Arnost Lustig, 84; Czech novelist who escaped Nazi camps

By Karel Janicek
Associated Press / February 27, 2011

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PRAGUE — Arnost Lustig, an author who escaped from a Nazi death transport to make the Holocaust the main theme of his fiction, died early yesterday. He was 84.

He had been battling cancer for five years.

Born in Prague in 1926, the teenager survived the Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald Nazi concentration camps before he escaped from a train that was transporting him to another one, Dachau, in 1945 when the train’s engine was destroyed by a US bomber.

Many members of Mr. Lustig’s family died in the Holocaust; his mother and sister survived. His experiences of Jewish suffering were reflected in his short stories and novels, in which his characters fight to retain human dignity in Holocaust horrors.

Mr. Lustig studied journalism and covered the 1948 Arab-Israeli war for Czech radio.

He began to publish in the late 1950s, and his well-known works include “A Prayer for Katerina Horowitzova,’’ “Diamonds of the Night,’’ “The Unloved: From the Diary of Perla S.,’’ “Darkness Cast No Shadow,’’ “Lovely Green Eyes,’’ and “Dita Saxova.’’ Some were made into movies.

“Sometimes it’s impossible to say certain things,’’ Mr. Lustig said in a lecture in Tel Aviv last June. “Writing is something needed by man to share experience.’’

When the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed the liberal reforms of Alexander Dubcek and ended an era known as the Prague Spring in 1968, Mr. Lustig fled his homeland and, after a stay in Israel, he settled in Washington, D.C., where he became a professor of literature at the American University.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, Mr. Lustig visited Prague on a regular basis and later returned to live there. In a surprise move, he was appointed editor-in-chief of the Czech-language version of Playboy magazine in 1995.

Mr. Lustig was twice awarded the National Jewish Book Award. In 1994, he received a literary award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for exceptional accomplishment.