Skip to main content

Imre Kertesz was the first Hungarian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.HENRIK MONTGOMERY/AFP / Getty Images

Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian writer who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature for a body of fiction largely drawn from his experience as a teenage prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, died Thursday. He was 86.

Book publishing firm Magveto Kiado said Mr. Kertesz died at his Budapest home after a long illness.

"His death is an immeasurable loss not just for Hungarian culture but for universal culture, as well," Hungary's Ministry of Human Resources said in a statement.

Germany, where Mr. Kertesz lived for a long time before returning to Hungary a few years ago, also paid tribute.

"Through his work, Imre Kertesz brought a new tone to the remembrance of the darkest years of our history," Germany's culture minister Monika Gruetters said. "As a witness, he wrote with great literary mastery of his harrowing experiences at the concentration camp. His books … are his legacy and will remain unforgotten and haunting history books for future generations."

Mr. Kertesz was only 14 when he was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland in 1944. He survived that camp and later was transferred to the Buchenwald camp from where he was liberated in 1945.

"As a child, you have a certain trust in life. But when something like Auschwitz happens, everything falls apart," he once said.

Yet Mr. Kertesz also made a startling confession that he experienced "my most radical moments of happiness" while at Auschwitz.

"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 labour," he told Newsweek magazine in a 2002 interview. "To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all."

After returning to his native Budapest, Mr. Kertesz eked out a living working as a journalist and translator.

Distrusted by the communist authorities who ruled Hungary, he spent his time translating into Hungarian the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Elias Canetti in a small apartment overlooking the Danube River.

Influenced by the postwar existentialist novels of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, Kertesz was fascinated by the fate of the individual in an often totalitarian environment, where others decided his destiny.

"I am a non-believing Jew," Mr. Kertesz once said in an interview. "Yet as a Jew, I was taken to Auschwitz. I belong to those Jews whom Auschwitz turned into Jews."

Fateless, the novel that, together with other works, won him the 2002 Nobel, finally appeared in 1975 after a decade-long struggle to have it published.

It was largely ignored, both by the communist authorities and the public in a country where awareness of the Holocaust remained negligible, despite the murder of around 500,000 Hungarian Jews by the Nazis and their Hungarian henchmen.

According to Mr. Kertesz, the quasi-taboo status suffered by Fateless for so long may have been rooted in the fact that despite its Holocaust theme, the book also reflected Hungary's totalitarian communist system.

"I wrote Fateless about the Kadar regime," Mr. Kertesz said in an interview, referring to communist dictator Janos Kadar, who ruled Hungary until shortly before the democratic changes of 1990.

"Whoever lived in the Hungary of the 1970s had to notice immediately that the author [of Fateless] knew the present and despised it," Mr. Kertesz said.

Some see Mr. Kertesz's work as a study of all repressive regimes.

"Kertesz's significance was that in some sense he formulated the essence of totalitarianism," said Gabor Szanto, a writer and editor of Szombat, a Jewish cultural magazine.

Numerous other novels, continuing the themes of the Holocaust, dictatorship and personal freedom, appeared throughout the 1980s and 1990s, winning Mr. Kertesz professional respect but failing to gain him a wider audience.

All that changed upon his winning the Nobel, which suddenly propelled him to domestic and international fame.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Mr. Kertesz claimed with typical self-irony that he wrote only for himself. "I didn't have an audience and didn't want to influence anyone," he said.

In literary circles, he was regarded as a jovial companion, with a harsh, no-nonsense critical eye. A typical gesture was his refusal to support a statue being raised in his honour alongside that of other Hungarian Nobel winners.

Still, Mr. Kertesz's Nobel victory, making him the first Hungarian to win the literature prize, caused great resentment among some Hungarians who would have preferred that a non-Jewish countryman get the honour instead.

Fateless, however, was later incorporated into Hungary's high school curriculum and Mr. Kertesz was awarded several state honours.

Among his other books were Fiasco (1988) and Kaddish For A Child Not Born (1990) – which formed a trilogy with FatelessSomeone Else (1997), Liquidation (2003), The K File (2006), an autobiographical novel, and Europe's Depressing Heritage (2008).

Magveto Kiado said that during the last months of his life, even while ill, Mr. Kertesz helped prepare The Viewer, a selection of his diary entries between 1991 and 2001 which was published this month in Hungary.

A film version of Fateless, directed by Lajos Koltai and for which Mr. Kertesz wrote the screenplay, premiered in Hungary in 2005.

He leaves his second wife, Magda.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this obituary stated that Auschwitz was located in Poland. This version has been corrected to clarify that Auschwitz was located on Polish territory that was occupied by Nazi Germany at the time.