The horror, the horror
One wonders, at least, why he chose fiction rather than a factual account to tell his tale of persecution, survival and the young hero’s almost absurd return to a shattered family and the society that did not protect him from Nazi terror.
“Fateless” is a tough book to critique, because the experiences Kertesz chronicles are so critical to modern history. “Fateless,” therefore, should be read from separate perspectives – first of all, as a serious novel, and secondly, as yet another necessary document chronicling one of the worst crimes in history.
The novel is the story of George Koves, a Hungarian in his early teens who narrates the story. George’s first direct contact with the Third Reich comes when his father, in the latter years of World War II, is deported from Budapest for oppressive labor service that, managed by the SS, was usually equivalent to a slow, grueling death sentence.
There is a going away party of sorts for George’s father, who is divorced from George’s somewhat estranged mother. Only George’s immediate family is invited to the spooky send off, which haunts George throughout his own sufferings in a string of concentration camps.
At the dinner, there is some understanding of what deportation means for George’s father, though an uncle – revealing a desperation that’s evident in much Holocaust literature –insists that Germany is ready to sign a truce with the allies, and thus bring a halt to the “Final Solution” in time to save the necks of Budapest’s Jews.
But another of George’s uncles – the most religious man in the family – tells the boy the dinner marks the end of his childhood: “Indeed he said I would have to discover what “worry and sacrifice’ meant well before my time.”
He also tells George that he is now a part of the “common Jewish fate”:
Then he elaborated on this, mentioning that this fate meant a “millennium of continuing persecution’ that Jews had to accept, “with acquiescence and self-sacrificing patience’ because the punishment was doled out by God for the sins of our ancestors.
George is struck by his uncle’s words, though he admits he doesn’t yet understand their meaning. And after his experience in the camps, he doesn’t believe in his Uncle’s words.
Two months after the deportation, George is on summer vacation from school and at work at a Shell Oil Refinery outside of Budapest. George is amused by his work and his co-workers. At home, meanwhile, he begins his first romance with a neighbor. One morning, however, George and his Jewish co-workers on removed from their bus while on their way to work.
They are taken to a shed by a soldier where they spend a day confused, but hardly frightened. Later, the group is transported along with a large group of Jews to a brick factory, which is only a way station on George’s journey into Hitler’s concentration camps.
His first experience of true privation is the dismal trains rides to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. On the trains, because of a lack of water, some of the crammed Jews were dying of thirst.
There is clear horror in the disembarkation at Auschwitz – young mothers scramble as if they were just changing trains while the SS officers begin separating the Jews into two lines: one leading to work and the other ending in the gas chamber.
The selection proves the falsehood that cunning was the only way a Jew could avoid extermination. Some who made it out of the camps credit their survival with whims such as switching lines –no different than when a shopper tries to find the shortest line at a supermarket.
That begins George’s slow descent into starvation, disease, excruciating pain and misery. One of George’s methods of coping with the rancid soup, decrepit clothing and filthy existence is daydreaming. He imagines an entire day at home: “I have heard it said before, and now I can attest to its truth: narrow prison walls cannot set limits to the flights of our imagination.”
Through it all, he says hope –or at least the desire not to die –is never quite beaten or starved out of him:
Any in spite of every other consideration, rational thought, feeling or resignation or of common sense, I still couldn’t mistake the furtive words of some kind of desire rising from within myself, as if embarrassed because of their senselessness, but yet consistently stubborn because of their persistence: I would such much like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp.
George’s saga, as are all concentration camp tales, is stirring, revolting and infuriating. But, as a novel, “Fateless” seems too quick a peek at this horror. George, furthermore, is ultimately a hazy character whose ordeals are blurred by a strange hallucinatory final stretch through a serious of infirmaries. His progression from pubescent boy to hardened prisoner, as well as his reconciliation of the horrors he’s been subjected to, seem cut short by the books 191 pages. Maybe the novel needs another dozen or so chapters.
Those who read extensively about the Holocaust will find “Fateless” to be another vital piece of literature. They also may find, however, that “Fateless” pales in comparison to two of the most profoundly wrenching books ever written about the Holocaust: Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” and Victor Klemperer’s “I Shall Bear Witness.” Levi’s true story is told from inside Auschwitz while Klemperer’s is his diaries from his life as a Jew living in Dresden and miraculously avoiding deportation throughout the war. Klemperer, ironically, is saved from the Nazis the night of the infamous allied bombing of Dresden.
These books capture the brutality, the fear and most importantly, the dehumanization of the Jews better than Kertesz does. While some writers insist the only lesson to learn from the Holocaust is that man is capable of the very worst – and they’re probably right –Kertesz’s tale ends with affirmation. George says near the end of the book:
Let’s not exaggerate things, for this is precisely the hurdle: I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize for being allowed to live.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User