“House of Fates”: What does it mean?

For a number of years I have been bothered by the English translation of Imre Kertész’s Nobel Prize winning book, Fatelessness. There is no such word in English as “fateless” or “fatelessness.” Mind you, before Kertész’s novel appeared in 1975 there was no such word in Hungarian either. I decided to take a look at the German translation and  “fatelessness” reappeared there too: “Roman eines Schicksallosen,” says the German title page. At this point I had to turn to Duden: “not marked by a certain fate in a special way.” I must say that it didn’t help me a lot.

The Hungarian word “sors” (fate), just as its English equivalent, has several meanings. Perhaps the English word “lot” is the closest to the core meaning of the Hungarian “sors.” A man can say at the end of his life: this is what my life was all about, this is what I achieved, this was my lot. That’s what he got from life, this is how things worked out, this is what happened to him over the years. But surely, what happens to the hero of the novel is not fate in the normal sense of the word unless a person believes in some divine predestination. What happened to the fifteen-year-old György Köves was something unexpected and inexplicable. He was removed from his surroundings, deprived of his freedom and will. By being dragged away and taken to Buchenwald, he was removed from a very different lot that was until then taken for granted by him and his family. It was a break in his life. In fact, Kertész is quite explicit about this: “It wasn’t my lot but it was I who lived through it.” (my translation)


Interestingly enough, no one to my knowledge spent much time on the meaning of the word “sorstalanság” (fatelessness), the title of the original Hungarian book. But now that the Orbán government decided to erect a new memorial to the children who were victims of the Holocaust the meaning of the word has come up and become a topic of controversy. The people entrusted with the establishment of this memorial decided to name it the House of Fates (Sorsok Háza). It will be located in the old, by now unused, railroad station of Josephstadt (Józsefváros). I wrote about the hurried decision to renovate the old station and make it suitable for a museum. As soon as the public found out that the exhibit will bear the name “House of Fates” there were objections. They pointed out that it wasn’t fate that was responsible for the destruction of the Hungarian Jewry but people who ordered the deportation, and the same was true of the 200,000 Hungarians who took an active part in this atrocity.

It is clear that the name of the new museum was inspired by Imre Kertész’s book, but the people who decided to choose it most likely didn’t understand Kertész’s meaning. Sors/sorstalan (Fate/fateless; Schicksal/Schicksallos) are opposites, but if you don’t understand the meaning of the title of the novel then it is certain that you will err when picking its opposite. And hence the controversy that followed the announcement. György C. Kálmán, a literary historian, argues that labeling the murder of children as “their lot” is to make it sound normal and natural. It shows insensitivity and crassness. It is all wrong.

Péter György, a literary critic, argues along similar lines. If someone is deprived of his freedom to change his fate he is no longer the master of his own life. This is what Kertész calls “sorstalanság.” An exhibit, says György, that focuses on the years that led to the Holocaust cannot be labeled something that inevitably led to these children’s fate. To follow one’s fate means free will, and no one can say that these children willingly chose death as their fate.

Kálmán and György talk about the unfortunate name of the new museum. Others have different and perhaps more weighty objections. First of all, there is great suspicion about Mária Schmidt’s involvement in the project due to her rather peculiar interpretation of the war years and the Holocaust. Schmidt is obviously trying to show her openness by approaching Hungarian Jewish intellectuals asking for their help. We don’t know how many people got letters and what they answered. But we do know that György Konrád, the well-known Hungarian writer, received one. Moreover, we also know what he had to say to her since Konrád made his answer public.

Dear Mária,

I find it difficult to free myself of the suspicion that this hurried organization of an exhibit is not so much about the 100,000 murdered Jewish children but rather about the current Hungarian government. If this government spends such a large amount of money in memory of these children, I would suggest that this amount be spent instead on the feeding of starving Hungarian children who live today.

If you would like to have my personal contribution to the enlightenment of Hungarian school children, please suggest my autobiographical book, Elutazás és hazatérés (Going Away and Returning/in the official English edition A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life), in which I describe my experiences as an eleven-year-old in historical context.

I read this book for Magyar Rádió and it was broadcast several times. The book is still available and therefore the teachers can easily obtain it.

Sincerely yours,

György Konrád

A few days later Mazsihisz (Magyarországi Zsidó Hitközségek Szövetsége), the association of Jewish religious communities, also expressed its misgivings about the project. Apparently, Mazsihisz as well as other people who were supposed to have some say in the project still don’t have any idea about Schmidt’s plans. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, did write to Schmidt. In his letter he emphasized the necessity of an exhibit that shows the road to the Holocaust as opposed to including only events that took place after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. As of December 20, there was still no answer from Schmidt. However, in her letter to those intellectuals whom she approached she mentioned “an opportunity for everybody to attend the meeting to express their opinions, give advice and suggestions in four or five minutes.” No wonder that Konrád said no to this kind invitation. In any case, Mazsihisz would like to have public control over the conception, the realization, and the finances of the exhibit.

Finally, József Schweitzer, retired chief rabbi of Hungary, also expressed his serious reservations. He wrote a letter to Schmidt, a copy of which was sent to Népszava. He objected to the venue because this particular “railway station was not connected to the mass deportations of the Hungarian Jewry.” He suggested the renovation of the synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca which is in very bad shape and its use for the memorial exhibit. Schweitzer also thought that the renovation of this synagogue would cost a great deal less, and he joined Konrád in suggesting that the rest be given to children who live in poverty.

I’m afraid that the House of Fates will be as controversial if not even more so after it opens its doors sometime in April of next year. Schmidt and the government she represents have very definite ideas about what they want and what they don’t want. They certainly don’t want an exhibit that exposes the responsibility of the Hungarian government and those 200,000 people who actively worked on the deportation of more than 600,000 people within a couple of months.


  1. The suggestion of plaques at railroad stations re: deportations is reasonable. A plaque should also be placed in all those stations regarding the several hundred thousand Hungarians who happened to be of the ‘wrong class’ and were deported by the ‘liberators’ and by Rakosi and his henchmen to slave labor camps many of whom never returned. Those who survived were even forbidden to talk about their experience.

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  2. Guys / Gals:
    On this new years eve can’t we be a liiiiitle bit more positive and once, only ONCE think less about torture and gas chambers and similar bestial accoutrements.

    Have a peaceful and happy NEW YEAR, No matter where you are, where you live, what you think, et al.

    Cheeeers Folksssss.
    See (or “talk” to you) NEXT year


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  3. @LwiiH & @Bowen

    Jews lived in almost every village in Hungary before ww2.

    I just listed those railroad stations
    where they were herded onto trains going STRAIGHT to Auschwitz AND
    the train went through Kosice from May 14 to July 20 AND
    the railroad station is inside the current borders of Hungary.

    The list can be enlarged by locations from where there were deportation trains before May 14 or after July 20 (that includes Jozsefvaros railroad station too), the Strasshof trains, along the route of death marches, at massacre sites.

    With the agreement of the neighboring countries, there could be memorials, paid by the Hungarian government, at railroad stations from where the Hungarian state deported Jewish people.

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  4. Tappi, it dont add up, Hung current govt no pay if it don’ result in votes.. day aimin’ for 2/3 again otherwise its no fun for them… Too much woyk…

    And payin for memorials outisde the hegemony, ones that are quickly forgotten just dont pay, if ya see what I mean… Also they’ll lose more jobbik votes than theyll gain by their gesture… With the Jozsefváros attempt they gonna supply a watered-down version of Páva utca that will be preferred by the luke-warmers in this regarard. Also they will reduce the numbers of visitors and may draw up divisive lines accordning to their funding. Evidently the watered down version is gonna get more financing while pleasing the luke-warmers.

    Have you been to Szechenyi-rudo with max temp. of warmest pool at 22 degrees…? Dats da result they look’n for while Jobbik web and radio stations are gonna have a jolly good laugh… for LOL :-)

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  5. Stevan Harnad :
    “Destiny Theft”

    Correct again!

    Sadly it fells in line quite well with the shameful event in the Hotel Hilton a few days back.
    As I see it they ruthlessly exploiting children for the sake of their political agenda.

    Why children, you may ask?
    They are one of the most defenceless group, right between the newborn puppies and the hospice inmates.

    In the case of the Hilton charade, I guess there weren’t a single parent forbidding his/her child to participate in a memorable event, particularly, because quite certainly the majority wasn’t even aware, what’s going on.

    The case of the child-victimes of the Holocaust even more disgusting – there hardly anyone who could protest against the exploitation. The victims aren’t among us, the parents – even if they miraculously did not perished at the same time must be really old, so there is nobody in effect to stop them.

    If it was not enough, there going to be a new monument too, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the German occupation – guess where?
    In the vicinity of admiral Horty’s bust and the memorial of the Soviet war heroes: Szabadság tér – Freedom Square. Here is the link to the news in Hungarian:


    A stomach churning bunch, that’s what they are.

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  6. When i was, half a year ago, at the railway station in Debrecen i saw outside the station, the the little plate that remind us travellers off the deportation horror that take place in 1944. I bought some flowers and put them near by the plate on the wall.
    Everybody is having his or here one arguments about the knew memorial. The name is not correct, it is political step from Fidesz, etc etc.
    When only one father or mother in the next, say 25, years will visit the memorial with their child or children and tell them about the horror witch took place, and then tell their children that they always have to look out, so that it can not happen again, its worth all the money, despide what the, different, personal or political reasons are to build this memorial.

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  7. @elisabeth
    While I understand and unconditionally respect your sentiments, I do not agree with the conclusion.
    If it was an ounce honesty behind the intention, the government should have consulted with the respective representers of the Jewish community before making such decision.

    I am afraid, that parents must tell to their children the truth about our history anyway, because their history books are about to be completely rewritten – as part of the ‘revision’ of our past as well. I have a fairly founded hunch, that what we will see in this museum will try to prove again, that Hungarians has nearly nothing to do with the Holocaust, dear Hothy was only a victim of the history, but against all odds he heroically saved thousands and thousands…

    This is nothing else, but an attempt to smokescreen the presently rising Hungarian antisemitism, an attempt to cajole the investors into believing, that events like about Sukoró totally unrelated to politics.

    Actually I haven’t commented on the cost, but as you mentioned it: without intending to be demagog, just how’d you explain to the tens of thousand of children, living under the poverty level, that their life isn’t important that much, as this project?

    However, this is all theoretical – it will be built, it will be applauded all over the World, and Orbán will put on a yarmulke again for the PR – just a purely democratic leader with a big heart, isn’t he?

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  8. Yes it takes al lot off courage to talk in the open abouth the truth, when prison and intimidation is waiting for those who speak.
    Eva i have teached my children that there ar three things in live which ar the basic of everthing, power sex and money and the fourth is
    that god will take care of uss all. but i teaches my children that that is the biggest lie off all on earth.
    So my childeren know that live is worthless, but thay still enyou, Eva you have to look at the Syrian war to know i am right not to mention all the other conflicts of the last years. And we are speaking about Hungary so that is the second example.
    When the memorial is finished and you think it is not correct or a falsivication of the thruth you go insinde with a lot of friends and burn the memorial down, than you will make a statemant that will be observed in europe and america etc.
    Prison will open the doors for you because when the speaking is not effective then only the way off violence will rest
    with regards

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