“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)

fate

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.

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Guest
December 30, 2013 5:32 pm

Thanks, Eva, again, a great analysis!

Guest
Ron
December 30, 2013 6:08 pm

Eva: 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.

I do not think that this is their problem. I think that they do not want Horthy to be involved. Please do not forget they admire Horthy.

Guest
December 30, 2013 7:35 pm

I have just finished Kertesz’s Dossier K: A Memoir where he expands on this notion of sors/fate. Like a lot of Kertesz writing, you need to read it several times to peel back the layers of meaning.

Anyway, this memoir, like Fatelessness, was translated into English by Tim Wilkinson, a highly regarded translator. While the publisher may have had a say in the title of the book, I would put a lot of store on Wilkinson’s translation. Interestingly the film, in which Kertesz wrote the screenplay, is called Fateless, rather than Fatelessness. Again, perhaps this was done to meet the demands of Hollywood/commercial imperatives.

Guest
PR Attack
December 30, 2013 9:56 pm

Let us go slower.
The Hungarian government has not got an honest thoughts.
Why is anybody initiating a dialog with them?
Respecting them?
No way.
Let us keep the PR attack up against them.
We have to win the sympathy of the wide masses of decent Hungarians.
They must learn to be angry with this tyrannic bunch of unworthy rulers.

Guest
Dusty
December 30, 2013 11:01 pm

The title of my English copy of the book is ‘Fateless’, English translation 1992.

Guest
Peter H.
December 31, 2013 12:51 am

Hungarian Spectrum was mentioned on ATV’s evening news regarding the “Hilton” story.

Esti híradó – 2013.12.30.
A mai nap hírei 18:55-kor.
atv.hu

On the video at 13:15

Guest
tappanch
December 31, 2013 1:32 am

Isn’t it interesting that movie director Istvan Szabo Magyarized the “Sonnenschein” family name into “Sors” in his “Sunshine” ?

————–

I wish everyone a Holy Prepuce day tomorrow! :-)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Prepuce

Guest
Wondercat
December 31, 2013 3:19 am

Schicksalslosigkeit, fatelessness, sorstalanság. Three non-words for the same condition; appropriate for a condition that is a non-condition: The condition of being indeterminate, of no longer being able to take comfort in the concept of a destiny, a life’s theme, a foreseeable and even rational vision of What Happens Next, a belief that one is watched over, guided, assigned a purpose. Before Hitler’s war the thread of fate was spun, rather than random; its length was measured, rather than random; that measured length was confirmed and established and removed from the realm of the random with the *snick* of Atropos’ shears. But she and her sisters are gone.

Without guideposts, signs, indices, norms. Modern life. Fateless.

Guest
tappanch
December 31, 2013 4:18 am

“sors, sortis”,

1. first recorded meaning:

Terence – Publius Terentius Afer (195/185–159 BC):

“capital deposited for interest, funds”

2.

Cicero – Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC)

“drawing, oracle”

3. much later:

Virgil – Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC)

“lot, destiny”

http://www.dicolatin.com/FR/LAK/0/SORS/index.htm

Guest
December 31, 2013 4:25 am

tappanch :
Isn’t it interesting that movie director Istvan Szabo Magyarized the “Sonnenschein” family name into “Sors” in his “Sunshine” ?

This may also refer to the psychopathologist Lipót Szondi (Leopold Sonnenschein until 1911) and his ‘Schicksalanalyse’ (sorsemlezés). Deprived of his livelihood at Budapest University by the Horthy regime in 1941, he was deported in June 1944 on the ‘Kastner Train’ – along with his son Péter Szondi, who became a great literature critic in West-Germany.

A reminder that it is impossible to bring the word ‘fate’ at the table and limit the scope to 1944-45 when dealing with the history of Hungarian Jews – a limitation I suspect is at the core of the projected memorial.

PS: the French title of Kertész’s book is Être sans destin, which could either mean ‘To be without destiny’ or ‘A fateless being’.

Guest
Ms. Kaldor
December 31, 2013 4:57 am

It does not matter what anybody thinks. Fidesz will build the House because the construction company already paid the kickback to the necessary people, who in turn already spent it or transferred it abroad. So the business must be awarded, there’s no turning back now. As long as there is any Jewish person or organization giving credibility to the project, it was worth it. Also, let’s just wait what Mazsihisz will eventually say, Fidesz is pretty smart in pulling some strings — after all, Mazsihisz and its leaderhsip depend on Fidesz’ generosity for their everyday operations and carreers. In any case, there are tons of other Jewish organizations and intellectuals. There is no price too high for some seemingly pro-Jewish credentials (and in fact the price is paid to Fidesz’ pockets via the consruction company, which may even be a non-Fidesz company, but will have to pay to Fidesz’ coffers). Fidesz decided that it wanted its very own Holocaust project and it will get it. It wants to be competent and credible in the Holocaust discourse. In 3 years nobody will remember this controvery and Fidesz will have established itself as the protector of Jews in Hungary. This is how… Read more »

Guest
tappanch
December 31, 2013 5:19 am

“sors”

4. In 17th century Latin
Abraham de Moivre, Jacob Bernoulli:

“chance, probability”, sometimes even “expectation”

aequa sors = equal chance
aequa sorte = with equal probability

Guest
tappanch
December 31, 2013 5:57 am

In this sense, it was exactly the Jewish children of the Hungarian countryside who had close to zero “sors” to survive July 1944. But they were not deported from the railroad station “Jozsefvaros” inside Budapest.

Memorials should be set up in EACH railroad station where they were deported under Horthy:

Nyíregyháza
Sátoraljaújhely
Mátészalka
Kisvárda
Maklár
Diósgyőr
Balassagyarmat
Hatvan
Komárom
Salgótarján
Miskolc
Győr
Debrecen
Szeged
Kecskemét
Békéscsaba
Bácsalmás
Szolnok
Sárvár
Szombathely
Kaposvár
Pécs
Sopron
Pápa
Paks
Monor
Óbuda
Budakalász
Békásmegyer
Rákoscsaba

http://www.degob.hu/english/tables/kassa.html

Guest
Karl Pfeifer
December 31, 2013 6:20 am

PR Attack : Let us go slower. The Hungarian government has not got an honest thoughts. Why is anybody initiating a dialog with them? Respecting them? No way. Let us keep the PR attack up against them. We have to win the sympathy of the wide masses of decent Hungarians. They must learn to be angry with this tyrannic bunch of unworthy rulers. Today one can read on Népszabadság the excellent comment of Nóra Berend. Antisemitic speech is mainstream in Hungary. Of course the awakening will be terrible, if there will be an awakening. The leaders of the maffiastate want to dance at the same time at two different weddings in two different locations, They want to be recognized in the western world as “Christian conservatives” even when they let out of the bottle the antisemitic spirit in Hungary speaking about “us Hungarians” and they “the Jews”. Orbán promised to defend the Jews and an MSZP politician named Steiner bought this line and asked humbly Orbán to do what he had promised. By the way the New York Times has asked Hungarian Jews to tell them with their address and Mobile Nr. if they experience antisemitism as if Jews had… Read more »

Guest
PR 2014
December 31, 2013 6:59 am

This is an untold story by a friend from Zala 1944:

“Apamat 44 oszen 60 napig kinoztak a zalaberi kastely pincejeben, mert ket fiatal testvere a K fiukat elbujtatta a dabronyi eroben es mivel apam volt a legidosebb belole akartak kiverni hol voltak a K fiuk, soha nem vallotta be. Kivittek az allomasra egy szekeren es anyammal kovettuk oket, egy vagonba dobtak be eszmeletlenul, anyam konyorgott, hogy mar ugyis meg hal hadd vigyuk haza. Mire egy fasiszta belerugott es kigordult a vagonbol. Hazavittuk es eletben maradt.”

Why can we not emphasize the heroism of the many millions of Hungarians, who rose to the moral task to be noble human beings throughout our history?

The rest will earn it later. And will dethrone the finkelstein creations.

Guest
Frans Koelemeijer
December 31, 2013 7:51 am

The translation in dutch is a very good one: Onbepaald door het lot.
In english it would run something like this: not decided by fate.

Guest
csoda.peter
December 31, 2013 7:56 am

English has (at least) 3 words for “sors”: fate, destiny and lot. They are used interchangeably for the path individuals follow over which they have no control. In my view, they are very different in that that they also denote the following: – DESTINY is a force/outcome associated more with a person’s own capabilities and weaknesses: Relationships may be destined to fail sooner or later due to the character of the partners. – LOT is the force/outcome of the environment on an individual: the lot of a serf was serve his lord – FATE is a supernatural force/outcome, and like LOT it is also external to an individual. Fate intervenes in lives in an unpredictable way, either of neutral or negative connotation (unlike LUCK which is always positive unless qualified as bad luck). To use these 3 concepts and words as the base build up the English for Sorstlan and Sorstalanság is not useful. Adding “–less” or “–lessness” to any of the above 3 does not yield words which have much or any meaning. It is no coincidence that Fateful is a well recognised word, but its opposite Fateless (not Fate as you mention in paragraph 4) does not exist.… Read more »

Guest
Mutt
December 31, 2013 8:30 am

I opened the Free Dictionary app on my iPhone to look up Fateless. Guess what! The description is Imre Kertesz ‘ novel. I think he introduced a new English word.

Fatelessness sounds artificial to me but Fateless is perfect. To me, when I read the book, it meant something like “beyond fate”. Like some people don’t even have fate. Fate to me is something that the gods plan to do with you. You can be eaten by a lion or hit by a truck but all these sound like a plan by a higher power – you had a purpose. But the most unfortunate don’t even have fate. They are abandoned both by men and gods.

This argument is a good addition to the never ending quest to explain the Hungarian psyche. Why do we have to be always sooooo f*ing complicated ??? Fateless it is. Move on! :-)

Happy Fatefull New Year! It’s your fate. Do something about it!

Guest
csoda.peter
December 31, 2013 9:29 am

Every human being has a fate, even if it is simply to die.

So if someone has no fate, it suggests they have effectively died and ceased to be human

Perhaps that is the connotation which makes the word Fatelessness so intriguing.

Was that Kertész’s intention in using the word?

Guest
Ron
December 31, 2013 9:54 am

Slightly OT The artificial ice rink in Budapest is closed, due to …. warmth. No joke, around 5 billion forint was spent on upgrading it, and it cannot handle +10 degrees celcius.

This is a shame. I expect a similar strategy regarding the House of Fate, spent a lot of money, big press, but it is only window dressing.

http://www.stop.hu/belfold/kapitulalt-a-varosligeti-mujegpalya/1204742/

Guest
December 31, 2013 10:54 am

If an individual’s destiny and the road to there is pre-planned would perhaps the fate of a country’s history also be a question of pre-planned destiny – which might perhaps be truncated if enough evil is interjected… For now, science has no proof of the existence of the concept of ‘fate’ or of destiny indicating a pre-planned process by powers above and beyond our know.

Guest
Mutt
December 31, 2013 10:59 am

andy – hogwash? :
For now, science has no proof of the existence of the concept of ‘fate’ or of destiny indicating a pre-planned process by powers above and beyond our know.

But even if your belief is that the higher power is just a microwave setting, it still bugs you … What if events are connected for a purpose …

Guest
csoda.peter
December 31, 2013 11:14 am

Definition of Fatelessness: “A human condition in which the spirit of the individual has achieved its ultimate fate (death); and in which the physical being, whilst still alive, is no longer subject to accident or to supernatural intervention (fate).”

Chilling and absurd.

But perhaps something like this would catch Kertész’s meaning (no?) and be true to the component word-parts.

Does it work in Hungarian too, someone?

The museum then would need to be called the Sorstalanitások Háza, if I’m not mistaken, which is even more abstruse. Sorsok Haza is then an (arguably) preferable simplification.

Anyone want to form a literary book club? (joke)

Guest
LwiiH
December 31, 2013 11:18 am

tappanch :
In this sense, it was exactly the Jewish children of the Hungarian countryside who had close to zero “sors” to survive July 1944. But they were not deported from the railroad station “Jozsefvaros” inside Budapest.
Memorials should be set up in EACH railroad station where they were deported under Horthy:
Nyíregyháza
Sátoraljaújhely
Mátészalka
Kisvárda
Maklár
Diósgyőr
Balassagyarmat
Hatvan
Komárom
Salgótarján
Miskolc
Győr
Debrecen
Szeged
Kecskemét
Békéscsaba
Bácsalmás
Szolnok
Sárvár
Szombathely
Kaposvár
Pécs
Sopron
Pápa
Paks
Monor
Óbuda
Budakalász
Békásmegyer
Rákoscsaba
http://www.degob.hu/english/tables/kassa.html

I’m surprised that Tokaj or Szerencs isn’t on the list. Mad was completely cleaned out of it’s jewish population and those would be the two closest stops.

Guest
Bowen
December 31, 2013 11:20 am

@Tappanch … You could also include rail stations in Hungarian-occupied Maramures and Transylvania (where the Huangarian Jews thought they mightve safer after Horthy rode in). But, as has been established, this museum doesnt have an educational or apologetic function.

Guest
csoda.peter
December 31, 2013 11:23 am

tappanch :
In this sense, it was exactly the Jewish children of the Hungarian countryside who had close to zero “sors” to survive July 1944. But they were not deported from the railroad station “Jozsefvaros” inside Budapest.
Memorials should be set up in EACH railroad station where they were deported under Horthy:

Great idea! Like the shoes on the Danube, which not many people other than tourists see.

Guest
December 31, 2013 11:47 am

Mutt, Dear,
Ref. to y. reply (no 24 above) “What if events are connected for a purpose …”

In all honesty I actually do believe -more or less- in stuff being destined by the time we are about 5 year old – as I personally sensed at that time what my fate would be and it turned out exactly like I had sensed. It was an eery feeling then and now I know that my intuition was right on at that time.

It is a bugger becasue we cant seem to know to what extent this is reality and what extent it’s a question of chance. I’ve been requesting that the financial powers in the world spend vastly more money on research of this topic – as inter-personal and other mental messages are at least as interesting to research as, say, quarks are for physics.

Till now, however, Ive fallen on deaf ears in this regard, so am left with sampling my own expenrience at age 5 or so… and a sampling of 1 is no scientific basis….

Shucks.

Guest
kindergarten191
December 31, 2013 1:00 pm

andy – hogwash ?? #29

I would divide humanity into two groups:

1. Some brain, creative thinking environment – there is room for some extra development after the kindergarten.
2. Some brain, but isolated from the large world – usually, these children will be infected by some fairy tales in kindergarten, and will remain vulnerable and angry forever.

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