Imre Kertesz, 86, Nobel laureate who survived Holocaust

In “Fateless,’’ his definitive work, Mr. Kertesz described a concentration camp atmosphere in which inmates are shockingly detached and complacent.
In “Fateless,’’ his definitive work, Mr. Kertesz described a concentration camp atmosphere in which inmates are shockingly detached and complacent.AFP/Getty Images/file 2002

NEW YORK — Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian Jewish writer and Nobel laureate acclaimed for his semi-autobiographical novels on surviving the Holocaust and its aftermath, died March 31 at his home in Budapest. He was 86.

Mr. Kertesz had been suffering from a chronic illness, said Krisztian Nyary, the head of Magveto Publishing, which publishes Mr. Kertesz’s works in Hungary.

What set Mr. Kertesz apart from other writers on the Holocaust was his insistence on describing the death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald without outrage, especially in his definitive work, “Fateless,” first published in 1975.

“The novel uses the alienating device of taking the reality of the camp completely for granted, an everyday existence like any other,” the Swedish Nobel committee said in awarding him its 2002 prize in literature.

President Janos Ader of Hungary said Mr. Kertesz’s life was a ‘‘gift’’ to all those who loved, knew, read, and understood him.

‘‘Like no one else, he saw so sharply and made others see so exactly the nature of dictatorships, ‘the age of irrationality,’ ’’ Ader said in a letter to the writer’s family. ‘‘He knew that the lack of external freedom can be endured only with the freedom of spirit.

‘‘He taught us that we should not forget anything about our past because it all belongs to our common fate, our common fatelessness,’’ Ader said.

Tribute was also paid in Germany.

‘‘Through his work, Imre Kertesz brought a new tone to the remembrance of the darkest years of our history,’’ said Germany’s culture minister, Monika Gruetters. ‘‘As a witness, he wrote with great literary mastery of his harrowing experiences at the concentration camp.’’

In a statement, Gruetters noted ‘‘the esteem that he showed for Germans despite his bitter experiences,’’ which she said found ‘‘noble expression’’ in his decision to entrust his archives to the Academy of Arts in Berlin.

His Nobel Prize came after decades spent in near anonymity, even in his native Hungary. Mr. Kertesz had a small, loyal following in Germany, France, and Scandinavia, but only two of his novels, “Fateless” and “Kaddish for an Unborn Child” (1990), had been published in English.

Imre Kertesz was born in Budapest to secular Jewish parents. He grew up as a nonobservant Jew, but it was his death camp internment that “obliged me to be Jewish,” he said in a 2001 interview with Spanish newspaper El País. “I accept it, but to a large extent it is also true that it was imposed on me.”

While Mr. Kertesz urged readers and critics not to assume the events recounted in “Fateless” were autobiographical, there are strong parallels to his own experiences. At age 14, on his way to school, like Gyuri Koves, the teenage protagonist of “Fateless,” he was caught in a Hungarian police dragnet along with thousands of other Budapest Jews in 1944 and deported first to Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald. Following the advice of older camp inmates, the young Kertesz — like the fictional Koves — claimed to be a 16-year-old worker rather than a student, old enough to qualify for forced labor rather than immediate extermination as a child.

After the war, Mr. Kertesz returned to a Hungary that was under Soviet Red Army occupation and rising communist influence. He began working as a journalist for a Budapest newspaper but was fired in 1951, two years after the communists seized power in Hungary, because he refused to lionize the new regime.

Mr. Kertesz took 13 years to complete “Fateless,” his first novel, in 1965, but it was not published until a decade later. The book describes a concentration camp atmosphere in which inmates are shockingly detached and complacent, preoccupied with resolving practical problems rather than venting anger or plotting resistance.

“I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp,” Mr. Kertesz said in a 2002 Newsweek interview. “You cannot imagine what it’s like to be allowed to lie in the camp’s hospital or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labor. To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.”

In “Kaddish for an Unborn Child,” Mr. Kertesz continued his semi-autobiographical reflections on the impact of the death camps on his life. In “Liquidation” (2003), his first novel published after the Nobel ceremony, a Budapest book publisher/editor seeks the lost masterpiece of a man who, like Mr. Kertesz, was a writer, translator, and Holocaust survivor.

“It is often said of me — some intend it as a compliment, others as a complaint — that I write about a single subject: the Holocaust,” Mr. Kertesz said in his Nobel acceptance speech. “What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his 2,000-year-old moral and cultural history.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.