Czech author Arnošt Lustig died last week. Lustig was a renowned Jewish writer, teacher, friend of Czech authors and dignitaries, and a Holocaust survivor. During his 84 years, Arnošt witnessed the worst of men, yet chose to defy sadness and anger by living as happily and humbly as he could. His fiction and his life teach us to live better. I recommend his books Lovely Green Eyes and Darkness Casts No Shadow, and Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary film, “The Fighter”, about Arnošt and his friend Jan Weiner.
I had the good fortune to study with Arnošt in Prague, and serve as his teaching assistant during the summer of 2002. Arnošt’s spirit and positive outlook completely altered my worldview. He tackled life with a pleasure and vigor I had never witnessed and have not seen since. Arnošt appreciated life’s beautiful details, and he looked for the good in all people and situations. If he couldn’t find good, he’d invent it in his fiction.
Arnošt considered a good dirty joke to be the highest of narrative forms, and told wildly inappropriate jokes to anyone who would listen. He methodically stacked and shaped his food into square piles and cleaned every last crumb from his plates, a habit he picked up in the camps. Arnošt tenderly held hands with old friends as they walked together for coffee and pastries, and he flirted with girls young and old on subway rides. His spirit and humor put everyone at ease. He was at once a genius and a ham.
Arnošt took great pride in his ability to assess people quickly, a skill he learned out of necessity in the camps. He knew as soon as he met someone whether he would have liked to have been imprisoned with them. Arnošt gave me the greatest compliment of my life when he told me he knew on the first day of class that he would have liked to be with me in Auschwitz. That’s a lot to live up to. I intend to —happily.
Na zdravi, Arnošt, and thank you.