in Zurich, where she was doing a book reading from her book ‘With Baťa in the Jungle’.

“So I approached her and I said, Look, we have got a lot of screenplays in the drawer. I think you would be marvellous to write a synopsis of one or more of them. Would you consider it? And she said, OK, let me think about it.

“And then she came back to me and said, Well, Eva, I'd like to start our collaboration really by a book similar to the one that I introduced in Zurich. It would be talking to you about what it was like for you and your brother to grow up with your father. This is the genesis of the book.”

The book is based on discussions that you and your brother had with your father and in these discussions you unveil some of the key moments in his life. In fact it starts with you as a little girl eating a page out of your father’s book while he is sitting in a bathtub writing on a typewriter. Did all these stories really happen?

“Absolutely. Everything in the book is true. We structured the book based on our discussions on the phone, in which I identified the key milestones in my father's life.

Markéta Pilátová | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“After each conversation I would send Markéta documentation from his own interviews, essays and prose and also lots of photographs, which Eliška Podzimková later used for the illustrations.

“And Markéta built the book around those conversations, using my father's words. She really got into what was in his head and his heart and she did it beautifully.”

Was it clear from the beginning that it was a book intended mainly for younger readers?

“In fact that was my idea. I said I would love to have a book of Arnošt’s life that the foundation but also schools all over the world could use to work with kids from the age of 14 to help them understand what it is to be a humanist, but also to illustrate some key moments in history of the last century.

“So that's how it happened. And then Markéta added, OK, it's going to be for kids from the age of 14 up to 100. I like that very much and in fact grown-ups love the book and many of them read it to their grandkids who are much younger than 14.”

“But I want to go back to your question about whether it is true that I ate a page. Yes, I did. It was from my father’s short story collection Night and Hope. It happened in 1958 when we lived in a small efficiency apartment and my mother said to my father:

“If you want to write, type away on the typewriter, then the only quiet place for us to be able to sleep and for you to be able to write is the bathtub.

“And once I went to give him good night and I was hanging around and saw a page right next to the typewriter and I guess I put it in my mouth. And that’s how his literature got into my stomach!”

And that's of course one of the most light-hearted stories. But then, as you go through the book the stories get darker and darker and your father talks about more serious topics...

“Absolutely, but it was the right place to start. And when Eliška Podzimková got the text, which she illustrated beautifully, she kept thinking about what should be on the title page.

Eliška Podzimková | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“And then one day she came up with the question, Could we actually have him jumping into the bathtub? And when you flip the book over, he is older and he is sitting in the bathtub. We thought it was just fantastic, very avant-garde and it catches your attention right away.

“Also, the bathtub and his love of hot water carries over from the war when he wasn’t able to cleanse himself, never mind having a shower or a bath. So after the war, for the rest of his life, he used to love long baths. He would sit there for hours, sipping his coffee, writing, thinking and reading.”

Eliška Podzimková is known for her illustrations that combine photography and drawings. How did she become involved in the project?

“She was identified by Markéta Pilátová. Initially, I had identified Petr Sís, who is on our international board of trustees, but he was absolutely not available, because he was working on a huge project for the Czech Museum in Cedar Rapids.

“And then Markéta got the idea to get together with Eliška Podzimková and ask her agent whether she should be available. She was barely available as well, but she was available and she did it very quickly, sort of under the gun. Because the day after she finished, it was sent to the publisher Euromedia Group, to whom are very grateful.”

Photo repro: Markéta Pilátova a Eliška Podzimková,  'Arnoštova cesta'/Odeon

What was it like in real life growing up with your father who was this larger than life character? What was he like as a father?

“He was great! He was like a teddy bear, though he was also temperamental as a bear. So you had to tread carefully from time to time, especially when he was either hungry or when he was working.

"He really was incredibly funny as a storyteller. He was the light of the party. But he had to do that. It was to keep himself sane.”

“When he would type away, my mother used to say to my brother and me: Children, on tiptoes. Daddy is working. So there couldn’t be a sound. And we all of course greatly respected his work, so there was no problem. We were very well trained to go to libraries or concerts, so we were silent!”

What I find interesting is that your father wrote almost exclusively about the Holocaust, yet he seemed, at least from the outside, to be this incredibly joyful person. How do you explain this seeming contradiction?

“I think it’s all in his name, or as they say, Nomen Omen. His first name is Arnošt or Ernst in German, which means serious or sincere. And Lustig is fun and joyful. So he had both eyes to keep himself alive. He had to diffuse all the horrors that he had gone through from the age of 13 until 18 and a half.

Arnošt Lustig | Photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio

“Two concentration camps, one extermination camp, Auschwitz, an escape from the death transport that was taking him from the concentration camp Buchenwald to either Dachau to be gassed for sure or to Teresienstadt. He really never knew where that trained was going.

“So he jumped off the train when the train locomotive was bombed by a US bomber plane that mistook it for a military Nazi train. The locomotive was blown up and my father and his best friend and a third guy jumped off.

“They were the first ones to jump off and they escaped and walked back to Prague through forests for six days and six nights with no food. It was a horrible journey. By the time they got to Prague the Prague Uprising was starting, so they also took part in it. And that all happened by his age of 18-and-a-half.

“He used to love long baths. He would sit there for hours, sipping his coffee, writing, thinking and reading.”

“So he used writing as a catharsis even though he denied it to me. And then, when he was with people, he was so fun. He really was incredibly funny as a storyteller. He used to tell jokes, he was the light of the party. But he had to do that. It was to keep himself sane.”

You yourself had a long career at the world Health Organisation working first in the Global AIDS Programme and later in the Gender Equality Department. After you retired a few years ago you decided to establish a foundation dedicated to the legacy of your father, the Arnošt Lustig Foundation. How would you describe its mission?

“Its mission overall is a world of greater justice and kindness and compassion. We have four pillars which represent my father's various faces. So one is obviously literary, the other one is film, the third one is education and the fourth is cultivating creativity, primarily literary creativity. So we work with different dimensions of his legacy and the red thread is humanism.”

The red thread brings me back to the book, because there is in fact a red thread going through the pictures starting on the front page. So I guess that is not a coincidence…

You know it is a coincidence and I have to speak with Eliška about it, because I don't think that I had ever talked to her about the red thread of humanism in my father's life. This is a coincidence and it's remarkable. On the other hand, I don't believe in coincidence. It's all meant to be what we're doing today, right now, right here.”

You mentioned that you and your brother still have some unpublished texts by your father. Are you planning on publishing them eventually?

“Absolutely. There are several things. There are the seven or eight screenplays for major feature films and those are texts. Then we've got one poem that he wrote that that had never been published, from which I had made a literary musical program if you will with top Czech actors.

“There are also some other texts that have not been published yet, that need some editing. So we have got quite a few things to work with. It is all very exciting.”

You also mentioned at the start of our interview an exhibition prepared by your foundation. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Eva Lustigová during the opening of the exhibition 'I Want to be Human - Arnošt Lustig's message to the stars and beyond' | Photo: Jana Šustová,  Czech Radio

“Yes. This exhibition came to be when I was thinking about the ‘red thread of humanism’. I said -Let’s do an exhibition which would be like a Czech calling card of humanism that we could introduce in Brussels while we were chairing the presidency of the EU Council in 2022.

“So this exhibition was part of the official presentation of the Czech culture in Brussels and we had it placed in the Belgian Royal Planetarium, because the slogan of the exhibition is ‘Reaching for the stars with humanism’.

“I identified texts from my father's prose and interviews that were about this red thread, including the ones about reaching for the stars. And the artistic installation that accompanies the text has been prepared by a fantastic NGO called RésOnances based in Paris.

“It’s a literary exhibition presented in an artistic way. And the way they are addressing the eternal struggle we as people have toward reaching for the stars is by having letters written in Teresienstadt, at the small fortress.

Eva Lustigová during the opening of the exhibition 'I Want to be Human - Arnošt Lustig's message to the stars and beyond' | Photo: Jana Šustová,  Czech Radio

“And of course we have onions because the key metaphor that inspired me for this whole exhibition is about peeling away the layers of civilisation, which is very scary.”

Where can we see this exhibition?

“Well, right now. It’s in a warehouse in a village close to Brno. It is going to be shown as part of the CERN conference for nuclear physicists in the Congress Centre in Prague in July and from October 8 or 10 until the end of the year at the planetarium in Ostrava.”

Finally, we are living in a time of great uncertainty with Russia's war on Ukraine, with what is going on in Gaza and of course with the ongoing climate change. What do you think your father’s advice would be for us to make it through these difficult times?

“I think he would say many things. But I can say that resilience was very important in his survival and he would advise people to learn as much about the situation from many different sources, to think critically about the information that you get and to analyse the information.

“To take it with a grain of salt. Not to think only about what is happening to you, but to think about the people who are affected. Solidarity was very important in his life. And to be as philanthropic and unselfish as you can to help people survive.

“The other thing that I like to point out at this moment is that when he taught his classes of Holocaust in film and literature, he would tell the students in Washington DC and other places that he is talking about what happened not because he wants to evoke pity but because he wants them to be stronger and to know that they can decide what is right, what is good and what is just.”