Saturday, February 26, 2011

Arnost Lustig

Arnost Lustig has passed away in Prague at the age of 84. He had cancer for several years. He became a family friend not long after his arrival in Washington DC in the early '70s. He grew up in Prague and was sent to concentration camps in his teen years; he escaped for a while when American planes mistakenly bombed a train on which he was being transported to Dachau. Much of his work as a writer and filmmaker for decades returned to those experiences, in books like "Diamonds of the Night" and "A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova." In the '60s he was a prominent artist, working with most of the great Czech filmmakers of the time like Milos Forman and Jan Nemec, but finally resigned the Communist Party in 1967, and left the country during the Prague Spring of 1968. In the years since the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel provided him with an apartment in the Prague Castle, where he spent much of his time. He was something of a national hero; I remember the family saying that he never seemed to pay for a meal or a cab ride; everyone wanted to talk to him. There's a documentary called "Fighter" about his long friendship with another Czech writer; their careers are contrasted, as Jan Wiener opposed the Communist regime early on and thought of Arnost as a collaborator.

I remember Arnost wearing an ascot and calling people "darling" until he realized that American film insiders didn't really do that; and calling me (and most other people) "you beast!); and telling me about getting drunk with Chou En-lai; and getting up from the table at our Passover seder, picking up the phone and saying, "Mr. President, we are eating matzo ball soup!"; and writing in my copy of "A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova," "For Bernard--the poet almost the best!"

1 comment:

Harvey Morrell said...

I had many classes with Arnost at American U. in the late '70's. In my copy of Diamonds of the Night, he inscribed, "For Harvey, the best student in my class." (I wasn't, by a long shot.) Found out later that he wrote that in every student's book for that class.

Thanks for the memories - I found your post when I searched google for "arnost lustig AND you beast." :)