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- 20.2.2012 8:00 -

Arnošt Lustig’s Books of Survival

Arnost Lustig

The key impetus for Arnošt Lustig’s writing consisted in the ordeal of his painful holocaust experience. His first short story collection set in the environment of Nazi concentration camps was published in 1958; considering it his best book ever, Lustig kept on returning to the dramatic historical experience. He knew too well that the “Auschwitz experience” is beyond description and that while trying to describe it, one may get swept by the dark current of dreadful memories; many a “holocaust writer” took his own life (e.g. Primo Levi, Jean Amery, etc.). What helped Lustig escape the fate of his famous colleagues was probably his intense optimism. However impoverished, humiliated and marginalized life could be, it has always been the main axis of Lustig’s interest. His desire to live (and appreciate life) has not been suppressed even by the tragic episodes of his stays in concentration camps (Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Buchenwald). That is the fundamental victory of Arnošt Lustig over the darkness of war and primarily over the machinery of Nazi hatred, aimed, in its principle, at the very value of life.
The film by Kristina and Iva Pavelka is valuable primarily for reminding us of Lustig’s remarkable personality a year after his death already, providing space for his kind human approach and storytelling talent once again. His stories are accompanied by those of his close ones, the most interesting witness accounts being told by his sister Hana and fellow concentration camp prisoner Jiří Justic. Most attention is dedicated to Lustig’s remote war and post-war past; however logical and understandable that may be, it is still a pity that the film does not reveal more about Lustig’s later life, his exile, his search for his place on the map of the world, and his later university career in the United States. Those, too, might become perfect themes for Lustig’s vivid and comprehensible narration. Arnošt Lustig has left a remarkable trace in the Czech society; however, it is important that he is remembered not only as a bon vivant and anecdotist but primarily for and through his works. His short stories, novels and screenplays pass on the message of the gift of life and the strong will to live from generation to generation. In one of the film’s most impressive scenes, Lustig wonders about the essence of his literary message: “I often wonder why my books are read by young people. I guess it is because they want to learn more about survival. They have unconscious fears; fears of uncertainty, fears of another war. That is why they read those books; for they are full of hope.”

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