Kaddish for a Child Not Born

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Kaddish for a Child Not Born
Imre Kertész

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertész is the third book in a series of four novels which examine the life of a man who survives the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. Kaddish focuses on this man in his middle age as he reflects upon his childhood, his failed marriage, and his survival thus far. His wife leaves him because he refuses to father a child. She realizes that he does not want to live but she very much does. The narrator uses his writing to keep himself going. The story is in the form of a monologue by this man, and the novel has no chapter divisions or other breaks.

Kaddish was published in Hungary in 1990, twenty-five years after the first novel of the four appeared. It was first translated into English in 1997 by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson. A new translation by Tim Wilkinson (retitled Kaddish for an Unborn Child) was released in 2004. Although Kertész's first novel Fateless (1975; English translation, 1992 and 2004) was initially coldly received in Hungary, his literary talent was gradually acknowledged. He was relatively unknown, even in Hungary, when he was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

Author Biography

Imre Kertész was born November 9, 1929 in Budapest, Hungary. In 1944, when Kertész was only fifteen years old he was sent with 7,000 other Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. He was later transferred to Buchenwald, Germany. Kertész was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945.

Kertész returned to Hungary and worked as a journalist for the Budapest newspaper Világosság. Although he had joined the Communist Party, Kertész found, in practice, that he did not agree with many of its tenets. He was fired from the newspaper in 1951 after it adopted the Communist Party line to be in compliance with the Communist government of Hungary. Kertész was in the military for two years before he decided to support himself exclusively by writing and working as a literary translator. He specialized in translating German authors, especially Friedrich Nietzsche, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. These writers had considerable influence on Kertész, and many are mentioned by name in Kaddish for a Child Not Born (originally published in 1990 in Hungarian as Kaddis a meg nem szvületett gyermekért).

Kertész, like many other writers who were not favored by the ruling Communist Party, made most of his money from writing translations. For more than forty years, Hungry was occupied by the Soviet Union and had a communist form of government. In this political environment Kertész lived and wrote, believing for many years that his writing would not be read.

Fateless, Kertész's first novel, was published in 1975 after seeking publication for ten years. It was first translated into English in 1992; a new translation was published in 2004. This novel draws on Kertész's experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a fifteen-year-old boy. Fateless is generally considered to be the first in a series of four novels. The second novel, Fiasco, published in 1988, has as of 2005 not been translated into English. The third novel, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, was published in Hungarian in 1990 and translated into English in 1997; a subsequent translation (retitled Kaddish for an Unborn Child) was released in 2004. Kertész's fourth novel is Liquidation (2003). Although not labeled by the author as a tetralogy, these four titles share the same main character and follow him from youth to death.

As of 2005 Kertész lives and works in Budapest and spends part of the year in Germany where his books have a strong following. He became known to the world when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. Kertész has also won the 1995 Brandenburg Literary Prize, the 1997 Leipzig Book Prize, and the 2000 Welt Prize.

Plot Summary

Kaddish for a Child Not Born opens with an emphatic "No!" The narrator is responding to an as-yet unknown question while on a walk with a philosopher. He thinks about how "life itself demands explanations from us," and we end up "explaining ourselves to death." He would rather not talk, but he finds the urge irresistible. The narrator and philosopher are staying at a resort near the Central Mountains in Hungary. The narrator explains, "if I didn't work I would have to exist, and if I existed, I don't know what I would be forced to do then." But he does not want to socialize with his fellow intellectuals at the resort. His meeting in the woods with Dr. Oblath, a professor of philosophy, is by chance.

In thinking about the question, the narrator claims "with this 'no' I destroyed everything, demolished everything, above all, my ill-fated, short-lived marriage." Dr. Oblath has asked the narrator if he has a child. Although the answer is a simple "no," the underlying decision is complex and at the heart of the story to be told. Dr. Oblath expresses that he and his wife do not have a child, and it has only recently occurred to him to regret their lack of offspring. For the rest of their walk the narrator and Dr. Oblath talk about the state of the world and other large topics, to which the narrator privately assigns little value. He finally admits to himself that he stays to walk and talk with Dr. Oblath to avoid his own emptiness.

This emptiness catches up with him at night, when he is alone in his room. There is a thunder-storm and his mind, mirroring the explosive weather, goes back over the question of children: "'Were you to be a dark-eyed girl? With pale spots of scattered freckles around your little nose? Or a stubborn boy? With cheerful, hard eyes like blue-grey pebbles?'" Many years pass before he is able to capture his thoughts about his unborn children and what they mean on paper, "[his] life in the context of the potentiality of [their] existence."

The narrator thinks of his career as a literary translator and writer, which draws him to thoughts about his ex-wife. She questioned him about his motives: "'if you don't want to be successful, then why do you bother to write at all?'" He acknowledges that his ex-wife is more insightful than he originally acknowledged. Now when they meet each other she seems to feel guilty and nostalgic. He bears her no ill will because all she wants is to live fully, which she could not do while married to him.

The narrator slips back to thinking about his writing, pondering how he used it to engage in a dialogue with God, but now God is dead so the dialogue needs be with other people and with oneself.

He recalls how as a child he was sent one summer to visit relatives in the country. He thinks of these relatives as "real Jews," those who observe rituals and rites of their religion, Judaism. While there, the narrator opens a bedroom door and sees his aunt as "a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror." The narrator, as a child, is disgusted and mortified; this image comes to signify real Jewishness for him.

When the war engulfs Hungary, the narrator finds himself, a secular Jew, being grouped with people like his relatives, and he suddenly sees himself as "a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror." The narrator then explains how he has come to terms with his Jewishness. One time while waiting for his future wife at a café he overhears two beautiful young women talk about men. One tells the other that she could not have sex with a Jew, which enrages the narrator.

His future wife then arrives. She has read his work and wants to talk to him about it. He remembers their love when it was young and is pained. He finally settles on wanting to remember because "memory is knowledge." His thoughts about memory and knowledge trail into ones about the war, the Holocaust, and being a survivor. He makes no fuss over being a survivor, although he finds himself writing compulsively, inexplicably. He makes a living from his writing although he does not feel he has to because he could have chosen some other profession. Ultimately he feels there is a very serious connection between his writing and survival. His writing does not offer solutions, just occupation and possible escape. He considers his writing to be a form of grave digging, a grave begun at the concentration camps: "the pen is my spade." He sees his fate is not so much about choosing childlessness as about just never having children. Earlier in life, when thinking about his unborn children, the narrator saw his "life in the context of the potentiality of [their] existence." Now he sees their "nonexistence in the context of the necessary and fundamental liquidation of [his own] existence."

He remembers again the party at which he met his wife. Someone got the idea to name where they were during the war. When someone says "Auschwitz" (just ahead of the narrator), the host declares that that response is "unbeatable," as if this were a contest grimly won. The partygoers then begin to discuss a popular book which contained this sentence: "Auschwitz cannot be explained." The narrator is appalled at how easily the intelligent people at this party accept the value of this sentence. He voices his opinion and at this point his future wife notices him and comes to speak to him afterward.

He says that now he rarely voices his opinions, although they have not changed. He does not go to the resort to exchange opinions with intellectuals. When he is not at the resort, he is in his apartment in Józsefváros, a district near the heart of Budapest. It is the same place where he lived as a child. He thinks unhappily upon his childhood.

The narrator then returns to the statement: "Auschwitz cannot be explained." He accuses the book's author of telling people to be silent about Auschwitz, act as if it never existed. The narrator states that rather "what could not be explained is that no Auschwitz ever existed." He then philosophizes that Auschwitz has been waiting to happen for a long time, that the explanation of Auschwitz can be found only in individual lives—and that people are ruled by common criminals. Alluding to Adolf Hitler, he states that even when "demonic," a great man is still a great man and such a man was needed for "our disgusting affairs." The narrator then declares that rulers do not interest him, but saints do because they are irrational.

He tells a story about an emaciated man called the Professor who was with him on a carriage transport for sick prisoners. The narrator was ill, and there was very little food. The Professor got the narrator's portion and then they were separated. The narrator knew that while he would likely die without that food, the Professor's chances of survival would have been greatly increased with the extra food. But the Professor found the sick boy and gave him his food. When he sees the surprise on the narrator's face, he replies with "recognizable disgust on his moribund face: 'Well, what did you expect …?'"

The narrator then writes about failure, concluding that "failure alone remains as the one single accomplishable experience." Life and writing both are strife; writing is about life and doomed to failure as soon as the writing begins. The narrator wonders why he works—except that he must. He recalls a conversation with his ex-wife about the Professor. He tells her what the Professor did is about freedom, rather than survival (which is what would be natural). She disagrees, saying that what the Professor did is natural.

The narrator thinks about women and relationships. He would like to believe that his personal freedom is required to keep himself enthusiastic about his work but actually it is the struggle for that freedom. Both freedom and happiness seem to stunt his work. Thinking upon unhappiness, he realizes his situation: he requires a continuous source of pain to maintain his ability to work. Having realized it, he is able to dismiss it as having any power over himself. Following this analysis, in his next relationship with a woman the narrator avows that they can remain together only so long as love is not a part of their union. But then he meets his future wife. He is living in a rented room while his friends have bought houses at the price of their mental and physical health; however, he willingly chooses his more transient lifestyle.

The narrator remembers how, when his camp was liberated, he came upon a German soldier cleaning a bathroom sink and smiling at him. The experience was disorienting, this reversal of their situations. After liberation, the narrator continued to live at the camp for some time, and he feels that he is continuing that experience by being a renter. But this so-called freedom is complicated by the sense that "the Germans may return at any time." Therefore he is not living, only surviving.

He clings fiercely to his few possessions, but otherwise he keeps himself free of being controlled by possessions. He rents and is not concerned with maintaining the property. He rents furnished apartments and never thinks to rearrange or replace the furniture. Once in a while he buys a book; other-wise, he despises clutter.

He has long suffered from a sense of alienation. The narrator feels that if he could only understand all of himself—his physical bodily functions as well as his mind and soul—all in one tremendous moment, then he would not feel alienated. He is searching for salvation beyond any religion or creed. The narrator lives the life of a renter so that he can be "ripe for change." When he was younger, he decided that his life was not an arbitrary set of occurrences. All of his experiences are tools of recognition. He and his ex-wife were fated to meet and marry; his failed marriage showed him his path of self-destruction.

When he first met his ex-wife, she asked him if he still suffered for his Jewishness. The narrator does not answer her immediately, but he knows his Jewish identity to be a sin he carries with him, although it is not a sin he committed. She wants to talk about the story of his she read: a Christian man learns he qualifies as a Jew by law and is carted off to the ghetto, the cattle train, and beyond. He finds salvation and freedom from his bigotry regarding the Jews in his new identity: "by being excluded from one community one does not automatically become a member of another." His future ex-wife is fascinated with the idea that "one can make a decision concerning one's Jewishness." She experiences the same liberated feeling and credits the narrator's writing with teaching her how to live.

He learns then that she was born after Auschwitz but feels that she has always lived with the stigma of being Jewish. Her parents were both at Auschwitz and there her mother contracted an unidentified illness. She died at a relatively young age. Her mother's illness and death drove his ex-wife to become a doctor. After her mother's death, her aunt came to live with her and her father. His future ex-wife avoided all talk about Jewish matters, throwing herself into her school work. On the one occasion that she did voice an opinion, she was shamed into silence by her aunt.

After they are married, they overhear an anti-Semitic sentiment being sung by drunks in the street. The narrator disregards it but his wife is brought to tears, afraid that there will never be an end to the curse of their Jewishness. She wonders what it is that makes her Jewish since she is not religious and knows nothing of the culture. The narrator tells her "the one singular fact that made her a Jew was this and nothing else: that she had not been to Auschwitz." Their marriage is already deteriorating at this time. The narrator and his wife talk of a novel he will write about the struggle for happiness. His wife is excited about it, seeing this work as a testament to their marriage. The narrator belatedly understands that it is a mistake to let her get so close to his writing. At the same time, he enjoys her attention. But he has "always had a secret life and that has always been the real one."

One night his wife asks him to father her child. He answers, "No." What if the child did not want to be a Jew? The narrator is content to live out the life he has been dealt but cannot bear the thought that his child would not be content with the same life. He recalls seeing a family board a streetcar in which he was riding, a mother, father, and three girls. The sulky middle child was jealous of the attention her weeping younger sister got from their mother; the eldest tried to comfort her sister but was shaken off; and the father finally quiets the youngest child. The narrator is horrified by their miserable, exhausted faces.

He then clearly states that he will not have a child because he "could never be another person's father, fate, god … It should never happen to another child, what happened to me: my childhood." Thus he begins to explain his childhood to his wife. He recalls an old, repeating dream of visiting his grandparents. In the dream, they are weak. He brings them a ham but it is not very big and they are hungry. Death is near for them. The dream dissipates but the narrator has other memories of his grandparents, all of them dark with age, antique.

Then the narrator remembers the boarding school he attended from age five to ten. His father would take him to school every Monday morning. One rainy Monday morning as an adult, he revisited that building and the memories there: the building is derelict, converted to tenements. A plaque has been installed to commemorate his old director, the Diri. At the boarding school the students were all assigned an individual number. The narrator's was 1 because he was the youngest student. He remembers the dining hall meals fondly; he remembers always being hungry. The prayer before meal was carefully scripted to be appropriate for both Jews and Christians. He attended the boarding school following his parents' divorce. The reason they gave him for their divorce was that they "didn't understand each other," which was very confusing to a five-year-old boy: "It was like a death sentence, I had to accept it."

As an adult he recognizes his boarding school as an echo of other institutions. The authority of his director was the result of organized fear and not any kind of earned respect. Even the teachers feared him. The narrator recalls a scandal that occurred one year when a senior student and a new kitchen girl locked themselves in a closet overnight. A teacher known as "Pudge" discovered the student missing and made a very public scene of trying to get him and the girl out of the closet. The senior was expelled which the narrator thinks of as a public castration that all of the other students cooperated with by way of their silent acceptance.

He also remembers the "Saturday rapports." The students lined up in front of the faculty, including the Diri, and heard the weekly verdict of their behavior and scholarship. He likens it to divine judgment. Just a few years later, the Diri was sent to the crematorium—which end, he believes, is "the fruit of the successful education I received at his hands, of the culture in which he believed and for which he prepared us pedagogically."

His father took over his education at the age of ten. The narrator has long tried in vain to understand his father and their relationship. His father lectured him repeatedly; the narrator knew what he was going to say. He pitied his father, and perhaps loved him, though he does not believe his love was sufficient. His pity led to loneliness because it undermined his father's authority. "Auschwitz … struck me later as simply an elaboration of those virtues in which I have been indoctrinated since childhood." He concludes that it all began with his childhood: the breaking of his spirit and his own impulse toward survival. He tells his wife: "Auschwitz … appears to me in the image of a father" and "if the observation is that God is an exalted father, then God, too, is revealed to me in the image of Auschwitz."

One night the narrator's wife comes home and tells him that she wants to live and cannot save him from himself or his past and so they must separate. She has found another man, a Gentile. After his marriage and indeed throughout his life, the narrator knows that "my work saved me, albeit it saved me for the sake of destruction."

At the end of the novel, the narrator remembers how, during the years when he visited the resort, he agreed to meet his ex-wife as usual at a café. She arrives with two children, a girl and a boy—her children from her second marriage. The narrator is swept with emotion and offers this conclusion to his book-length mourner's kaddish:

with the baggage of this life in my raised hands I may go and in the dark stream of the fast-flowing black warmth / I may drown / Lord God / let me drown / forever, / Amen.



The boy is the son of the narrator's ex-wife, from her second marriage. He and his sister appear at the end of the novel, and he is described by the narrator as "stubborn … [w]ith hard eyes like grayish blue pebbles."

The Diri

The Diri is the director of the boarding school that the narrator attends from age five to ten. He is a short man with a large belly, yellowish-white mustache, and long white hair. His students call him the Plug behind his back. The Diri controls the school with strict authority and fear. He is rarely seen by the students except during the occasional outburst of misbehavior and at Saturday afternoon rapports. The Diri is ultimately killed in the Nazi concentration camp gas chambers during the Holocaust.


The narrator meets the woman who becomes his wife at a party where she is impressed with his opinions and with his writing. She is ten years younger than he is, and he describes her as "a beautiful Jewess" with shiny, thick hair. Born after Auschwitz, she has only experienced the Holocaust as history. She is very troubled by her Jewishness which she feels was forced upon her since she is not religious and does not take part in Jewish culture. This issue is especially troubling to her because anti-Semitism is still rampant in Europe after the end of World War II.

She and the narrator are lovers first. Even early in their marriage they are happy together, and she hopes to inspire and influence the narrator's writing as well as his own healing from the Holocaust. The narrator realizes belatedly that he and his writing thrive on pain. He does not want to heal and this fact drives the couple apart. She wishes to live and for her that means marriage and children. She meets a Gentile, falls in love, and leaves the narrator for this other man.

The narrator's ex-wife is a dermatologist. She chose to go into medicine after her mother died young from a mysterious and incurable illness that she contracted while at Auschwitz. After the narrator and his wife divorce, they continue to meet in cafés where she writes him prescriptions for drugs that keep him relaxed and happy. This ongoing relationship gives the impression that theirs was not a bitter divorce. At the end of the novel, she brings her children from her second marriage, a girl and a boy, to meet her ex-husband in a café.


The narrator's parents are divorced by the time he is five years old and his mother disappears permanently from his life at that point. He attends a boarding school from age five until he is ten years old. After he turns ten, his father takes over his education. During this time the narrator discovers how different he and his father are and how complicated their relationship is. He does not believe in or accept his father's authority and pities him that he cannot truly exert the authority he assumes he has. The narrator believes that he loves his father but also feels that his love is not sufficient.


The girl is the daughter of the narrator's ex-wife, from her second marriage. She and her brother appear at the end of the novel and she is described by the narrator as "dark-eyed … with pale dots of scattered freckles around her … nose."


The narrator of Kaddish for a Child Not Born is a middle-aged Hungarian Jew who has survived the Holocaust. Survival has cost him a normal life. He is nihilistic (believes life is senseless and useless) and keeps to himself and his writing. His writing is his way of not existing in the real world, of digging the grave that was begun for him in Auschwitz. He cherishes this writing-as-grave-digging as his life work, grim as it is.

Over the course of the novel, he recalls his unhappy childhood: his parents' divorce, and his five years in a boarding school. His father assumes authority over the child traditionally given to adults and parents, but the narrator sees through this facade of power, anticipates his father's lectures, and generally pities the man. His mother is never mentioned.

At fourteen the narrator is sent to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald concentration camps. A year later, when Buchenwald is liberated by the Allies, he returns to Józsefváros, a district near the heart of Budapest where he grew up. He works as a literary translator and writer but is not an insider to the preferred circles of the Hungarian literature scene. He rents a pre-fab apartment and owns very few possessions, mostly books. He is married for a short time but his wife leaves him after he reveals to her that he will not father a child for her. His childhood and the Holocaust predispose him against having children. The narrator says that he cannot be god to another human being.

Dr. Oblath

Dr. Oblath, a professor of philosophy, stays at the same resort as the narrator, near the Central Mountains. At the beginning of the novel they meet by chance in the woods. The narrator describes him as "a man bursting with inappropriate vitality" with "a face resembling soft dough, kneaded and already risen."

Dr. Oblath regrets that he and his wife do not have children. Dr. Oblath then asks the narrator if he has a child. This seemingly simple question is the catalyst for the stream-of-consciousness monologue (a rambling story that emerges from the natural sequence of thoughts in the narrator) that makes up Kaddish for a Child Not Born.


During the winter he is imprisoned the narrator meets the Professor, a skinny man, starving from inadequate nutrition and suffering from hard labor, on a carriage transport for the sick. The Professor makes sure the narrator, who is ill and lying down, receives his portion rather than keeping it for himself. This small action saves the narrator's life and probably further jeopardizes the Professor's survival. The narrator regards his action as irrational since human nature drives one toward survival, and the Professor's behavior is counter to his own survival. What is even more significant is the Professor's disgust at the narrator's amazement. When he sees the look on the narrator's face, he says "Well, what did you expect …?" For the Professor, civility and compassion are more essential for survival than his body's need for food.


See Ex-Wife


Children and Childhood

A central theme of Kaddish for a Child Not Born is how childhood experience shapes adult experience. The narrator remembers his childhood as being bleak and unhappy, full of authoritarian personalities. His parents divorced when he was very young and he spent five years in a strict boarding school. As a teenager he experienced the horrors of a concentration camp. Although he survived, he is forever marked by it. He will not and cannot live a "normal" life with children, a wife, and a house full of things.

The Western idea of childhood is that it is a time of innocence. The thought of children being killed in the Holocaust is terrible to dwell upon, but their survival in some ways is worse because they are freighted to carry what they have seen and heard with them for the rest of their lives. The personal burden of the Holocaust is heavy but can never be set aside. The narrator's own feelings that his childhood innocence was betrayed—by "a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror," by the Diri, by his father—make him adamant that he will not willfully bring a child into this world.

His wife leaves him, remarries, and has two children, a girl and a boy. At the end of the novel, he meets these children and is struck with physical manifestation of all that he has feared, dreaded. Overwhelmed, he prays that he will drown.


Kertész, like his narrator in Kaddish, was born to a Jewish family but he is not religious. As is often the case in countries outside the United States, "Jewish" is an ethnicity of which the Jewish religion is one aspect. It is therefore possible and not unusual to be a secular Jew. The Holocaust still had a profound impact on the mentality and spirituality of these secular Jews, as is readily apparent in Kertész's novel. The narrator identifies himself early in the book as secular (in contrast to his religious country relatives), but he frequently refers to God colloquially and even declares once that God is now dead. The narrator immerses himself instead in his writing, relying on that for his salvation.

Despite not being religious, Kertész has structured and named the book after the mourner's kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead. This long prayer is recited in a certain tone, without music or any other embellishment. In this novel, the narrator offers up his life as a kaddish for the children he would not have. A kaddish, in more general terms, is a prayer celebrating the greatness of God, of which the mourner's kaddish is by far the most common.


This novel is about the nature of survival, of living through and beyond a horrible experience. It is about the legacy that such survival brings to those who continue to live. The narrator first survived his childhood, an unhappy time that he recalls vividly: five years at the boarding school; being sent to visit religious country relatives; being educated by his father. He learned at the boarding school how to survive institutional authoritarianism, which is not only a matter of physical survival. His childhood, such as it was, ended abruptly when he was sent away to a concentration camp at the age of fifteen. After a year in the camps, he emerged. Ironically, becoming ill may have improved his chances for survival because he was sent to the camp hospital where he received better care than well prisoners received.

The narrator, like Kertész himself, is a survivor of the Holocaust and specifically, Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. Although he was not and still is not religious, the narrator believes, as a result of the atrocities that were committed during the war, that God is dead. He uses his writing as a kind of religion, a lifestyle, a way to sustain himself after the Holocaust.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research online the lives of three people who survived the Holocaust; pick them randomly. How are their stories similar? How are they different? Did they spend time in a concentration camp? Did they lose loved ones in the Holocaust? What was life like for them after the war? Prepare a presentation about Holocaust survivors, focusing on these three. The web-sites http://www.yadvashem.org/ and http://www.holocaustsurvivors.org/ may be helpful.
  • Kertész could not publish for many years because of state controls on the media. Research the history of banned books in the United States. Why were books banned? Give titles of famous books that have been banned and state the reasons given for their banning. Prepare a report about banned books, focusing on the history behind and content of a specific book.
  • Since World War II, people have sought to prevent genocides through international law. But as of 2005 genocide still occurs around the world. Research another time and place where genocide occurred, such as Rwanda (1994) or Yugoslavia (1991–2001). Write a short story from the point of view of someone who lived during the genocide you researched, using the information you gathered.
  • Hungarian (or Magyar) cuisine features paprika, sweet peppers, onions, and sour cream, and it can be very spicy. Some dishes known in the United States are adaptations of original Hungarian recipes, such as goulash, paprikash, and strudel. Look up some authentic recipes in cookbooks or online. As a class, have a potluck consisting of different Hungarian dishes and desserts. Alternately, have a Hungarian food night with your family and try out an appetizer, a main dish, and a dessert. Write a short review of how this cuisine compares to what you normally eat.
  • Nazi extermination of Jews during World War II is an extreme example of anti-Semitic behavior. Research the ways in which anti-Semitism continues in the early 2000s, especially in the United States. Gather news reports as well as scholarly studies and prepare a visual display about modern anti-Semitism.

He also survived a short-lived marriage, belatedly discovering that he was not suited to happiness (and other people were not suited to unhappiness). As a way of coping with his trauma and loss, he lives a transient life, renting furnished apartments and owning nothing more than books. He fears "the Germans may return at any time." Having known what the Nazis could do, he lives in perpetual fear that they can return and make him suffer all over again.

Writing as a Coping Strategy

The narrator of the story uses writing as a coping strategy after surviving Auschwitz. He reflects upon how he learned over the course of his life that he seeks pain with his writing. Ultimately, he sees his writing as a way of digging his own grave, the one begun for him at the camps. He says, "the pen is my spade." In this way, in writing he appropriates the role of sadistic others who made him suffer and sought to kill him.

Writing also helps him avoid living directly in the real world. Writing insulates him from experience; he faces the page instead of the immediate experience. Although he makes money with his writing, he is not concerned with success because it is an ongoing process of self-examination and this is more important to him than material comforts. Writing is how he continues to survive. Without it he would be lost.

It cannot be ignored that the narrator's writing affects his ex-wife, who is drawn to him after reading a story of his that helps her come to terms with her Jewish identity.


Stream of Consciousness

Kertész uses stream of consciousness to tell the story in his novel. This form requires that the inner thoughts of the speaker, in the order in which they occur naturally to the speaker, form the sequence in which the plot is revealed. This technique permits the narrator of the novel to move from topic to topic as he explores his thoughts, memories, and feelings about his childhood, his imprisonment at Auschwitz, his failed marriage, and his subsequent life and career, without the constraint of chronological order. It permits him to tie together seemingly unrelated topics which are linked meaningfully in his own thoughts. The narrator loops and curves through the past, avoiding an objective timeline of his life, filling in details as events arise in memory.

Stories told in stream of consciousness follow the subjective associations of the character, the way his mind moves from one thought to another. It is appropriate then that Kaddish for a Child Not Born has no chapter breaks and is comprised of seventeen long paragraphs. Most action is conveyed indirectly through reflection and memory, and the novel is engaging not because of what happens but because of the way the character remembers and now thinks about what happened.


The kaddish is a prayer recited over the dead body or at the burial site. Ironically, in this case, Kertész wrote a mourner's kaddish, or prayer, about a child who is not only not dead, but was never born and does not exist. The narrator in this novel is mourning something he never had, but he remains committed to not bringing a child into the world.

It is also ironic that the traditional mourner's kaddish itself never mentions death or the dead. The Jewish prayer for the dead is about the greatness of God, which is believed to be a comfort to mourners. Kertész and his narrator are secular Jews so perhaps they are not comforted by this prayer. But it is a prominent text in the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, (known as Shoah in Hebrew), because of the 6 million Jews who were killed.

Historical Context

The Holocaust

During World War II, Nazis in Germany sought to create a "pure" race of humans, which they called the Aryan race. The Nazis engaged in systematic extermination of groups of people considered by the Third Reich to be impure, such as Jews, Roman Catholics, gypsies (or Roma), homosexuals, the disabled, and anyone who disagreed with their politics. This extermination of an estimated 11 to 26 million people is called the Holocaust. European Jewry was practically erased, with at least 6 million Jews killed by the end of the war. This catastrophe is called Shoah in Hebrew. Anti-Semitism, or hatred of Jewish people, was intensified in Germany before the war by the Nazi propaganda machine, which convinced many people that Jews, along with many others, were the cause of economic depression and other social problems and that they should be removed from society.

Nazi soldiers collected these so-called undesirable people in concentration camps between 1933 and 1945 where they were forced to work and were methodically exterminated. After experimenting with different methods of mass extermination, Nazis settled on the gas chamber as the most efficient. Conditions in the camps were harsh. Many died from illness and malnutrition. Those who survived, lived on bereft of many of their friends and family.

Life after the Holocaust was difficult for those who survived. Many lost their faith, committed suicide, or were otherwise unable to resume normal lives. Millions of people were displaced, feeling unwelcome or unable to return to their former homes. Many Jews left Europe and moved to Palestine or elsewhere in the world.

Post-War Hungary

Hungary was occupied by the Soviet army at the end of World War II. Budapest was almost completely destroyed during the seizure and occupation. The Hungarian Communist Party took over the government after it lost the 1945 election. This communist government, headed by prime minister Mátyás Rákosi, saw the execution and imprisonment of tens of thousands of dissidents. Education and literacy programs were expanded to include the poor, but these efforts served as a conduit for communist propaganda. In this environment, people were not free to express themselves, and many artists and writers either left the country or suppressed their work.

The economy and standard of living suffered under communist rule, making this government eventually unpopular. Rákosi was replaced as prime minister in 1953 after Joseph Stalin died. The new prime minister, Imre Nagy, undid a lot of Rákosi's work. Prisoners were released, public debate was encouraged, and the media were freed from state control.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1960s: The Hungarian government, recovering from the Revolution of 1956, enacted policies to engender a more liberal society and a healthier economy.

    Today: Hungary joins the European Union on May 1, 2004.
  • 1960s: Race riots erupt across the United States, including Los Angeles in 1966 and Detroit in 1967.

    Today: Racial tension is still evident in the United States but civil rights of all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or medical condition are protected under the law.
  • 1960s: The Berlin Wall is built in 1961 as the cold war escalates. The wall separates Soviet-occupied East Berlin from West Berlin.

    Today: The cold war ends in 1991 with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Relations between the United States and Russia improve in the following decade.
  • 1960s: Almost twenty years after its founding, Israel fights Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in the Six-Day War (June 5-10, 1967). During this war, Israel captures several territories, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

    Today: The West Bank, a territory on the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip, a territory on the coast of the Red Sea, are hotly contested by resident Palestinians who disagree with Israel's occupation of their ancestral land.

On October 23, 1956, students in Budapest demanded an end to the Soviet occupation. During the next two weeks, protests grew violent, and the Soviets fought to maintain their hold on Hungary. Approximately 20,000 people died during this uprising. Nagy was removed from power and executed two years later. Hungarians were not successful in throwing off Soviet control, and not until the late 1980s did the Hungarian government begin to embrace democratic policies. The Soviets finally agreed to withdraw, and in May 1990 Hungary held its first free election.

Critical Overview

Kaddish for a Child Not Born has not received as much critical attention as Imre Kertész's first book, Fateless. English-language reviewers generally regard Kaddish and Kertész's subsequent novel Liquidation (2004) as experimental in form and less accessible. M. Anna Falbo wrote in Library Journal just after Kaddish was published that Kertész's novel is "rambling but always compelling." She described the author's intent as an "exploration of identity and the will to survive." Three years after publication Robert Murray Davis, writing for World Literature Today, described the book as very dense, but he still appreciated the work and recommended reading the slim novel in a single evening. Examination of the author's work increased considerably after the announcement that Kertész was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature. But Tim Wilkinson, writing in The Hungarian Quarterly, severely criticized the original English translation (Vintage Press released a new translation, retitled Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Wilkinson in 2004) as awkward and incomplete. For example, the original translators Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson left out the opening poem, Paul Célan's "Death Fugue" even though it is referred to throughout the novel. Gary Adelman gave a comprehensive examination of Kertész's writings in the New England Review. He pointed out (as have others) that Kertész himself is very jovial and unlike the semi-autobiographical narrator of his novels. Writing for The New Leader, Alvin H. Rosenfeld stated that Kertész's work stands out from the body of Holocaust literature as "thoughtful and challenging." John Banville, reviewing Kaddish and Liquidation for Nation, was less praiseworthy, however, commenting that "Fatelessness is such a powerful and coolly horrifying work that, for all their fine qualities, its successors may seem hardly more than variations on a theme."


Carol Ullmann

Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Ullmann explores the theme of survival in Kertész's novel.

Imre Kertész's Kaddish for a Child Not Born is a novel about survival after the Holocaust, written by a man who lived through Auschwitz, the worst of the Nazi death camps during World War II. In the novel, the narrator refuses to have children after the war ends, which ruins his short-lived marriage. In contemplating his past, the narrator realizes that he cannot bring a child into a world that could produce an Auschwitz, to do to a child what was done to him.

The survival of children is fundamental to the survival of the species; after all, the human race would not survive if individuals did not reproduce. On a smaller scale, those who live through devastation can be called survivors even if they are too scarred, mentally or physically, to reproduce themselves. These individuals may find other means of leaving a legacy, if only in their stories of struggle. Kertész's narrator survives; he lives through his writing, and his writing—this novel—concerns his survival, his existence. He explains that "if I didn't work I would have to exist, and if I existed, I don't know what I would be forced to do then." The narrator does not want to exist. He writes to escape living.

His survival is not just a matter of emerging from the death camp alive. He feels his unhappy childhood prepared him to face Auschwitz, prepared him for the impulse to survive. "Auschwitz … struck me later as simply an elaboration of those virtues in which I have been indoctrinated since childhood." His struggles began as a child when his parents divorced. Their reason for parting ("We didn't understand each other") was completely baffling to their son. Moreover, he had no choice about what happened and had to just accept it. After the parents' divorce, the boy was sent to a strict boarding school which taught him how some institutions operate on fear tactics; this schooling was good preparation for his year in the concentration camps. After boarding school, the boy was taken under his father's tutelage. This education proved more difficult to endure than the boarding school since the narrator had to face his complicated relationship with his father. He quickly lost faith in his father's authority and began to pity the man instead. His father seemed like a stunted god. The experience of the boarding school and his education by his father showed him how slight authority could be as well as how the loss of the presence of authority could leave one feeling lonely. Without his father, he had no protection against the wide world. Both the camp and his image of deity took on paternal characteristics: "Auschwitz … appears to [him] in the image of a father." Moreover, if the paternal God is omniscient, then He was also apparent in Auschwitz.

Unlike other Holocaust survivors, the narrator of Kaddish for a Child Not Born does not have a crisis of faith: he is not religious and has no faith to lose. He and his immediate family are secular Jews, completely assimilated into the non-Jewish city life of Budapest. But unlike his ex-wife, the narrator does not detest his Jewishness. He cherishes it because it brought him the experience of Auschwitz. It offers some explanation for what happened to him, "a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror."

In part, the narrator owes his physical and psychological survival to a character in the novel referred to as the Professor. Through an accidental meeting, the Professor helped and protected the narrator when he had no one else to rely on. The Professor made sure the narrator got his food portion at a time when food was scarce and the narrator was too sick to fend for himself. The Professor's action was irrational from the narrator's point of view because the Professor himself needed the food just as much as the narrator; however, the Professor's actions express his humanity and his compassion. Then, too, the Professor's action was not carefully planned—his response to the narrator's surprise is disgust—he is surprised that the narrator expected him to behave in any other fashion. The Professor's extraordinary kindness leaves the narrator with an "irrational" concept he cannot fully grasp, although his ex-wife is perfectly comfortable with it and considers the Professor's behavior to be normal.

The narrator's ex-wife, who was born after the Holocaust, has a dramatically different outlook on life. She is driven to become a medical doctor after her mother's early death and thereafter dedicates her life to helping others. At the same time, she rejects her Jewish identity because she does not want to carry the stigma that goes with being a Jew in post-World War II Europe. But she is not afraid to bring a child into this world. She is not troubled that she may be subjecting her progeny to the same pain and prejudice she has experienced. Of course it would be unreasonable to assume that anyone could live without a little anguish. Does survival through suffering make life sweeter? It does not appear so from the narrator's perspective.

The narrator feels no elation, no triumph at having survived the Holocaust. To him, Auschwitz was inevitable, a grotesque expression of human hatred that was a long time in coming. It was a place where god-like powers over life and death were exerted over believer and unbeliever alike. The horrible assault of the Holocaust on the human psyche was such that many people lost their faith, unable to believe in a God who would let such terrible things happen. Kertész has been known to express his gratitude for experiencing Auschwitz. Stefan Theil, interviewing Kertész for Newsweek International, expressed his surprise and Kertész responded:

I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. 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.

A common response to survival of a catastrophe is shame at being the one who lived while others died. There is often no satisfying explanation for why one person was stronger or luckier. The narrator of Kaddish for a Child Not Born expresses this feeling: "I am as much or as little an accomplice to my staying alive as I was to my birth. All right, I admit, there is a tiny bit more shame in staying alive." He strives through his writing to be worthy of life.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Fateless (1975) by Imre Kertész tells the story of a teenage boy who survives a year at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This is the most accessible of Kertész's novels.
  • Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (1947) by Anne Frank is the true story of a Jewish Dutch girl. She was in hiding with her family in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. She was given a diary for her thirteenth birthday and in it she recorded the events of her life from June 12, 1942 until August 1, 1944. Her family was eventually betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Her father was the only one to survive, and when he returned to Amsterdam and found her diary, he worked hard to have it published.
  • Night (1958) by Elie Wiesel is a semi-autobiographical novel about the author's experiences at Birkenau, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald. Like Kertész's character in Fateless, Wiesel's narrator is only a teenager; however, unlike Kertész's character, Wiesel's is religious and must struggle to reconcile his faith with the realities of the Holocaust.
  • Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Célan (2001) by Paul Célan and translated by John Felstiner offers a selection of this Holocaust survivor's prolific work. Célan was profoundly shaped by his Holocaust experience and the loss of his parents. His poem "Death Fugue" about Auschwitz is quoted at the beginning of Kaddish for an Unborn Child (2004), in the newest translation as well as in the original Hungarian edition.
  • "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (2003) by Samantha Power is about the three years, 1993–1996, that Power spent in Bosnia and Srebrenica, observing the war and genocide. She learned while she was there that the U.S. leadership has a history of not intervening when genocide is being carried out and she argues for this policy to change in order to save lives.

What is perhaps most interesting about the narrator's feelings in Kaddish for a Child Not Born concerning his survival of the Holocaust is that those feeling change drastically through the course of Kertész's four novels. In his first novel, Fateless (1975) the teenaged narrator "emerges from the camps with a mental clarity that promises a successful rehabilitation," as Gary Adelman observes in his very readable essay about Kertész's novels published in the New England Review. In the second book Fiasco (1988), the narrator is a little older and embittered by the cold, silent reception of his book about surviving Auschwitz. By the third novel, his bitterness has blossomed into a lifetime of disappointment, isolation, and neuroses. The narrator's clarity and chance for recovery have transformed completely into nihilism. In Kertész's fourth book, Liquidation (2003), the narrator has committed suicide and a friend of his looks back on the man's life while he is finally settling the writer's estate.

A once bright young man, the narrator survives terrible catastrophe only to live a half-life for the remainder of his days. He is a survivor, if only because he has not (yet) succumbed to suicide; he has not done the work for his tormentors. Although he does not choose to live a conventional life with wife and children, grandchildren, houses and furniture, he has dedicated himself to the arduous task of examining the meaning of his life and therefore his survival. He has given generations the gift of his writing, which, like a child, lives beyond its maker. Unlike a child, his writing attests to his survival long after he dies and perhaps help others come to terms with their own endurance in cataclysmic times.

Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Kaddish for a Child Not Born, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Ivan Sanders

In the following essay, Sanders explores why Kertész was not a well-known writer in Hungary until he won the Nobel Prize.

To non-Hungarians or non-East Europeans, the title of this essay may seem odd. Why the emphasis on Imre Kertész's Hungarianness? Isn't it natural, self-evident, that someone who has won the ultimate literary prize as a Hungarian writer should have a Hungarian identity? In reality the situation is more complicated. When the announcement was made in Stockholm that the Hungarian Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize in literature, the general response was: Who is this man? The question was not at all unreasonable. In the U.S. only two of his books had been published, in small editions by a rather obscure university press. What is much more strange and ironic is that the same question was asked by many people in Hungary, too, upon receiving the news. Though not a complete unknown, Imre Kertész, until October 10, 2002, the day his Prize was announced, was not exactly a household word either, in spite of the fact that he was 74 years old at the time and his literary career began decades ago. A number of reasons have been offered by Hungarian critics and writers for this lack of familiarity in a country that otherwise prides itself in being a nation of readers and book lovers, and where—despite, or because of, the vicissitudes of history—literature, indeed the written word, has a very special place in the culture.

One explanation given is Kertész's subject matter. In almost all of his works Kertész is preoccupied, some would say obsessed, with the Holocaust, as a historical event, as the defining experience of his life, and as a defining moment in European culture. It is argued that since the Hungarian people have never come to terms with their own role in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, they weren't too receptive to works that thirty, forty, fifty years after the fact still insist on the primacy of the event in modern European history, indeed in the history of modernity.

Actually, plenty of books about the Holocaust have been published in Hungary—reminiscences, memoirs, fiction—in the immediate postwar years and again in the sixties and seventies. There was no shortage of "lager literature," as the genre was then called. Generally speaking, these books could also be classified as anti-Fascist literature. And as such, they were praised and popularized during the Communist era. The problem with Imre Kertész's first and best-known novel, Sorstalanság (Fateless), was that it didn't fit into this category. When first published in Hungary in 1975, after a long wrangle with a state publisher, it was greeted with puzzlement, incomprehension, indifference. The reception can be compared to the way Tadeusz Borowski's Auschwitz stories were received in postwar Poland—stories which in spirit, if not in execution, are the closest thing we have to a novel like Fateless. In Poland there was even hostility and indignation when the stories, published later in English under the title This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, first appeared. Borowski was accused of amorality, nihilism and decadence. According to Czeslaw Milosz, Communist critics and ideologues had a clear idea of how a writer about the concentration camp should have proceeded: "1) the prisoners should have banded together in secret organizations; 2) the leaders in these organizations should have been Communists; 3) all the Russian prisoners appearing on the pages of the book should have distinguished themselves by their moral strength and heroic behavior; 4) the prisoners should have been differentiated according to their political outlook." In many examples of anti-Fascist literature, this is just what happens.

The hero of Kertész's second important novel, A kudarc (Fiasco) is a middle-aged novelist whose narrative about a young boy's experiences in Auschwitz and other concentration camps was returned by the publisher, its style, its approach to an otherwise "horrifying and stirring" subject having been judged odd, inappropriate, offensive even. This part of the novel clearly reflects Kertész's own difficulties in getting Fateless published in the Hungary of the 1970's. What Hungarian publishers at the time didn't like was that György Köves, the fourteen-year-old hero of Kertész's novel, throughout his ordeal assumes nothing. He doesn't anticipate, judge or rebel. In anti-Fascist literature, of course, this doesn't happen. The boy's compliance and passivity was then seen by many as shocking evidence of a victim's self-denigration, his identification with the aggressor's view of him. Only years later did readers and critics realize, after revisiting the novel following the fall of communism, that what they boy discovers for himself in the camps is the "banality of evil," to use Hanna Arendt's famous phrase, and his "normal" reaction to the process of dehumanization is a confirmation of this banality. Imre Kertész and his hero reject humanist clichés; they are past humanism, even past Borowski, the "disappointed lover" of humanism. "Imre Kertész's basilisk eyes see that the model of our world is the concentration camp," wrote a Hungarian commentator in an appreciation of Kertész's achievement.

Another reason given for Kertész's relative obscurity even in his own country is that in terms of form and style he writes rather traditional narratives, whereas his better-known contemporaries, Péter Nédas and Péter Esterházy, have produced linguistically more innovative, structurally unconventional postmodern fiction. For example, a recent survey of contemporary Hungarian literature by Ernö Kulcsár Szabó, who was among the first literary historians in Hungary to introduce and apply the new critical vocabulary in the early 90's, doesn't even mention Kertész in his book, implying that he is not part of the canon. In reality, a great deal can be said and, surely, a great deal will be said and written about Kertész's literary language as an apt vehicle for his ideas.

Fateless conveys entirely convincingly the point of view and sensibility of its "innocent" first-person narrator, although the language used is clearly not that of a fourteen-year-old—it's far too precise and fastidious and subtly ironic for that. Yet, remarkably enough, this language does not seem jarring.

The third and most sensitive reason offered to explain why Imre Kertész was not usually thought of as a writer of the first rank in Hungary is that he is of Jewish origin. For many in Hungary, and not only on the extreme right, it is surely a bittersweet vindication, a great irony, that when the Swedish Academy for the first time since the Prize in Literature was instituted decides to bestow the Nobel on a Hungarian writer, he should be a Jew. Never mind that this writer writes only in Hungarian, that he has lived all his life in Hungary and that his subject matter, too, is Hungarian—the Holocaust as experienced by someone born, raised, acculturated in Hungary. Gáspár Miklós Tamás, a brilliant if erratic essayist, philosopher, political commentator, gave this provocative title to his homage to Kertész in a Hungarian daily: "Nobel Prize Won by Hungarian Writer Imre Kertész, a Jew." Someone on the far right sanctimoniously attacked him for this, calling him a Nazi and a racist. Let it be said that one can almost sympathize with the Hungarian right's frustration over the fact that when liberals say something that is, shall we say, politically incorrect, it is all right, but when they do it, it's anti-Semitism. The fact is that Hungary is such a small country, its culture and intelligentsia so inbred, that everyone keeps track of who is who and what. It so happens that three out of four Hungarian writers, whose books are regularly translated and who have an international reputation, are Jewish born, and the fourth, Péter Esterházy, is the scion of the most famous Hungarian aristocratic families. Not exactly a representative sample of the Hungarian population. The normal response—the only response—to this fact has to be: So what? The obsession with origins is, as we all know, unhealthy, dangerous, counterproductive and, in the final analysis, irrelevant. István Csurka, the leader of the far right Hungarian Truth and Life Party, and a writer himself, published in his newspaper a list of writers featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999 (Hungarian literature was the focal point of the Fair that year), and he italicized the names of all the writers and translators who to him were not truly Hungarian, in most cases because they were Jewish. There were quite a few italicized names on that list. Writers and intellectuals in European capitals were appalled. This didn't stop a columnist of the same newspaper from referring to the now Nobel laureate Imre Kertész as "a writer living in Hungary," and another from ending his article with the following sentence: "I can't wait to see who will be the first Hungarian writer to win the Nobel Prize."

Of course in Kertész's case, his Jewishness—if only because of the subject matter of his novels and the way he treats that subject—is not irrelevant. And his Nobel Prize is a challenge to Hungarian society and culture. It forces them to rethink certain values, standards, rankings; it forces literary historians to reconsider the Hungarian literary canon. It is a big job. Or as the previously mentioned G. M. Tamás put it in his tribute to Kertész: "it is a painful, onerous duty, toilsome work, a rude awakening. Yet it's wonderful that Imre Kertész has won the Nobel Prize. We can be happy, we can be ashamed—Hungary is incomprehensible, fantastic, baffling, an enigma! If Imre Kertész lives and writes, then perhaps we, too, can live. For us it's easier."

It should be stressed that Kertész's preoccupation with Hungary's "Jewish question" makes many Hungarians uncomfortable on the left as well as the right. Moderately conservative intellectuals are right to point out that leftist liberals, former Communists—before the announcement from Stockholm—had not been quick to embrace him and his work. When it came to Holocaust literature, many leftists, including Jewish leftists of course, took their cue from Georg Lukács and held up the Spanish-French writer Jorge Semprun as their example, citing a line spoken by one of the characters in his novel, Le grande voyage: "I don't want to die a Jewish death."

It should also be stressed that Kertész's attitude toward his own Jewishness is complex and problematic. In a recent essay he has this to say about the subject:

If I say I am a Jewish writer, I don't necessarily mean that I myself am Jewish for what kind of a Jew is one who did not have a religious upbringing, speaks no Hebrew, is not very familiar with the basic texts of Jewish culture, and live not in Israel but in Europe? What I can say about myself, however, is that I am a chronicler of an anachronistic condition, that of the assimilated Jew, the bearer and recorder of this condition, and a harbinger of its inevitable demise. In this respect, the Endlösung has a crucial role: no one whose Jewish identity is based primarily, perhaps exclusively, on Auschwitz can really be called a Jew. He is Isaac Deutscher's "non-Jewish Jew," the rootless European variety, who cannot develop a normal relationship with a Jewish condition that has been forced upon him. He has a role to play, perhaps an important one, in European culture (if there is still such a thing), but he can have no part whatsoever in post-Auschwitz Jewish history or in the Jewish revival (if there is, or will be, such a thing, I must again add).

"I am one who is persecuted as a Jew, but I am not a Jew," Kertész wrote in his diary as recently as the early 1990s.

There are those in Hungary, mostly politicians and journalists on the right not well disposed toward Kertész, who keep reminding their audiences that it was the Germans who had been pushing Kertész's candidacy for the prize. There is no doubt that Germany is the country where Imre Kertész has the largest readership, and where critics have responded to his books most perceptively and sensitively. It has been suggested, cynically perhaps, that the reason why Fateless made such a deep impression on German readers is that here is one Holocaust novel that is not concerned with German culpability—here German officers are not portrayed as monsters; they are not any better or worse than other characters in the book. Kertész's aim in the novel was to depict a concentration camp universe, one that had engulfed all of Europe. So, in a sense, present-day Germans could be relieved of their guilt when reading the book. (Some feel that, more recently, praise was heaped on Roman Polanski's film The Pianist, especially in Europe, for similar reasons. As Michael Oren put it in The New Republic, The Pianist "conflates the Jew's identity as victim with the Jew's role as savior; [it] reduces Europe's guilt to a specific evil and purifies it. Here, at last, is the film Europe has been waiting for: the one that gets it off the hook.") As for Kertész, he doesn't exonerate anyone; and his conclusion about the meaning of Auschwitz is more devastating than that of many other artists. In his Nobel lecture he made it clear that

I have never tried to see the complex of problems referred to as the Holocaust merely as the insolvable conflict between Germans and Jews. I never believed that it was the latest chapter in the history of Jewish suffering, which followed logically from their earlier trials and tribulations. I never saw it as a one-time aberration, a large-scale pogrom, a precondition for the creation of Israel. What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history…. The real problem with Auschwitz is that it happened, and this cannot be altered—not with the best, or worst, will in the world. This gravest of situations was characterized most accurately by the Hungarian Catholic poet János Pilinszky when he called it a "scandal." What he meant by it, clearly, is that Auschwitz occurred in a Christian cultural environment, so for those with a metaphysical turn of mind it can never be overcome.

This last thought, in the interpretation of the extreme right in Hungary, means that Christianity brought about the Holocaust.

Many in Hungary expected, or hoped, that (though he certainly wasn't their candidate for it) once Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize, he would behave like a good Hungarian, an ambassador of goodwill, and sing the praises of his native country wherever he went. But Imre Kertész, though he stated a number of times, that his prize was a recognition of the achievements of Hungarian literature and a tribute to the Hungarian language, did not and does not see himself as a cultural ambassador, and is unwilling to assume a public role that would inhibit him in any way and keep him from voicing his opinion. So in interviews and public statements he did say there was open anti-Semitism in Hungary, reminiscent in some ways of the 1930s—though he also made it clear that he was referring to the extreme right, to István Csurka's party and his publication, the coarseness and hatefulness of whose tone, the incendiary nature of whose rhetoric, he added, cannot be compared to the tenor of the West European populist right, or of the moderately conservative camp in Hungary. But such public statements by the new Nobel laureate—in the foreign media yet—were deemed unforgivable. More than ever Kertész was branded un-Hungarian, a hater of all things Hungarian, and his work as an alien phenomenon in Hungarian culture.

In a way, the right has a hard time with Kertész. Even before his Nobel, they couldn't dismiss or discredit him, as they do other city-bred, urban writers, as a left-leaning cosmopolite, for Kertész is second to none in his abhorrence of Communism. The tormented hero of his novel Kaddish for a Child Not Born is an Auschwitz survivor who in postwar Hungary, in the new political order, feels even more alienated. The ugliness of the housing project where he lives—the concrete slab of a building protrudes from an old Budapest neighborhood like an "oversized false limb"—becomes emblematic of the ugliness of "existing socialism." Indeed, Kertész sees his own unhappy life journey as one taking him from one totalitarian system to another.

Socialism for me was the petite madeleine that, dipped into Proust's tea, evoked in him the flavor of bygone years. For reasons having to do with the language I spoke, I decided, after the suppression of the 1956 revolt, to remain in Hungary. Thus I was able to observe, not as a child this time but as an adult, how a dictatorship functions. I saw how an entire nation could be made to deny its ideals, and watched the early, cautious moves toward accommodation. I understood that hope is an instrument of evil, and the Kantian categorical imperative—ethics in general—is but the pliable handmaiden of self-preservation.

Elsewhere he talks about how during the darkest years of Stalinism he, along with many other fellow citizens, was intent on survival and, ironically, didn't have the luxury, the freedom, to succumb to despair, as did fellow writers and Auschwitz survivors in he West, some of whom—Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Amery—ultimately took their own lives. And about the conditions under which he wrote Fateless Kertész has said: "The nausea and depression to which I awoke each morning [in the sixties] led me at once into the world I intended to describe. I had to discover that I had placed a man groaning under the logic of one type of totalitarianism in another totalitarian system."

Under communism Imre Kertész held himself aloof from public life; he published little, wasn't an active presence on the Hungarian literary scene, and really came into his own only after the fall of communism. Yet a writer for the moderately conservative journal Heti Válasz (Weekly Response) has recently taken him to task for not raising his voice against the atrocities committed by the Communists in the 1950s, while expecting Hungarians to do serious soul-searching about their country's role in the catastrophe of the Hungarian Jews in the forties. It is true that Kertész wasn't a dissident intellectual openly opposed to the Kádár regime. But chances are, his acts would be belittled today even if he were. Just as the acts of former dissidents and members of the democratic opposition are belittled by many Hungarians on the right. Since many of those dissidents came from leftist homes and are of Jewish origin, they are seen today by rightists as not such great heroes, but as people who—arrests and harassments notwithstanding—were tolerated by the regime as gadflies simply because—and this is always implied or at least insinuated—they remained close to those in power. These are the necessary distortions of nationalists who find it difficult to accept that "rootless cosmopolites" openly defied the Communist dictatorships, while they, the "true Hungarians," lay low or blended into the silent majority.

There is no question that Imre Kertész is an assimilated Hungarian Jew who is ambivalent about his Hungarian identity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he decided not to leave Hungary in 1956 "for reasons having to do with the language I spoke." He knew already then that he wanted to be a writer and felt he was too old (he was 26) to change languages. It is also true—as indicated earlier—that Kertész is equally ambivalent about his Jewishness. He has grappled with his "Jewish problem" all his life, and it emerges powerfully in his autobiographically inspired fiction. For example, the hero of Kaddish recalls a childhood visit to religious relatives in the country.

Yes, there it was that I lived among Jews for the first time, real genuine Jews, I mean, not Jews like we were—city Jews, Budapest Jews, that is to say, not Jews at all, but of course not Christians either; we were the kind of non-Jewish Jews who still observe the holy days, long fasts, or at least, definitely, until lunch. No, indeed the village relatives (I no longer remember how we were related, why should I, anyway, they have dug their graves a long, long time ago in the air where the smoke from their remains dissipated), they were real Jews: prayer in the morning, prayer in the evening, prayer before food, prayer on the wine … other than that, they were fine people, though unbearably boring for a little boy from Budapest.

And George Köves, the hero of Fateless and Kertész's alter-ego, realizes in the camps that he has nothing in common with fellow Jews, especially the religious, for whom he is no Jew because he speaks not a word of Yiddish, while feeling odd about his Hungarian identity, too, since Hungarians do not want him either. Fateless may be seen as an existentialist novel in which an absurd universe appears in the guise of a totalitarian system that strips one of his self and imposes a role, a fate. "Why can't you see that if there is such a thing as fate, then there is no freedom," the boy tells a journalist after his return from the camps. "If, on the other hand … there is freedom, then there is no fate."

The narrator of Kaddish for a Child Not Born remembers his father and the director of the boarding school where he was sent after his parents' divorce as stern and tyrannical authority figures. Indeed, he sees the tyrannies of the modern world, authoritarian rules that led to Auschwitz, in terms of forbidding fathers. "The two terms Auschwitz and father resonate the same echoes in me," he says. He refers repeatedly to another childhood memory. He visited observant relatives in the country. One morning he accidentally opened the bedroom door and saw not his sheitel-wearing aunt but "a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror." He was shocked, appalled, and the image stayed with him—in the narrative it becomes a potent, many-layered symbol of Jewish vulnerability and shame.

Kaddish is one long howl of negation, but as in Kertész's other novels of despair something strange, almost incomprehensible, happens that negates the negation. The narrator remembers a fellow inmate in Auschwitz, a "skeleton" everybody called Professor, who one day, upon seeing how very weak the narrator was, gave him his ration, though by doing this he lessened his own chances of survival. Under the circumstances, the narrator says, this act made no sense whatsoever. At the end of his recitation, the man without hope wants to be swept away by the "filthy flow of memories," he wants to drown in their "black warmth"—yet he lives on.

In his Nobel lecture, this is what Kertész said about his own family:

I was born in Budapest, in a Jewish family, whose maternal branch hailed from the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (Cluj) and the paternal side from the southwestern corner of the Lake Balaton region. My grandparents still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland. My maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust; my paternal grandparents' lives were destroyed by Mátyás Rákosi's Communist rule, when Budapest's Jewish old age home was relocated to the northern border region of the country.

Curiously enough, he says nothing about his parents in this brief family history. In light of his novels (which, we must remember, are novels and not memoirs; novels which nevertheless turn the material of his life into serious fiction)—in light of his fiction, then, the omission is not that surprising. Kertész did have a difficult pre-Auschwitz childhood, a difficult relationship with his parents, who, like George Köves's parents, were divorced. It is interesting to note that in the works of a number of Hungarian Jewish writers (George Konrád, Péter Nádas, István Vas, György Moldova and others), in novels and memoirs, the young narrators, who are also frequently the authors' alter egos, are for one reason or another disappointed in, or estranged from, their own assimilated, more or less deracinated, alienated or absent fathers, and turn for love and attention to their traditionalist Jewish grandfathers and grandmothers, and are fascinated and strengthened by their unswerving faith.

It may be said that Imre Kertész writes grim novels, yet the grimness is tempered by satire and irony. Behind a prose that often seems self-consciously formal and mannered, there are glimmers of subtle humor. Kertész does believe that evil can be confronted with a smile, even a grin. Significantly enough, while he considers Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List cinematic kitsch, he has found Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful a Holocaust parable after his own heart.

In spite of his life experiences, Imre Kertész has remained in his daily life a warm, affable, unpretentious man, with the grace and wit of a Central European intellectual, and the wry, bracing, irreverent sense of humor of a denizen of Budapest. He is of that milieu and his mental habits reflects that milieu. And best of all, even as a famous writer, and now a Nobel laureate, he doesn't take himself too seriously. When reminded in an interview that his works until now had not been part of the Hungarian literary canon and weren't required reading in secondary schools, Kertész replied that he hoped that they wouldn't be required readings in the future either, because he remembered that as a schoolboy there was nothing he hated more than having to write a school essay on a book he'd read, even if he liked the book very much. And when asked to comment on the controversy surrounding the building of a Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and the possibility of a similar controversy in Hungary, Kertész said he doesn't believe in a forced consensus on issues on which there is very little agreement. And to illustrate, he recounted an anecdote from the 60s—the Communist era, that is. It would not be inappropriate to conclude by repeating this anecdote, if only to suggest that Kertész is, in an important sense, heir to a tradition of Eastern European Jewish humor, a particularly and characteristically Hungarian variety. According to the anecdote, Mr. Gruen—the proverbial Mr. Gruen of Budapest jokes—goes over to a uniformed young man standing next to a monument to Soviet heroes and asks him why he was posted there. "I must make sure that the monument is not vandalized or desecrated," the young man says. "For example, I have to stop anyone from, say, urinating on the statue." "What an idea," says Gruen, "who would want to urinate on a monument to Soviet heroes?" "I would," replies the guard, "if I weren't on duty."

Source: Ivan Sanders, "The Hungarian Identity of Nobel-Laureate Imre Kertész," in The Treatment of the Holocaust in Hungary and Romania During the Post-Communist Era, edited by Randolph L. Braham, The Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, 2004, pp. 189-200.

Péter Nádas

In the following essay, Nádas describes the weight of Auschwitz and the Holocaust and how it overshadows literary contemplation of Kertész's work.

Imre Kertész's literary work, for the greater part, has always been obscured by his subject, and it will take a goodly lapse of time yet for that not to obscure it. The monstrous attempt at the total disfranchisement, dispossession and destruction of European Jewry is not the sort of story or subject that can be dealt with on a Tuesday and set aside on the Wednesday. The statute of limitations does not apply. It cannot be refashioned in hindsight, in line with the wishes of family histories, so as to be forgotten, along with other historical crimes regarded as pardonable. The collective attempt at the total disfranchisement, organised dispossession and systematic destruction of European Jewry was a consequence of the conscious intellectual efforts and coordinated mental conditioning of several European generations. Not even remotely can it be considered an operational hitch of either European or Hungarian history. There is no absolution for it, ecclesiastic or secular, nor will there be. And even if someone does not bear personal responsibility in this connection, that is not to say that he does not bear an enduring historical responsibility.

Over the past fifty-eight years, the reality of Auschwitz has become a universal touchstone for an ethical approach, for political thinking, and for legislation. It cannot be avoided even by nationalists and fascists, those who would have the greatest interest in doing so. They are obliged to dissociate themselves from the very thing they would wish to do all over again. Ethnic cleansing, mass murder and genocide no longer figure amongst legitimate national fantasies. The historical experience of Auschwitz acts as a high threshold against which every one of us, every day of the week, can individually measure off the degree and efficacy of his own personal ignorance, or the trustworthiness of his own good faith. Anyone not contemplating Auschwitz cannot contemplate God. No one can contemplate the human dragon's brood and leave out Auschwitz. Neither state institutions nor churches, neither families nor private individuals may step over this high threshold of the collective conscious. Neither those born yesterday, nor those born today.

They may, at best, not intentionally step over into the adjoining room. Even then, however, they must reckon with the consequences of their isolation.

Without Auschwitz the human image limned by European culture cannot be drawn. We see it in the Mona Lisa's coolly ethereal smile; its corpses stick out from beneath the Isenheim Altar. God is not dead. But masks, make-up, painted images, finery and shrouds are no longer of assistance to man. The several millennia-old divine image of self-veneration and self-pity really and truly vanished definitively in the corpse-burning pits of Majdanek and Sobibor, the ovens of Auschwitz and Ravens-brück, and in the goods yards of Szeged, Nyíregyháza, Debrecen, Miskolc, Pécs, Zalaegerszeg and Mohács. Christianity does not have some other, more ideal reality, a history that is separable from Auschwitz. There can no longer be a Christian theology without Auschwitz.

Oddly, Imre Kertész's literary work is obscured not only by his subject, but that enormous subject also obscures what might be called his more intimate subjects.

His subjects are internested like some ghastly Chinese puzzle.

He recognised Auschwitz as the most profound, essential reality of European culture by looking back from the continuity of dictatorships to the one and only, beautiful Auschwitz of his own childhood. It is the great structural insight of his literary work that Auschwitz cannot be seen when viewed from Auschwitz, but from the standpoint of the continuity of dictatorships it can be looked back on as if it were a treasured memory. In a dictatorship every content of consciousness is distorted from the start. It is a painful insight to see continuity where others wish, at best, to see only a short-circuit in civilisation, the inexplicable workings of evil, or a product of chance. This conception of historical reality, of the human endowment and condition, permits no sentimental illusions either in looking back or in looking ahead to the future. Neither has it any reference with the aid of which one might place a comforting equals sign between Red and Brown dictatorships and, ala Ernst Nolte, excuse the criminal acts of one with the criminal acts of the other. What has happened today can also happen tomorrow. In the pause for thought whilst the execution squad reloads, Kertész identifies the connection, designates the points of intersection of dictatorships. He makes it clear how the Chinese puzzles of European history and human nature nest within one another.

This language, this culture, this state of order—none of this is accidental or arbitrary.

Just one—albeit indisputably a substantial—part of Imre Kertész's literary work that is obscured by his subjects is comprised of philosophical analysis. That might, in principle, have been carried out in any of the world's languages.

It is intriguing nevertheless that he has chosen to carry it out in the material of a language whose concepts have barely been scratched hitherto by any spadework of philosophical scrutiny. In a language which, at best, recognises the philosophical interpretations of other languages, but has no self-sufficient philosophy of its own. In his literary language Kertész has turned this drawback, a near-general absence of analysed and fixed conceptual substance, into an advantage. He has fashioned the surfaces of a dispassionate way of viewing things from the material of the Hungarian language. In hindsight, it can now be seen that the malleable sentence structure of Hungarian gives the language the ability to adopt a dispassionate view. In the pause of a feeling charged by two commonplaces, with a barely flinching gaze, Kertész's sentences take note of painful reality. He has thereby created a new quality for the Hungarian language's sense of reality.

Source: Péter Nádas, "Imre Kertész's Work and His Subject," in Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 168, Winter 2002.

Tim Wilkinson

In the following review, Wilkinson analyzes the 1997 American translation of Kaddish for a Child Not Born, finding omissions by the translators and numerous problems with the translated text.

Translating is so very much a matter of individual choices and style that it is hard to comment on another's work without appearing to nit-pick. The style Imre Kertész adopts in Kaddish for the Unborn Child depends crucially for its effect on its weaving together of a densely poetic web of allusions and associations. It is very clearly constructed as a stream-of-consciousness text that runs together numerous strands of memory, of both personal and wider cultural significance, in setting out the reasons why the narrator chooses not to father a child. Sustaining that delicate web in the target language (English) must be a prime task for any translator who hopes to pass on an idea of its magic in the Hungarian. Even quite small disruptions or distortions are jarring. The problems with the American translation, for me, start with the title: Kaddish for a Child Not Born (Nortwestern University Press, 1997) sounds and is awkward, a signal of more awkwardnesses (and worse) to come. Besides the lumpy prose, the text is so riddled with errors that one is forced to conclude that the translators were unequipped for the task—a sadly all too common event with the miserably few Hungarian works that get published in the UK or America (a long-running average of one or two titles per year).

For some inexplicable reason, the quotation from Paul Celan's 'Death Fugue' used as a motto at the front of the Hungarian text is omitted. This is not a trivial slip, as the whole poem is the direct source of some of the most striking imagery in the text (the page references are to the American edition): not just what is in the epigraph—"… more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air / then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined" (p.16), but also lines such as "he whistles his Jews out, in earth has them dig for a grave" (reference omitted on p. 20, 27, 66); "death is a Master from Germany his eyes are blue / he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true" (lamely rendered, on p. 45, as "Death is a blue-eyed German maistro and magister, he may come at any time, wherever he may find you, he'll take aim and he never misses"); "your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith" (p. 57). Kertész himself has remarked that "the Paul Celan motto was only added to Kaddish at a later stage, when I noticed that my sentences were quite involuntarily following the poem's rhythm of thought. Earlier on I had often read the text in the original German, because it is virtually untranslatable, and then I found that the images and metaphors of my own text were returning, time and time again, to Celan's Fugue."

That is not the only puzzling omission, incidentally. At the very least, the translators seem to be bul[c]mics of sorts, as well as having no comprehension of what air-raid precautions might be, for on page 16 we get: "No, indeed, the village relatives (I no longer remember how we were related, why should I, anyway, they have dug their graves a long, long time ago in the air where the smoke from their remains dissipated), they were real Jews: prayer in the morning, prayer in the evening, prayer before food, prayer with the wine … other than that, they were fine people, though unbearably boring, of course, for a little boy from Budapest. I believe the war had already started then, but as everything was still quiet and beautiful here, we merely practised darkening the windows; …" (Try: "… no, the 'auntie' and 'uncle' (I no longer recall exactly how we were related, but then why would I recall, they long ago dug their graves in the air into which they were sent up in smoke) were real Jews, with prayers in the morning, prayers in the evening, prayers before meals, prayers over the wine, but otherwise decent people, even if unbearably dull, of course, for a young boy from Pest, their food dripping with grease, goose, cholent, and suety raisin slices of flódni. I think war had already broken out, but everything was still nice and quiet here in our country, they were still only conducting blackout drills,…"). More food aversion on pages 20-21: "I don't want to remember, in this respect, not even in the sense of the famous ∗…∗ dipping ladyfingers into premixed spiced tea instead of the famous ∗…∗. Although, of course, I do want to remember …" What the hell is that supposed to mean? Someone freaking out? You might be forgiven for not noticing that this is a straightforward reference to Proust, because the actual Hungarian text runs more like: "… I don't want to remember, to dunk ladyfingers, as it were, in my cup of Garzon scented tea-bag mixture, instead of the madeleine cakes that are unknown, even as unobtainable articles, in this benighted part of the world, though of course I want to remember …"

The Shulamith referred to above is misprinted as "Julamith," by the way. Nor does "a stardust melody" (p. 20) have quite the signification of 'Stardust Melody.' It is equally irritating, if not down-right puzzling, to find (on p. 25) "Hauthausen … Hain Street" (did the printer runs out of m's?). Similarly, on page 30, one might just about work out what is meant by "… he is the demon, who takes all our demonlike qualities upon his shoulders, like an Antichrist shouldering his iron cross, and doesn't insultingly escape our claws to prematurely hang himself like Stravrozin." But might it not help if this were set into proper English? "… he is the devil who will carry all of our own devilishness on his shoulders, like an Anti-Christ bearing the Iron Cross, and will not insolently slip through our fingers to string himself up before the time, as Stavrogin did." More seriously, back on page 25, is the word "Kistavesa," which any reader would be forgiven for not recognising is actually 'Kistarcsa,' one of several notorious places on the outskirts of Budapest that Eichmann's SS Sonderkommando (and their willing Hungarian helpers) set up as a transit camp for deporting the Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.

That leads straight to egregious mistranslations. Does it matter that the Hungarian word which in English means 'beech wood' is translated (p. 1) as "oak forest or glade"? One tree is pretty much like another, after all. Well, try the German for beech wood: 'Buchenwald …' (And the tree motif is picked up later, with an oblique reference to a line from one of Horace's Odes, quoted by both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche: "Why do you torture your poor reason for insight into the riddle of eternity? Why do we simply not lie down under the high plantane? or here under this pine tree?"). A similar failure of cultural bearings on the translators' part means you will probably miss the allusion to Arnold Schönberg's composition in "… the last soma Jisroel of the Warsaw captive …" (p. 20). But most hilarious of all is (p. 80): "His Most Honorable Highness the Governor, dressed in a hat as large as the sea and a mysterious fringed uniform." Anyone might guess that this refers to Miklós Horthy, Hungary's head of state from 1920 to 1944: "His Serene Highness the Regent, in his admiral's cap and that arcane uniform with the tasselled epaulets" Yes, the translators have read the Hungarian word for 'admiral'—tengernagy—literally as 'sea-big.'

It gets no better when it's a question of figures that one might hope were common knowledge, even in America. On page 12, for instance, we get "I only do this as really simply a precautionary measure, as if I were, or rather, had been, a cautious, promiscuous person moving in AIDS-affiliated circles." How does a "circle" of people affiliate to AIDS? Is it a club? Try: "… I adopt that pose merely as a prophylactic, as if I were a wary libertine moving around in an AIDS-infected milieu …"

What you're getting, dear reader, is bunkum, and not even the most astute amongst you could guess that the work of a deserved Nobel laureate was behind the original on which this travesty is based (p. 82): "Scandal … was the term they used to describe these inevitable, always unexpected, and, one could say, rain falls. You must imagine these … in the manner of when a drunk gentleman, after controlling himself for a while, finally gives in to temptation and falls down with a sigh, relaxing …" The Hungarian text shows that this puzzling association of rainfall with scandal is just a figment of the translators' imagination: "Scandal … that's what they called these irresistible, always unexpected plunges into licentiousness, so to say, which you should imagine, I said to my wife, as somewhat like an inebriated gentleman, who, having kept a strict hold on himself for a good while, suddenly yields to temptation and falls down flat on the ground in relief …"

Source: Tim Wilkinson, "Kaddish for a Stillborn Child?" in Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 168, Winter 2002.


Adelman, Gary, "Getting Started with Imre Kertész," in New England Review, Vol. 25, No. 1-2, Winter-Spring 2004, pp. 261-78.

Banville, John, "Beyond Good and Evil," in Nation, Vol. 280, No. 4, January 31, 2005, p. 29.

Davis, Robert Murray, Review of Kaddish for a Child Not Born, in World Literature Today, Vol. 74, No. 1, Winter 2000, p. 205.

Falbo, M. Anne, Review of Kaddish for a Child Not Born, in Library Journal, Vol. 122, No. 10, June 1, 1997, p. 149.

Kertész, Imre, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson, Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H., "The Auschwitz Disease," in New Leader, Vol. 87, No. 6, November-December 2004, pp. 30-31.

Theil, Stefan, "The Last Word: Imre Kertész, A Voice of Conscience," in Newsweek International, December 30, 2002, p. 96.

Wilkinson, Tim, "Kaddish for a Stillborn Child?" in Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 168, Winter 2002, pp. 41-43.

Further Reading

Bauer, Yehuda, and Nili Keren, History of the Holocaust, Franklin Watts, 2002.

This book is accessible to high school students and gives a thorough account of Jewish history, culminating with detailed information about how and why the Holocaust occurred.

Dalos, György, Günther Grass, and Imre Kertész, "Parallel Lives," in Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 175, Autumn 2004, pp. 34-47.

In the following interview, Grass and Kertész compare the differences and similarities in their lives.

Siegal, Aranka, Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary, 1939–1944, Puffin, 1994.

This book is a memoir of a Hungarian girl who was sent to a concentration camp and survived to tell her story.

Spiró, György, "In Art Only the Radical Exists," in Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 168, Winter 2002, pp. 29-37.

In this article, Spiró writes about his old friend Kertész, offering a more personal and friendly account of the author's life and career.