By Avik Jain Chatlani

A few years ago, I taught a course on Holocaust literature in a prison. One of the books that the students and I discussed was Fateless (1975), by Imre Kertész. It’s not the best-known work when we look at the selection written by survivors of the camps.

However, it’s the most original, in that – perhaps given the distance between the horror and the publication –  the author was able to tinge it with the darkest of humour, the most painful of ironies.

Kertész remembers, most strikingly, “the joy of the concentration camps.” When a bunkmate died, he had an extra blanket. When he was poked and prodded in the camp hospital, he had an exquisite moment of rest. It’s a fitting narrative for those who read and live in an institution where you are completely and utterly vulnerable.

In 2002, Fateless won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. And, in 2020 – four years after the author passed away – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán quietly removed it from his country’s schools. It was the last required reading in the Hungarian curriculum that dealt with the Holocaust.

I mention this erasure for context, since the students had no internet access to keep up to date with regular news, let alone to look up niche matters of literature and history. One young woman expressed that it was a shame how a country like Hungary – which happily collaborated with the Nazis – first destroyed Kertész’s family and life, and then, upon his death, dishonoured him again. “What kind of home is that?” she lamented.

In fact, it hadn’t been his home for a while. Kertész moved to Berlin in the late-1990s. He even left his archive to the German state. The author felt more hurt by the betrayal of his fellow Hungarians than by the Germans, who orchestrated the destruction of his people.

She could not understand how he could have gone to Germany – of all places – nor how the Germans had elevated him. I admitted that I couldn’t understand, either.

But the world is full of ironies, isn’t it? So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised about these things. For instance, despite having survived the Holocaust, Kertész did not live his life as an outspoken defender of human rights. Amidst the 2015 refugee crisis, Kertész penned an op-ed, in which he stated: “I’d like to talk about how the Muslims are flooding, invading, and destroying Europe.”

Just as Hungary erased Kertész, he was also capable of erasing humanity.

As bombs rain down on Gaza, I find myself going through many of the books that I have loved, usually disappointed to find that the authors – if they are still alive – have remained silent about the acceleration of the genocide. Upon flipping through Fatelessness, I wondered if Kertész had ever expressed an opinion on the Occupation of Palestine.

I only found one essay he penned on the matter. It was clearly a Zionist essay, with a bit of mockery when it came to the Palestinians. A half-hearted defence of the colonial project, which appears to have been written as a kind of thanks to his hosts, who wined and dined him in Jerusalem the year after he won the Nobel. He describes his pleasure at the sight of Israeli tanks, detailing the hotel more than the city. He notes that there’s a war going on…but he doesn’t mention who is being killed, who the war is being waged against. The Palestinians are mentioned as an irritation in passing, much like the Syrians he would dismiss a decade later.

In the essay, he has the honesty to admit that he does not feel at home, and he’s looking forward to going back to Europe.

The Israeli settler project and the Europeans have a similarly strange relationship. Leaders of the apartheid state tend to travel to the Bloodlands – where the vast majority Jews were exterminated during the Holocaust, beyond Germany proper – and hold hands with the men who rule over the shabby countries today. In Hungary, Orban often receives the Israeli leaders, expresses his support for their state, and encourages Jews to get out of Hungary, as quickly as possible, and go to Tel Aviv.

Within both the government and the opposition, proud Nazis are present. They couldn’t care less about antisemitism…but they certainly care about kicking the poor old Arabs around. And they certainly want as much Jewish emigration as possible.

It’s a relationship of twisted convenience, a very strange relationship. Or, again, maybe not. Israel – the self-proclaimed “Jewish State” – even manages to maintain excellent relations with Germany, the country that destroyed half of Europe’s Jews as part of the world’s first industrialised genocide.

Ironically, without Hitler and the aftermath of Hitler – without the ruins and guilt left behind by the Third Reich – it’s unlikely that the Zionist movement would have had the strength and support to purge the Palestinians in 1948. There’s a gruesomeness that underlies the partnership.

Nowadays, Germany’s foreign policy is an extension of Israeli foreign policy. German cultural institutions do as the Israeli ministers tell them, banning Palestinian books, artworks and flags. The Israeli regime purchases hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of traditional weapons and chemical weapons from German companies every year. Berlin is the second-biggest supplier of weapons to the Israeli Occupation Forces, after the United States (although the American government technically gives everything to the Zionists in exchange for favours, not for money).

Kertész also learned to stifle whatever bad feelings he had for Germany, even settling there. Just as many Israeli settlers learned to walk away from what happened to them in Europe and Russia. The Zionist militias learned to accept weapons from Americans, Russians, Czechs. They learned to accept all that they were going to be allowed to take – Palestine – and they learned to smile at and forgive those who had tried to destroy them, and those who had stood by and said nothing.

Today, the European authorities permit tours of the defunct concentration camps. The Poles permit the Israeli flag to be draped all over Auschwitz. Some monies are transferred to the Israelis, trade agreements are penned. And the European leaders, as well as the American and Russian leaders, who call the shots, find all of this (along with Palestinian land) to be sufficient compensation for the past. And the Israelis have accepted this. Declining was never an option.

A 75-year-long genocide of the Palestinian people was and is seen by the West as a kind of transfer of guilt, as noted repeatedly by Israeli historian Ilan Pappé including in his most important work, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006):

“It was much easier to rectify the Nazi evil vis-a-vis a Zionist movement… it was less complex and, more importantly, it did not involve facing the victims of the Holocaust themselves, but rather a state that claimed to represent them. The price for this more convenient atonement was robbing the Palestinians of every basic and natural right they had and allowing the Zionist movement to ethnically cleanse them without fear of any rebuke or condemnation.”

In the year 2023, I do wonder if any government officials have the Holocaust front of mind, or if they really care about it at all. They haven’t read about the Holocaust, and they certainly haven’t read Holocaust literature. They don’t truly grasp the Holocaust, neither from a historical standpoint – they applaud Ukrainian Nazis in the House of Commons of Canada, a country whose older white population and institutions are obsessed with World War II (although apparently ignorant over who fought for whom) – and from a moral standpoint, given that genocides have erupted or continued since 1945, oftentimes with support from the former Allies and the Axis nations alike. We see this now, with the eradication of Gazans from the sky, with the execution of Palestinians across all the occupied lands.

The Holocaust has become a tool, not a lesson. Western leaders use the Holocaust to threaten voices who speak for Palestine. Most people in power have learned nothing, absorbed nothing. And, as the Israeli regime has become more and more entrenched, those who defend it have often been paid handsomely in return. Generous funds reach the world leaders who bow before it. Here is yet another irony to this story: the beggar state of ragtag settlers now has nuclear weapons. It can now bully white countries, not just brown and Black ones.

It’s foolish to argue that the support for the Israeli Occupation is rooted in sincere guilt or memory. Memory, in particular, is very selective. From the 1890s up until the early 1930s – when the first victims of the Holocaust, those with physical and mental disabilities, began to be killed – between 15 and 20 million people in the Congo were subjected to a campaign of mass murder, mutilation, rape and slave labour. This was first done by King Leopold’s mercenaries, then by the Belgian government. –

Avik Jain Chatlani is an author and historian.

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