“What can I hope for?”
The Arnošt Lustig Foundation has been active for a year now. The Foundation aims to perpetuate the artistic legacy and humanistic values put into practice by one of the most prominent of Czech writers in his own life and work. The Foundation ́s programme and impact will be on a global scale, just as Arnošt Lustig ́s ouvre. A Foundation that provides a platform for internationally-recognized experts with a view to offering a dimension beyond the CzechRepublic, reflecting the very fact that Arnošt Lustig was a citizen of the world. I met up with Arnošt Lustig ́s daughter, Eva Lustigová (a former United Nations official, film director and the Executive Director of the Foundation) in Prague ́s coffee-house Adria. It was really incredible how many parallels and common themes we found in our lives. It is an honour for me to facilitate the conversation with this exceptional woman for the readers of the Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine.
I also feel very honoured to have met Arnošt Lustig in person. When I was a student, I worked for the International Karlovy Vary Film Festival. In 1996, Arnošt Lustig was a member of a jury I was assisting. Even now, I remember Arnošt ́s sense of humour, kindness as well as his genuine deep-seated humanity.
And because the Foundation was set up by the two siblings I asked Josef (Pepi) Lustig (a film-maker, scriptwriter and university lecturer) how he sees the Foundation ́s mission. By the way, he has been asked many times what he thinks about the burden of his father ́s legacy. Pepi ́s answer was forthright, in many ways reminding me of Arnošt: ́A person not carrying a burden will be weak in his essence ́. Pepi lives and works in the USA, so we communicated in writing. In commenting on the Foundation ́s mission, he expressed himself with reference to another of the world ́s titans.
́One of Arnošt ́s writing ́teachers ́, Hemingway (another Ernest), writes in ́A Moveable Feast ́ that ́the seeds of what we will do are in all of us. ́Our Ernest converted this primarily to a moral level, drawing on his personal experience of Nazi concentration camps, familiarity with and survival of the worst imaginable events, either strengthens or weakens our humanity. Our Ernest elevates the first possibility, while attempting to comprehend the second option. He has managed to capture the wisdom stemming from his lifelong focus on this moral and potent dilemma in his writings and in his essay-based contemplations, with permeations even to the films based on his film scripts. His morally humanistic philosophy merits to be stewarded following his departure from the realm of the physically active to the eternal world of those who wanted to advance humanity a bit further. The Foundation is among the means to do this. ́
Let us remind primarily the younger generations of readers, that from a journalist and editor in the Czechoslovak Radio, Arnošt Lustig became a writer and scriptwriter of world renown. He was the author of twenty-four novels, fifteen short story collections, a number of biographical essays and texts and thirteen screenplays for internationally acclaimed movies. He received the Franz Kafka Prize, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an Emmy Award for PBS News and Documentary Outstanding Individual Achievement, and nominations for the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize. During his lifetime, he was sentenced to death three times by the Nazis and given a custodial sentence by the communists. For a long time he was a banned author in Czechoslovakia. Arnošt Lustig lived in Czechoslovakia, Israel, Yugoslavia and the USA.
Dear Eva, Arnošt ́s Foundation has been on the scene for a year now. This year we remind ourselves not only of the tenth anniversary of Arnošt ́s passing but also the 95th anniversary of his birth. Covid times have been harsh but in such an era all the more we hear echoes of Arnošt ́s humanistic cri de couer.
First of all, Arnošt was convinced that at a time of great chaos, which our Covid era is, ‘we must protect our basic values… compassion, courtesy, courage, sincerity and the ability to love ́. He ́d gone through it himself. Now that I had the chance to go through something of a chaos, although incomparable to what he and my mother went through, his thinking provided me with a perspective for which I am grateful.
Secondly, I am pleased that during this past year, we were able to get the Foundation up and running based on our vision of an artistic and educational organisation contributing to a better, more just world. We have focused inward as well as outward, put together an enthusiastic core team, built an infrastructure, developed collaborative relationships with partners and various networks, and of course, formulated a strategy with a corresponding mediumterm programme. But we also have a Hundred Year Plan because inspiration and possibilities of how to tap and grow Arnošt ́s legacy abound. We have much ahead of us, hence establishing a Foundation to bring this timeless legacy under one umbrella was a priority. Also during the first year of our existence, we took the creative route and embarked on a new book called ́Arnošt Lustig ́s Waves of Joy… or We Wanted a Different World ́ and took Arnošt ́s unpublished poem ‘The Cantata – A Dance of the Insane’ to the stage as a musical-lyrical production in the Czech and Slovak Republics. We have the great pleasure to feature leading Czech and Slovak artists Vilma Cibulková, Jiří Lábus, Vilém Udatný, opera singer Gustáv Beláček and the Barocco sempre giovane chamber orchestra playing J.S.Bach. And through the book, published by the Euromedia Group in co-operation with Radioservis, we are delighted to bring to readers another perspective of Arnošt Lustig, journalist and humanist, in the very first collection of his unique reflections about life, the world and the arts, broadcast on the radio over a period of sixty years… With his former colleague and friend, Karel Hvížďala, we are visiting key locations and cultural events to introduce the book. Above all, Arnošt wanted a fairer world, a world where everyone would have a fair chance. He had been integral to the Czechoslovak Film Wave and also in the nucleus that germinated in the Prague Spring of 1968. This is so fundamental that I used the interview from February 1968 with the key passage in the book ́s title and the book itself. ́We wanted a different world… I ́d like to start at the end of World War II when people of my age, were deeply disappointed by the world at that time. A world in the throes of struggle, a world of nationalism, a world of murders, a world of injustice. That meant not only destroying the old world but creating a new one… Over twenty years, it became clear that good will isn ́t enough, and having a programme, good will and efforts to find a way to create a more just, fairer world isn ́t easy. That good will must be fused with science, with scientific knowledge. ́
A bit of a dreamer, romantic and in love with life, he once remarked that it ́d be best, if things like bread and love were for free.
You kicked off our meeting by showing me the new logo of the Arnošt Lustig Foundation. I particularly like the smile in it, these days symbolizing awareness and humanity. Having got to know Arnošt, there ́s bound to be a story behind it.
When signing his name, Arnošt sometimes drew a face. It may appear heart-shaped, but that ́s not the case. He drew the particular face in the project logo for one of his students in a creative writing course, Vendulka Říhová. Vendulka very kindly turned the manuscript of more than 500 pages (the book ́Friends ́) into a word-processed clean copy. If you knew Arnošt, you also know one couldn ́t turn him down. First off, he ́d ask for fifty pages, then fifty pages more and so on. Vendulka was quite bowled over by it and so she managed the entire book. And when she finished, Arnošt sent her a letter of thanks and adorned it with a smiling face. It ́s a typical ́lustig ́, a typical Lustig (author ́s note: ́lustig ́ in German means merry or gay). Arnošt was a humanist, he not only possessed a head but also a heart. And he never denied it. He was not afraid to express love, he was genuine. The logo will have orange, Arnošt ́s favourite. He considered it an optimistic colour. A simple graphical arrangement provides a parallel with his work and personality. Dignity, elegance and sincerity. Arnošt adored inner and outer beauty – in people, art and nature.
‘Arnošt Lustig left two legacies. The first one, a literary one, is full of gems for the reader and is necessary to pass on and disseminate. The second legacy is Arnošt ́s message of universal humanity which we must safeguard. And build like a protective dam against the spread of poison of nationalist selfishness, xenophobia of all kind, intolerance. And also against indifference… The Arnošt Lustig Foundation should serve all of that and this is why it makes sense to establish the Foundation and promote and develop its programme. It will be an honour for me to be part of this.’
In many ways your Foundation is exceptional. In its ambitions, many activities and the involvement of well-known personalities. You ́ve even written a kind of Charter with the objective of introducing the Foundation through philosophical questions.
Thank you. Indeed, we are guided by several questions to communicate our why, what and how. I must admit that I borrowed them from one of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, the German philosopher Emmmanuel Kant. They center around our hopes, knowledge and strategy. For example, ́What do we hope for? ́, ́What do we need to know? ́ and ́What should we do to implement the vision and the knowledge? ́. The last of these questions I added ́How? ́. The answers, steeped as they are in Arnošt ́s legacy, chart the Foundation ́s way. But there ́s a twist here. You see, given his antisemitic views, Kant would probably be surprised to see the questions he posed a long time ago in the context of his philosophical work being used to transmit the humanistic legacy of a Jewish writer. But I came up with this framework when I spoke to the Rotary Club in Brno a few months ago and the theme that evening was Kant ́s birthday. I wanted to connect to this, and so I played with his questions for the Foundation. And it worked. One more thing though – a conjecture. Somebody of Kant ́s general attitude would not be likely to be an antisemite today. On top of that, some important Neo-Kantians were Jewish philosophers.
Let ́s go to the first question. What does the Foundation hope for? What is your great vision? Or to use the young generation ́s language, what is your Why?
We hope for a more just and more humane world and the young generation ́s interest in humanistic principles in the name of democracy. Here ́s a quote from Charlie Chaplin ́s film ́The Great Dictator ́ that Arnošt Lustig identified with and adored. ‘We want to live by each other’s happiness not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone… The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed… We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…’
There ́s a strong resemblance to the spirit of Arnošt ́s proclamation following the Czechoslovak Writers ́ Congress in 1968 which I mentioned earlier.
I take on board your work with language. And I am sorry I didn ́t have the opportunity to attend Arnošt ́s creative writing course. I am thinking now of my grandmother, a qualified pharmacist. It seems to me that we weigh up each word like they were on a pharmacist ́s scale. These days often the phrase, ́we believe… ́ is used. You hope.
Yes, for me hoping is different from believing. Arnošt hoped. He claimed that ‘If humanity was a novel’ and he wrote its last chapter, ‘it would end with the word of hope.’ He hoped to the end. At least to finish yet another paragraph. He had his typewriter next to him in the hospital.
What does the Foundation wish to know and pass on?
People always have a choice between good and evil. They must live with their conscience. Conscience allows us to sleep at night. And some people don ́t actually have any conscience. It was Hitler who said that conscience was a Jewish invention. We wish to enrich the world ́s cultural heritage with topics relating to the challenges faced by people when they choose between good and evil.
Our mission is underpinned by four messages. These were instilled in Pepi ́s and my upbringing, served at every meal. The first message is remember, never forget, as ́forgetting condemns us to the next failure ́. The second message is know. Knowledge empowers us to say no to injustice. And what you know, no one can take away from you. Arnošt believed that knowing what one human being is capable of doing to another arms you in a spiritual sense. The third message is learn from the experience. One can learn from the Shoah and become all the stronger for it. And through this prism, it is possible to overcome indifference and evil and opt for what is right. And last is transmit these messages to the next generations as well as realise that we must defend our human rights because it is ́our right and our duty. ́ This is how he felt: ́I cannot remain silent. It ́s an invisible relay in which the dead pass on the baton to those who are still alive. Nobody has as many orphans as the Jews. ́
So what will you do? You have a very successful career in an international organisation. Let us move on then from your mission to the strategy.
Yes, we are action-oriented… Our programme rests on four pillars – the literary legacy, the film legacy, developing creativity and education. The literary legacy deals with Arnošt ́s fiction as well as his nonfictional texts. Our priority is to make his collected works available, having them translated and published in foreign languages, while at the same time, finding innovative ways of presenting them and of course, bringing out unpublished texts. I ́d say that this is the Foundation ́s soul as Arnošt ́s heart and soul were all about being a writer. He wrote to live and lived to write. And unfortunately, he was stopped in his tracks. We have set out our key projects. For example, in the literary arena already, an illustrated Arnošt Lustig biographical novel is currently being written by bestselling author Markéta Pilátová. Our hope is that Petr Sís (a member of our International Board of Trustees) will be involved with the illustrations. In the film area, we would like to facilitate the remake of ́A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzová ́ because originally it was ‘just’ made as a television film, while it is clear that this big story considered as Arnošt ́s classic of hope and courage against all odds – deserves to reach audiences around the world on the big screen. Besides, he surprised us with several screenplays for feature films he left ́in the drawer ́. We will do our best to make sure they don ́t stay there. Furthermore, to encourage and embed creativity among youth, we are preparing a literary competition for young authors with an international dimension involving Czech schools here and abroad as well as in Germany. Our aim is not only to develop creative talent across various literary genres but also to strengthen democratic values and critical thinking. And last but not least, two educational exhibits are underway… with complementary educational workshops for kids fourteen and up, covering civic education with emphasis on democratic values, modern history and of course, literature.
And a word to finish off?
As a Foundation, we look forward to collaborating with a whole range of institutions to reach our target audience. This runs the gamut of the literary world (publishers, book fairs, book clubs, libraries) and the film and theatre industry (festivals, producers, directors and actors, cinema and theatre) as well as the sphere of education (schools and universities, museums). And of course, we would welcome collaboration with individuals who are touched by our mission, no matter where they are… Visit us on our webpage www.lustigfoundation.cz and join the well-known personalities already engaged in transmitting our vision. We are pleased that amongst them are the highly respected macroeconomist Petr Zahradník, as member of our Executive Board, and members of our International Board of Trustees such as Jan Fischer (Chairman), Petr Sís, Robert Řehák and Martin Krafl. By the end of the year we intend to approach other members from Europe, USA and Israel.
By Linda Štucbartová
‘In truth, I don’t only write about the Holocaust. What interests me is Man – what motivates his actions, his life, his capabilities, his status in society, and as well as why at a given moment he can be the most noble of creatures and in no time be capable of murder.’