I’ve done dozens, possibly hundreds, of author interviews and I can honestly say that no writer was a bigger flirt than Arnost Lustig. I am saddened to find that the Czech writer has died, aged 84. He was 80 when I met him in Helsinki, where he had travelled to promote his novel A Prayer for Katerina Horowitzova, then translated into Finnish.
Back in 2006, he was already suffering of lung cancer, although there were no obvious signs of illness. He was joking, flirting, eating and drinking like a much younger man.
He was full of stories – in fact he answered every question with a story. “I am an old jew. When you ask me a short question, I give you a long, rambling answer”, he said.
Lustig led an incredible life. As a young boy, he managed to escape from a train transporting him from Auschwitz to Dachau. His father was sent to the gas chamber – “because he wore glasses which was a sign of weakness for the Nazis.”
He later wrote a novel about his dangerous journey from the camps back to Prague, where he became an ardent communist. Later, working as a journalist, he came to realise the atrocities of the communist regime and became of its major critics. “I felt like I’d been a Nazi too, having helped to create that society”, he told me. When the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Lustig and his family were on their way to America, where he worked as a professor in a Washington University.
Lustig often wrote about female characters in the Holocaust.
“It is appealing to write about them. One of the features of a writer is empathy, feeling what other people feel. And I have empathy for women. I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau with women, and they humiliated women more than men. When a man is naked, well he is naked. But when thousands of women standing close to each other are naked and some 18 or 19-year-old boys are looking at them, it is very humiliating. I came from the camps with a respect for women.” (From this interview)
He didn’t like to be called a Holocaust author, even though most of his novels were about it and based on actual events. He told me that he thought many other people write better about evil. “I am more interested in goodness”, he said.