As a Jewish boy in Czechoslovakia during World War II, he was sent in 1942 to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, from where he was later transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, followed by time in the Buchenwald concentration camp. In 1945, he escaped from a train carrying him to the Dachau concentration camp when the engine was mistakenly destroyed by an American fighter-bomber. He returned to Prague in time to take part in the May 1945 anti-Nazi uprising.
After the war, he studied journalism at Charles University in Prague and then worked for a number of years at Radio Prague. He worked as a journalist in Israel at the time of its War of Independence where he met his future wife, who at the time was a volunteer with the Haganah. He was one of the major critics of the Communist regime in June 1967 at the 4th Writers Conference, and gave up his membership in the Communist Party after the 1967 Middle East war, to protest his government's breaking of relations with Israel. However, following the Soviet-led invasion that ended the Prague Spring in 1968, he left the country, first to Israel, then Yugoslavia and later in 1970 to the United States. After the fall of eastern European communism in 1989, he divided his time between Prague and Washington DC, where he continued to teach at the American University. After his retirement from the American University in 2003, he became a full-time resident of Prague. He was given an apartment in the Prague Castle by then President Václav Havel and honored for his contributions to Czech culture on his 80th birthday in 2006. In 2008, Lustig became the eighth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize. 
Lustig is married to the former Vera Weislitzová (1927), daughter of a furniture maker from Ostrava who was also imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp. Unlike her parents, she was not deported to Auschwitz. She wrote of her family's fate during the Holocaust in the collection of poems entitled "Daughter of Olga and Leo." They have two children, Josef (1950) and Eva (1956).
His most renowned books are A Prayer For Katerina Horowitzowa (published and nominated for a National book award in 1974), Dita Saxová (1979), Night and Hope (1985), and Lovely Green Eyes (2004). Dita Saxová and Night and Hope have been filmed.
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