‘The Holocaust as Culture’ by Imre Kertész: An Excerpt

An extract from Imre Kertész’s book The Holocaust as Culture, where he discusses the memory of the Holocaust under Communist ‘hammer-and-sickle totalitarianism’.

The dictatorship of the proletariat did not like people to speak of the Holocaust. It silenced all such voices or forced them into schemas of conformist euphemisms. If one were nonetheless bold enough to entertain the notion that Auschwitz was, after the Crucifixion, the most significant event for humankind which had traumatically fallen, so to speak, through European ethical culture, and if one were to wish to approach these questions with the appropriate seriousness, then one could count on being condemned from the outset to complete solitude and isolation. One could assume that one’s books would be printed in limited numbers, if at all, and one could be confident of being banished to the margins of literary and intellectual life, thrust into the silence of official critical opinion, much like solitary confinement. In other words, once sentenced to death himself, the author could now expect the same sentence to be passed over his work.

There are, of course, perfectly good reasons, and not particularly enigmatic ones, to explain why hammer-and-sickle totalitarianism identified itself, with regard to the Holocaust, with Swastika totalitarianism. I would, however, prefer to speak instead of the uses this had. I have recently been thinking about how the Holocaust claimed its victims not only at that time and in the concentration camps but also elsewhere, decades later. As if the liberation of the camps merely deferred the sentences which were later carried out by the condemned themselves. Celan, Borowski and Améry all committed suicide, even Primo Levi who, in one of his polemical essays, opposed Améry’s resolute existential radicalism. If from time to time I compare these fates, demonstrative in many senses, with my own, then I am forced to conclude that clearly I was helped over the course of the past decades by a ‘society’ that, following Auschwitz, amply demonstrated through the form of so-called Stalinism that there could be no question of freedom, liberation, catharsis, etc.—none of the things intellectuals and philosophers in more fortunate climes not only spoke of but also clearly believed in. I was trapped in a society that guaranteed me the continued life of a prisoner, thereby also excluding the possibility of my erring. This is clearly why I was not engulfed by the high tide of disappointments that overwhelmed those who had similar experiences but who found themselves living in more open societies, the rising waters first splashing at their feet as they tried to flee, then slowly rising to their throats. And as I was not the only prisoner—rather, the nation in which I lived was imprisoned as well—I did not have any problem of identity.

Now that the walls of the prison have fallen, one can hear again, in the cacophony among the ruins, the hoarse cry of post-Auschwitz anti-Semitism, in other words an anti-Semitism that looks with approval on Auschwitz. Like the hero of Camus’s The Stranger (1942), I greet the cries of hatred as brotherly voices. I am not afraid—the Holocaust turned any fear of anti-Semites in me to ash. What does it have to do with me? Programmatic anti-Semitism after Auschwitz is a private affair that might well liquidate me even today but that would be little more than a bold anachronism, a blunder or a lapse in which, as Hegel may have said say, there would be little trace of the Weltgeist. It would be provincial, it would show lack of cultivation. ‘Entirely a matter for the anti-Semites, their disgrace or their sickness,’ as Améry himself wrote. However, it does at least awaken me again to my actual situation in case the fleeting illusion of my freedom regained made me forget it for a passing moment.

This condition in and of itself does not merit much attention. It is the condition of a survivor who has tried to survive his survival and, what is more, interpret it; who as a member of the last generation of survivors is well aware that as this generation vanishes from this world, so too will the living memory of the Holocaust. His presence here is a technical mishap, an accident, which continuously begs some justification although it is in fact unjustifiable. But does not this condition seem a reminiscent of the general and cosmic condition of humankind as we have come to know it through the interpretation of modern philosophy and anthropology? Whenever he writes of his alienation, his loss of ‘faith in the world’, his social loneliness and existential exile, Améry in my view goes beyond the narrowly defined framework of his book and addresses, quite simply, the human condition. The survivor is merely the tragic bearer of the human condition of the era, one who has experienced and endured Auschwitz, the apogee of that condition, its presence looming over the horizon behind us like the horrific vision of a deranged mind; and though increasingly distant, its outline, far from dwindling, seems clearer, stronger. It is quite apparent today that survival is not the personal problem of those who remained. The long, dark shadow of the Holocaust spreads over the whole of the civilization in which it took place, a civilization which must now live with the burden and the consequences of what happened.