Why Kaddish? Why Imre Kertész? Why Now?

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Barbara Lanciers, Imre Kertész, and Jake Goodman after the opening of 'Kaddish' in Budapest in June 2013.

Barbara Lanciers, Imre Kertész, and Jake Goodman after the opening of ‘Kaddish’ in Budapest in June 2013.

Economic collapse, political turmoil, and a general decline in the everyday quality of life of the masses leads to blaming, to demonizing anyone viewed as “other,” which, in Europe, means the usual scapegoats: Jews, Roma, and the GLBT community. No, we’re not talking about 1930s and 40s Europe, we talking about Europe today. Right now.

A wave of openly anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, and anti-gay groups have emerged and increased in strength and influence across Europe. In Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Romania, Sweden, and the UK, these groups have been making headlines in major international papers. And in some countries, Hungary being a prime example, they have come to political power with members representing the EU Parliament. Recently, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights published the results of a survey of 5,847 self-selected individuals in 8 EU member countries. The report, titled “Discrimination and Hate Crime against Jews in EU Member States: experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism,” reveals that a vast majority of European Jews feel unsafe and live in fear of verbal and/or physical abuse in their homelands.

In response to the results of this study and using several years of reporting on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, with a particular focus on Hungary, the New York Times recently announced a long-term project titled “Exploring Anti-Semitism in Hungary.” From their website:

The Times will be taking a deep look at anti-Semitism in Hungary this coming year. As we report on this issue, we are hoping to hear from Hungarian Jews on their experiences. If you are Jewish and living in Hungary or are from Hungary, we invite you to answer the following questions.

When talking about governmental consolidation of power, growing intolerance, and the rise of openly anti-Semitic political groups (Jobbik, in this case), Hungary is a particularly compelling and disturbing case study.

This brings us to our friend and collaborator, Imre Kertész. Why stage Imre’s words now? Imre was born in Hungary in 1929. He is a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002; he is the only Hungarian writer to ever receive this honor. In January 2013, The New Yorker highlighted the disturbing situation in Hungary through the lens of Imre’s decision to house his personal archive in Germany rather than his native Hungary. The article was appropriately titled “The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown.”

In Hungary and throughout Europe, Imre is widely regarded as one of the most eloquent and arresting voices on the subjects of identity, memory, history, survival, political culpability, reactions to intolerance, and yes, the horrors of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Imre’s work is not widely known in the United States. A recent, glowing NY Times review of Imre’s 2013 “Dossier K” should help with that, but when we talk to Americans about our production of “Kaddish,” based on his novel “Kaddish for an Unborn Child,” we get a lot of blank stares. “Who is that?”

The answer: Imre Kertész is one of the most important writers of this century, living in a country and a region of the world where there seems to be collective amnesia regarding the dangerous mistakes of the past. Also, it seems that the American press finds his story, his personal narrative, compelling in describing the situation in Hungary. Arguably, this is not just a European or a Hungarian story – the universality of one of the overarching themes of Imre’s work – namely, the citizenry grasping for rationality in the face of evil by way of protecting themselves from implication – that theme crosses border, region, nationality, time.   Here in the United States his words desperately need to be heard, and now. Right now.

When Barbara first met Imre and asked his permission to stage his beautiful novel, he asked her, “Do you like Beckett.” She immediately answered, “Yes!” And he responded, “Then I think you’ll do a fine job.”

Imre is our Beckett and our muse on this project. In “Kaddish,” the protagonist struggles with his decision not to father a child in a world where the Holocaust occurred and could occur again. Imre has referred to his novels, his collective work, to both Barbara and Jake as his children. We hope, through this project, we can also include ourselves in that category.

We invite you to join us in January at the 14th Street Y to see our production of “Kaddish.” Please let us introduce you to our friend and grandfather, Imre Kertész.
To purchase tickets, click here.

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On January 3, 2014
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