This Day in Jewish History

1983: A Writer and His Wife Commit Suicide

At various times, Arthur Koestler was a communist, a Zionist, a Lamarckian and a believer that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Khazars. Whatever it was, he wrote about it.

Arthur Koestler, January 11, 1969.
Eric Koch, Wikimedia Commons

On March 1, 1983, novelist and journalist Arthur Koestler, who experienced and chronicled some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century, and embraced and rejected a variety of different ideologies and beliefs, died, at the age of 77. Suffering from both Parkinson’s disease and leukemia, he had decided to end his life, and was joined in his suicide by his wife and assistant, Cynthia Jefferies.

Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest on September 5, 1905. His father, Henrik Koestler, was a Hungarian-born textile importer; his mother was the former Adele Jeiteles, from a prominent Prague family; Arthur was their only child.

During his early childhood, the family was well-off and lived in several of Budapest’s more affluent neighborhoods. Arthur, who grew up speaking both Hungarian and German (to which he soon added English and French), attended an experimental kindergarten run by Laura Polanyi Striker, a historian and family friend, whose daughter Eva Striker (later Zeisel)  became a friend and, many years later, companion of Koestler’s.

Dueling in the Jews' honor

During World War I, Henrik was unable to import goods and his business failed. The family moved to Vienna, where they lived in several different temporary dwellings.

Arthur returned to Budapest by himself for high school. Later he was joined by his parents, and the family remained there even after the Bolshevik revolution, during which the soap factory owned by Henrik was nationalized.

After the socialist regime was replaced by the right-wing and anti-Semitic rule of Admiral Miklos Horthy, in November 1919, the Koestlers returned to Vienna, where Arthur began to study engineering at the College of Technology. He joined the Jewish fraternity Unitas, where he learned about Zionism and frequently dueled to defend the Jews’ honor.

When Henrik’s latest enterprise went bankrupt, Arthur was forced to leave school. But by then he had been converted to Zionism, and decided to give life in Palestine a try, in 1926.

Turned down by a kibbutz

Without work lined up, and being turned down for membership at Kibbutz Heftzibah, Koestler returned to Europe, and soon began working as a journalist in Berlin. As he advanced up the editorial hierarchy of the Ullstein-Verlag newspaper group, he covered the Middle East, reported from Paris, and traveled by a zeppelin on a science expedition to the Arctic Circle.

After joining the Communist Party and spending two years in the USSR, Koestler went to Spain to cover the civil war. But he antagonized Franco’s Nationalists, and got himself arrested and only narrowly escaped execution.

Whatever he experienced, Koestler wrote about, sometimes as journalism, often as fiction. Most notably, it was his eventual disillusionment with Soviet Communism that led to his 1941 novel “Darkness at Noon,” probably his best-known book. Another period in Palestine, before Israeli independence – when he met Menachem Begin and tried to convince him to give up the armed struggle for a state -- provided material for the 1946 novel “Thieves in the Night,” and his narrow escape from a detention camp in Vichy France was the subject of the non-fiction “Scum of the Earth” (1955).

Koestler’s interests later turned from politics to science, and then to mysticism. A 1967 book, “The Ghost in the Machine,” looked at the evolution of the human brain, and “The Lotus and the Robot” (1960) examined Eastern mysticism.

In “The Thirteenth Tribe,” from 1976, Koestler made the case that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Khazars, of Crimea, who had converted to Judaism en masse in the 8th century. This was supposed to make the case against racial anti-Semitism, since it meant that European Jews were not descended from the ancient Israelites. (The theory has been discredited. www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/1.601287) He also wrote about neo-Lamarckian theory, which says that acquired traits can be inherited by future generations.

Koestler was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1976, and leukemia in 1980. As his condition deteriorated, he became an activist for euthanasia, and slowly amassed the pills with which he would kill himself.

When the time came, he was joined by Cynthia, his third wife, who apparently felt that she could not live without Arthur, although she was only 55, and in good health. Two days later, on March 3, 1983, both their bodies were found in their London home.