When I was in Prague this October I decided to look up my old college professor, Arnost Lustig. Even though I had not seen him in 30 years I thought he still had a lot to teach me.
I took two courses with Arnost (he insisted that his students call him by his first name), a renowned Czech novelist and Nazi death camp survivor, when I attended American University in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s. Arnost, who died last week at 84 in Prague, was in his early 50s, with thick silver hair and eyes that conveyed mischief mixed with a dose of humor and wisdom. He always wore a black leather jacket and would sit at his desk with his chin propped up on his arms.
I took one course about Italian films (he was also a filmmaker) and another about the Holocaust. No matter what the topic for the day the discussion always turned to his experiences in Terezin and Auschwitz.
Speaking in his heavily accented English he would recall immense brutality — such as the episode where a father and son were starved and pitted against each other by concentration camp guards, in a fight over food — in an almost detached tone. “Such is life,” he would often say, after telling us a heartbreaking story. His fatalism gave me the sense that he saw the Holocaust as a kind of character study of how people behave in nightmarish situations. Arnost divided people into two categories: people who stood on life’s sidelines and “fighters” who tried to direct the course of events. He insisted that he was an observer rather than a fighter.
“You are fearless fighter,” he said to me, after I engaged him in a debate over a movie he had shown in his film class. “You will be a lawyer someday” — which, of course, I became.
What most struck me about Arnost was the happy tone with which he talked about his life. Incredibly, he found humor in some of his Holocaust experiences.
One time he told us about how he and his friends in Auschwitz arranged for another teenager to lose his virginity. As the teen bedded his first woman, he told us through laughter, Arnost and his friends stood outside the building where the sex was happening, cheering the virgin on. The entire class broke into laughter, until Arnost told us that the boy died in the camp.
“After the war I met the boy’s father and he asked me if his son had known sexual pleasure,” Arnost said. “I told him that he had, but I left out the part about the laughing and cheering.”
Another time he spoke about coming face-to-face with the notorious Dr. Mengele, who asked Arnost what his skills were. “I am a writer, an athlete, a carpenter and a great liar,” Arnost replied, as the monstrous Mengele chuckled. Arnost was convinced that he saved his life by making Mengele laugh.
Whether it was intentional or not, Arnost conveyed an important message through his humorous stories. Life is life even in a place like Auschwitz, he seemed to be saying. Human nature prevails no matter the circumstances.
In later years, as I met other Holocaust survivors and learned how utterly scarred they were by their horrific experiences, I became fascinated by Arnost’s optimistic aura. How could someone be so upbeat after enduring the worst of mankind?
In a documentary that featured Arnost, titled “Fighter,” he was asked how he could be so happy all the time. “I don’t know,” Arnost answered. He said the only time he felt sad was when he thought of his father dying in the gas chamber.
But Arnost clearly understood tragedy. Reading some of his short stories made me cry — especially one story in “Night and Hope” about a teenage boy in Terezin who fell in love with a girl, just before she was transported to a death camp. Somebody who could summon such an optimistic persona, while being so sensitive to tragedy, must have something more to say about how he obtained his attitude towards life than, “I don’t know.”
I lost touch with Arnost after college but heard that he had moved to Prague. So when I visited the city on a Jewish heritage tour I decided to see if he would meet with me. I imagined talking to him about his books and probing the mystery of his positive outlook.
I was unable to get his contact information before I left for the trip. But one of our tour guides had his cell phone number and gave it to me. “He is ill with cancer,” she told me. “But he would love to hear from a former student.”
I called his number several times but kept getting a message saying that he was unavailable. I left Prague without seeing my professor.
Last week I got an e-mail from a former college classmate telling me that Arnost had died at the age of 84. The obituaries I read praised him as a great writer, but gave no clue about how he maintained his optimism.
Ben Krull, a frequent contributor to the Back of the Book page, is a law assistant to a Manhattan Family Court judge.