This Day in Jewish History

1926: A Writer About the Holocaust, and Overriding Humanity, Is Born

Arnost Lustig hadn't been the bookish type, but after the Shoah, his teacher didn't seem to believe his stories, and he felt the word had to come out.

Arnost Lustig (2009), balding, with white hair, smiling with lips and eyes; his eyes are light blue. He seems to be wearing a black leather or skye jacket and a flowered cravat. The picture was taken in Brno.
Wikimedia Commons

December 21, 1926, is the birthdate of Czech novelist and screenwriter Arnost Lustig, who because he was “exploding with experiences” after surviving the Holocaust, spent the rest of his life writing about the things he’d seen. Nearly all of Lustig’s more than 20 books dealt with the Nazi concentration and death camps. Although his works depict violence and cruelty that is incomprehensible in its scale, they also commemorate the lives of individual victims who managed to maintain their humanity in the face of certain death, bestowing meaning to their lives even as those lives were about to be snuffed out.

Arnost was the son of Emil Lustig and the former Terezie Lowy. The family lived in the Prague neighborhood of Liben. Growing up, Arnost was a free spirit who, according to Pavel Theiner, son of his friend and translator George Theiner, “lived on the streets and didn’t really take much notice of schoolwork or books.”

Escaping the Nazis

After the German occupation of Prague, in March 1939, Arnost was expelled from his school for being a Jew, although it was not until 1942 that he and his family were arrested and sent to Theresienstadt, the facility on Czech territory that served as something of a model concentration camp for German propaganda purposes.

But Arnost would not remain there: he was deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, and later to Buchenwald.

In the winter of 1945, as German forces began to retreat, the train that was carrying him and other prisoners to Dachau was bombed by an American plane, and he succeeded in escaping. He returned to Prague, where he joined the Czech resistance, and participated in the May 5 uprising against the city’s German garrison.

At the war’s end, Arnost learned that his mother and his sister, Hana, had survived, but that his father had died in Auschwitz. He was but one of many relatives who perished.

Unbelievable stories

One of the first things Arnost did on his return to Prague, according to his sister, was visit his old school, where a former teacher, Mr. Jouza, “asked Arnost what he had been doing for the last three years, and when Arnost began telling him, the teacher just stroked his shaved head and Arnost came to the conclusion that he didn’t believe him.” According to Hana, it was Arnost’s desire to communicate to people what he been through that led him to begin writing.

The Holocaust would be his only topic. As Lustig himself told an interviewer in 1999, “with very little exaggeration, I can say that everything I learned about man, or the character of man, about the fate of man, I learned in the camps, until I was seventeen years old."

After studying at both the Prague College of Political and Social Sciences and at Charles University, he worked for a number of years as a journalist. From 1948 to 1956, he reported for Radio Prague on several different continents, and also covered Israel’s War of Independence. That’s when he met Vera Weislitzova, herself a Czech-born survivor of Theresienstadt who was then volunteering with the Haganah.

After the Czech government broke off diplomatic relations with Israel following the Six-Day War, Lustig gave up his membership in the Communist Party. The following year, after the Soviet invasion of his country, he left Czechoslovakia. He and Vera and their two children lived briefly in Yugoslavia and Israel, before settling in the United States.

There, Arnost taught literature and also film, at Drake University, in Iowa, and then at American University, in Washington, D.C. After the fall of communism, he began splitting his time between there and Prague (where President Vaclav Havel offered him an apartment in Prague Castle, the presidential residence), until moving back fulltime in 2003, after retiring.

Lustig published his first book, a short-story collection called “Night and Hope,” in 1957. Other well-known books published in English translation include “Dita Saxova” (1962), “A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova” (1964) and “Lovely Green Eyes” (2002). A number of his stories were turned into films, some of whose screenplays he wrote, and he also wrote essays and plays.

Arnost Lustig died in Prague, at age 84, on February 26, 2011, as a result of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.