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Arnošt Lustig (1926-2011)

 

Czech novelist and short story writer, who dealt in his work the horrors of World War II and especially the Holocaust. As a Jew, Lustig was sent to the camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Many of Lustig's works were based on his own experiences. His most famous books include the novellas Dita Saxová (1962) and Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou (1964, A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova). Lustig's style is unsentimental and sketchily, the emphasis is on the moral choices of his characters.

"A man had to cue himself as to when to take on a role with the curtain up: to say "yes" in one role, "no in another, and "maybe" in yet another. Sometimes he had to appear to play one role an talk as if he were playing a second, while in reality he was playing in a third." (in The House of Returned Echoes, tr. Josef Lustig, 2001)

Arnošt Lustig was born in Prague into a middle-class family, the son of Emil and Terese (Lowy) Lustig. He attended a junior technical school in Prague, but was denied the opportunity for further education after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1942, at the age of 16, he was sent with his family to the Terezin "model ghetto" / concentration camp. From there his family was transported to Auschwitz, where Lustig's father died in the gas chambers. Incredibly, Lustig's mother and sister survived. Lustig himself escaped certain death in 1945. He jumped from a transport train headed for Dachau, when the train was hit by an American bomber plane. Lustig escaped to Prague, where he joined the resistance movement.

After the war Lustig studied at the College of Political and Social Sciences in Prague, receiving his M.A. in 1951. In 1949 he married Vera Weislotzova; they had one son and one daughter. From 1948 to 1956 Lusting worked as a radio correspondent for the Czechoslovak radio in Europe, Asia, and North America. In 1948-49 he covered the Arab-Israeli conflict. Lustig's novel Milácek (1969), a love story, was set during the war of 1948.

With his first collection of short stories, Noc a nadeje (1957), depicting life in a ghetto, Lustig emerged as a leading writer of the Czech New Wave. It was followed by Démanty noci (1958, Diamonds of the Night) and Ulice ztracených bratrí (1959, The Steet of Lost Brothers). Jan Nimec adapted his film Diamonds of the Night (1964) in collaboration with Lustig. The story follows two young Jewish men, who have escaped from a Nazi transport train. A woman, whom they ask food and drink, reports them, and they are caught at gun-point by Sudeten German home guards. The escapees are shot, but an alternative ending shows them walking away into the woods. The cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera often uses a high-key lighting to create a sort of dream realism. In contrast, scenes in the pine forest are oppressively dark. After Diamonds, Kucera photographed a film for Ivan Passer (A Boring Afternoon, 1964), and a series of films based on Bohumil Hrabal's short stories.

A perfectionist, Lustig rewrote his early stories and regrouped some of his short stories into newly arranged collections. 'Muj známý Vili Feld' from The Steet of Lost Brothers was later expanded into a novel. A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova was based on an actual event in Auschwitz. A young Polish actress kills, as a last act of revolt, a German officer at the doors of a gas chamber, while others await their fate passively.

For a period in the late 1960s, Lusting worked the as a reporter and producer and from 1960 he was employed as a scriptwriter by the Barandov Film Studios. He supported the economical and social reforms Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, and was a close friend of the playwright Václav Havel, a cofounder of the human rights organization Charter 77. When the Prague Spring was crushed by the Soviet Invasion in 1968, Lustig was in Italy. His works were banned and he remained in exile. Lusting lived in Israel and Yugoslavia, where he worked for the Jadran Film Studio in Zagreb, and eventually settled in the United States in 1970.

Nemilovaná: Z deníku sedmnáctileté Perly Sch. (1979) came out first in English translation. The story written in a form of a diary, was set in Terezin concentration camp, and told of a young Jewish woman, who is forced to prostitution. Like the female protagonist in Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou, she exercises freedom, when all hope is gone, in the act of choosing.

In his new home country Lustig joined the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. He then taught at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He became in 1973 professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Lustig also lectured and taught at several other universities. In 1995 Lustig was appointed editor in chief of the Czech-language version of Playboy magazine; he hold the post for two years. After the fall of communism, Lustig divided his time between Washington, D.C. and Prague, but in 2003 he settled permanently in his his native city. When NATO held a summit in Prague in 2002, Lustig assisted President Havel in the visit of President George W. Bush and was assigned to entertain the U.S. First Lady.

Lustig played himself in 2000 in Amir Bar-Lev's documentary film Fighter, in which he recalled his own family's fate during WW II. However, Lustig once said in an interview, that "I personally don't consider myself a Holocaust writer. I consider myself a writer about people under pressure." Lustig's numerous awards include the Mlada fronta publishing house prize in 1962, Locarno Film Festival Prize in 1963, the Monte Carlo Film Festival Prize in 1966, the Czechoslovak Radio Corporation Prize in 1966 and 1967, Gottwald Prize in 1967, the B'nai B'rith prize in 1974, the National Jewish Book award in 1980 for Dita Saxova and in 1986 for The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S., the Emmy award in 1986 for documentary Precious Legacy, and the Franz Kafka literary prize in 2008. He also shared the 1991 Publishers Weekly Award for best literary work with Norman Mailer and John Updike. Lustig died on February 26, 2011, in Prague. He had suffered from cancer for five years.

Fore further reading: Contemporary World Writers, ed. Trace Chevalier (1993); Arnošt Lustig by Haman, Aleš (1995); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. Vineta Colby (1995); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 3 ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Arnošt Lustig zadním vchodem by František Cinger (2009)

Selected works:

  • Noc a naděje, 1958 (rev. ed. 1992)
    - Night and Hope (translated by G. Theiner 1962, Jeanne Nemcová, 1978)
  • Démanty noci, 1958
    - Diamonds in the Night (translated by Iris Urwin, 1962) / Diamonds of the Night (translated by Jeanne Nemcová, 1977)
    - Films: Sousto, dir. Jan Nemec; 1962, Transport z ráje / Transport From Paradise, dir. Zybnek Brynych, screenplay by A.L.; 1964, screenplay by A.L.; 1964, Démanty noci, dir. Jan Nemec
  • Ulice ztracených bratrí, 1959 (rev. ed. 1979)
    - The Steet of Lost Brothers (translated by Vera Borkovec and Jeanne Nemcová, 1990)
  • The Blue Day, 1960 (television play)
  • Names for Which There Are No People, 1960 (television play)
  • Můj známý Vili Feld, 1961
  • První stanice štestí, 1961
  • Noc a den, 1962 (includes Noc a nadeje, Démanty noci, Muj známý Vili Feld)
    - Indecent Dreams (includes Indicent Dreams,translated by Paul Wilson; Blue Day, translated by Iris Urwin-Levit; The Girl with the Scar, translated by Vera Borcovec, 1988)
  • Dita Saxová, 1962 (rev. ed. 1994)
    - Dita Sax (translated by George Theiner, 1966) / Dita Saxova (translated by Jeanne Nemcová, 1979)
    - Film 1967, dir. Antonin Moskalyk, screenplay by A.L., starring Krystyna Mikolajewska, Bohus Záhorský, Karel Höger
  • Nikoho neponížíš, 1963
  • Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou, 1964
    - A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova (translated by Jeanne Nemcová, 1973)
    - Rukous Katarzyna Horowitzille (suom. Nina Saikkonen, 2006)
    - TV play 1965, dir. A. L., Antonín Moskalyk, screenplay by A.L., starring Lenka Fiserová
  • Vlny v řece, 1964 (includes Nikoho neponížíš, Ulice ztracených bratrí, Modlitba pro Katerinu Horovitzovou, Dita Saxová)
  • Theresienstadt, 1965 (television play, with Ernest Pendrell)
  • Stolen Childhood, 1966 (television play)
  • Prague Crossroads, 1966 (radio play)
  • Bílé břízy na podzim, 1966 (rev. ed. 1995)
  • A Man the Size of a Postage Stamp, 1967 (radio play)
  • Hořká vůně mandlí, 1968
  • Miláček, 1969
  • Ulice ztracených, 1973
  • Children of the Holocaust, 1976 (2 vols.,translated by Jeanne Nemcová and George Theiner)
  • Tma nemá stín, 1978 (expanded version of a short story, rev. ed. 1991)
    - Darkness Casts no Shadow (translated by Jeanne Nemcová, 1976)
    - Pimeydellä ei ole varjoa (suom. Nina Saikkonen, 2008)
  • Nemilovaná: Z deníku sedmnáctileté Perly Sch., 1979
    - The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S. (translated by Vera Kalina-Levine, 1985)
  • The Precious Legacy, 1984 (screenplay)
  • Neslušné sny / Indecent Dreams, 1995
  • Colette. Dívka z Antverp, 1992
  • Tanga. Dívka z Hamburku, 1992
  • Dům vrácené ozvěny, 1994
    - The House of Returned Echoes (translated by Josef Lustig, 2001)
  • Porgess, 1995 (in Velká trojka, 1995)
    - Fire on Water: Porgess and The Abyss (tr. 2005)
  • Kamarádi, 1995
  • Propast, 1996
  • Oheň na vodě: povídky , 1998
  • Dobrý den, pane Lustig: myšlenky o životě, 1999 (with Miroslav Kouba)
  • Lea z Leeuwardenu, 2000
    - Waiting for Leah (translated by Ewald Osers, 2004)
  • Odpovědi: rozhovory s Harry Jamesem Cargassem a Michalem Bauerem, 2000 (translation Milan Macháček; photography Petra Růžičková; epilogue Jan Suk)
  • Tanga z Hamburku: židovská trilogie II, 2000
  • Krásné zelené oči, 2000
    - Lovely Green Eyes, 2002 (translated by Ewald Osers, 2002)
  • The Bitter Smell of Almonds: Selected Fiction, 2001 (contains Street of Lost Brothers, Dita Saxová, Indicent Dreams)
  • Eseje: vybrané texty z let 1965-2000, 2001
  • Deštive poledne: povídky, 2002
  • Zasvěcení, 2002
  • Interview: vybrané rozhovory 1979-2002 , 2002
  • 3 x 18: portréty a postřehy, 2003 (with František Cinger)
  • Okamžiky: Arnošt Lustig vzpomíná na Otu Pavla, 2003 (with František Cinger)
  • Od rána do vecera a jiné povídky, 2006
  • Tanga z Hamburku: židovská trilogie III, 2006
  • Nemáme na vybranou, 2007
  • Zlodej kufru, 2008
  • Eseje: vybrané texty z let 1965-2008, 2009
  • Odcházím do snu a jiné povídky, 2009
  • Láska a tělo, 2009
  • Ulice ztracených bratří, 2009
  • Hodiny jako vetrný mlýn, 2010

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