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Posts from the ‘Reading’ Category

Taucher – Jews Underground in Berlin

The Wiener Library is a truly wonderful resource, even if it is in hiding.  I have used the reading room before, and still I could not find it.  Google Maps had me blocks away, the glowing blue dot saying “You are here,” when you can see, very clearly, that you are not.  Or can you?  The library can be found by disregarding the numbering of buildings, mounting stairs to peer at discreet gold plaques, then squinting at the call buttons on the entry phone.  It is hidden in plain sight – a useful metaphor for the nature of historian and author Roger Moorhouse’s talk:  Eye of the Storm – Jews Underground in Hitler’s Berlin, 2 September 2010.

He starts by giving us Berliners’ name for Jews who chose to hide “in plain sight” in Berlin through the war.  Known as die Taucher, the divers, they were also referred to as U-Boats.  11,000 Jews went underground in Berlin during the war years of 1939 – 1945.  1400 survived the war.  There are no maths or statistics to explain odds which meant fewer than 10% would survive capture, hunger, illness or bombs.  Perhaps 50% died due to “betrayal.”  But Moorhouse did suggest some methods to increase the odds.
HOW TO SURVIVE AS A FUGITIVE:
1. Remove your star
2. Destroy your deportation order
3. Learn to live on the run.  Be prepared to lie, cheap and steal.
4. Avoid your past.  Forget your family, forget your friends.  Avoid entire areas of the city, where you may be recognized.  Forget you ever were a Jew.
5. Change your appearance.  Commit visual sleights of hand if you “look Jewish” through hair dye, clothing, stolen uniforms.  Do not allow yourself to appear unkempt, even if you have nowhere to live.  Disarray, even in wartime, will attract attention in Berlin.
6. Find somewhere to live.  Available accommodation can include lofts, basements, trams, parks, houseboats, bordellos.  Find someone who will hide you for money, or for love.  Be open: the tomb of Josef Schwarz in the Jewish Cemetary in Weissensee, which remained open throughout the war, provides a hiding place to sleep in the dome of its mausoleum.
7. Have an accident, injury or illness and get yourself admitted to the Jewish Hospital, which kept patients from being deported through a variety of radical “operations.”
8. You are nothing without paperwork.  Whatever you do, find the right paperwork with the right stamps. Hope for a sympathizer to drop them before you, present yourself as a victim of bombing to receive a “bomb certificate as refugee”.  Search fresh corpses in air raids.

Moorhouse pointed out that the decision to go on the run was contrary to a Berliner’s way of life, a culture which prided itself on belief in the law and civic duty.  That was often the reason given for the “betrayals” that would find Aryan Berliners hiding, and then denouncing, local Jews.  Another risk were die Greifer, “the catchers”, particularly the “Aryan-look Jew” Stella Kubler, known as “the blonde poison”, who betrayed others to keep herself and her parents from deportation.  But Berlin was also a particularly good city in which to go underground.  There was a strong and proud Jewish tradition and Berlin had never naturally been Nazi.  Both the church and the communists provided havens and networks.

There was a lively question and answer session to follow, and a number of attendees who wanted to tell their own stories of hiding and escape.  I felt very young in the room, and I felt every inch a shiksa.  While Moorhouse spoke of the “imagination gap” between what Berliners and Jews felt was happening to deportees and what they would know following 1945, I am trying to fill my own “ignorance gaps” with all that I do not know as well as remember the imagination and information gaps that my characters would surely have.  When dealing with WWII it is nigh impossible not to reference the end.  There are things that you see that you cannot unsee, even as there are things that you learn that no one could know, let alone fathom, in 1933, 1939, or 1943.

Roger Moorhouse’s book is unusual in its coverage of Berlin at War:  Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939 – 1945; it is the first of its kind, says the author, to give a “Berlin eye view” of the war.  In my discovery of the history of Berlin, it is a book I am very much looking forward to reading.  To read The Telegraph’s review of the book, visit their site:

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The Good Nazi

Sitting beneath a convalescing cat, held fast by his bulk, I was kept still long enough to finish The Kindly Ones.  At last!  What a rich and strange text, one that has divided reviewers since its appearance in France in 2006 and its English translation in 2009.  It will come as no surprise that I googled reviews of the book – if only to decipher the meaning of the book’s last line and title.  The Kindly Ones.  The New York Times Book Review cited its reference to the third play in Aeschylus’ Trilogy, “the kindly ones” being the dreadful Furies turned house-cat by Athenian law.  The book does end with a state of law, but I couldn’t tell you who became domesticated in the process; there is no happy ending here, for anyone.

Even if it is perceived that Dr. Max Aue has “got away with murder”, he is clearly tormented by his own Furies, even when he claims forgetfulness.  The Furies eat their way out of him.  They consume him from within.  There is, ultimately, no redemption for Dr. Aue – and should there be?  Though “The Good Nazi” was given to Albert Speer’s biography, I would have thought this would be a more fitting title.  But, to be fair, titles are not my strong suit.  Check my CV.  But surely, rather than the taming of inner demons through adherence to state law, this book is about how good men can do evil things.  Which leads to the next question, of course.  Is Dr. Aue a good man?  Can you be a good Nazi?

Dr. Aue was certainly an effective Nazi.  He was good at being a Nazi.  Which is not the same thing as being good.  Dr. Aue loves classical music, which serves as shorthand for his culture, his refinement, his class.  But even his love of music abandons him in the end, when he destroys a musician for reminding him of beauty.  So, it is not that he is a good man; in fact, he commits a catalogue of sins.

But by Nazi standards, then, as a good Nazi he also believes himself to be a good man, because he cares more than most.  The last third of the book finds him investigating the camps, from their “hey dey” to their evacuations.  He cares more than most by expressing his concerns about overcrowding, diets, hygiene, hypothermia.  But still, he does nothing.  He is no hero in this tale, but he believes, to the end, that he is redeemed by his own commitment to the Nazi cause, a commitment that only abandons him at the very end.

Aue disdains men who do the work of Nazis without the philosophy.  This is summed up in an encounter with Doll, “a good family man who wanted to feed his children, and who obeyed his government, even though in his innermost being he didn’t entirely agree?  If he had been born in France or America, he’d have been called a pillar of society and a patriot; but he was born in Germany, and so he is a criminal.  Necessity, as the Greeks knew already, is not only a blind goddess, but a cruel one too.”  He explains his belief that man is neither naturally good nor naturally evil, ill-equipped to judge the heart of man.  “Doll killed people or had them killed, so he’s Evil; but within himself, he was a good man to those close to him, indifferent to all others, and, what’s more, one who respected the law.   What more do we ask of the individual in our civilized, democratic cities?”  Aue is aware that law began with God, that Thou Shalt Not Kill is always set aside in times of war, as it is “just to kill the enemy of one’s people.”  “So for a German, to be a good German means to obey the laws and thus the Fuhrer: there can be no other morality since there would be nothing to support it.”  (And Dr. Aue needs a lot of support – staff, privilege, beds, liquor.  All that he wants and needs he is furnished with – but it is never, never enough.)  “What man alone, of his own free will, can come to a decision and say, This is good, that is evil?  How outrageous that would be, and how chaotic too, if everyone dared to act that way: if every man lived according to his private Law.”  Thus, he sets up the argument that no good Nazi can be tried alone.  All of Germany must be tried in total, for all of Germany followed the same law, uniformed or no.

This really is a most fascinating book.  Nearly every third page is folded down for reference.  You could open the book anywhere and start a blog post.  But I return to my initial query, lest my blog run the length of The Kindly Ones.  I want to get under the skin of fascism, to understand how it is made acceptable to a smart individual and a smart culture to so wholeheartedly embrace and enact a very bad idea.  I’m less convinced in the book’s writing than in the book’s ideas; if you are interested in the philosophy and practice of Nazism, I can’t think of a better place to start.

And so, back to the history books.  For I have a trip to Berlin planned, to place my Good Nazi into her own landscape, to see for myself what does -and does not – remain of her world.

The Kindly Ones marches on…

A supervisor on one of my first ever jobs told me I had trouble with transitioning.  That may sound a fair comment, but I need to point out that the workplace was a fast food counter in Disneyland and the supervisor was commenting on my inability to move from pouring sodas to scooping fries with sufficient speed or good humour.  I think, considering I was a teenager, that I was not nearly sulky enough.  However, this woman (who perhaps, even now, is supervising the serving of fat and salt in a theme park near you) and her words are with me.  Was she right?

Do I have trouble transitioning – where my writing is concerned?  How do you make your brain and your heart big enough for two books at once?  I can’t even read more than one book at a time.  Rewrites are stalled, holiday books are read, and so I return to my favourite Nazi, Dr. Max Aue, who shares his war in The Kindly Ones, which I last spoke of here: The next chunk of the book is titled Courante, meaning a baroque running dance that typically follows the Allemandes.

Courante finds Aue on a fast train and transfer from the Eastern Front to Stalingrad.  It is also a much faster chapter, driving Max through a variety of horrors that leaves him mad and hallucinating, as the relationship with his twin sister comes forward and is addressed directly in Sarabande, meaning a baroque suite featuring slow triple crotchets.  The sarabande might not be seen as a passionate music form, sayeth Wikipedia, but there is passion-aplenty once Aue is removed, convalescing, to Berlin.  (Spoiler alert)  The hallucinations of the siege in Stalingrad are revealed to be a near-death experience  – and thank goodness for that, I say, as the hallucinations were even getting to me!

Aue happily shows off his head wound throughout Sarabande, but what of his heart-wound?  Only the arrival of his twin reveals the extent of this damage, but she is unwilling – or unable – to do anything about it.  She has married and moved on; she has left him stuck in their shared childhood, emotionally infantile.  This explains some of the more bizarre fetishes and interests that Dr. Aue exhibits, but really, so far, so Nazi.  Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to show in the usually impeccable Max, whose Weltschmerz finds him threatening to shoot party guests in a hotel for daring to celebrate while, “the whole world was twisted in pain, and people should not be having fun, not right away in any case, they should wait a little while, a decent amount of time should go by.”  It is this rationale, of course, that makes the character fascinating.  We read about perpetrators of evil to learn how they justify their own actions, how they explain their decisions to make them acceptable.  We all do that, don’t we, evil or not?  It is the “not right away in any case,” that makes the statement so spooky – the appearance, the seemliness, is more important than the belief.

There is a particularly fascinating passage on whether Nazism arose from Zionism; the crafty Dr. Mandelbrod tells Aue that “the very term National Socialism was coined by a Jew… what’s more volkisch than Zionism?  Like us, they realized there there can be no Volk or Blut without Boden, without land, and so the Jews must be brought back to the land, Eretz Israel, purified of any other race.  Of course, those are ancient Jewish ideas.  The Jews were the first genuine National Socialists… ever since Moses gave them a Law to separate them forever from the other peoples.  All our great ideas come from the Jews, and we must have the lucidity to recognize it…the notion of the Chosen People, the concept of the purity of blood.”  Dr. Aue is more interested in the laws that will have to be rewritten following war, but his natural curiosity in the “Jewish Question,” as well as an inability to get a posting that he likes, finds him in a job where he must survey a number of death camps, as the book rolls into Meneut.  He believes it is his job to make them more “efficient”, which means to Max that fewer “workers” die unnecessarily.  It is hard to know if Max is being coy or ignorant at this point; he is kept in the dark by most of his superiors, including the mysterious Dr. Mandelbrot.  But that is also the point about the Nazis  – they all said, and perhaps believed, that they didn’t know anything.  That nobody joined up the dots.

Meanwhile, the hallucination/head traumas continue, and Aue spots a prayer shawl around the shoulders of Hitler, a tefillin on his forehead, the little tallith beneath his jacket.  Is this his “pineal eye” in overdrive?  Only time – and reading – will tell.

the kindly ones – part 1

The Kindly Ones, Nazi, internment

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learning from Hans Fallada

This chest infection of mine is lasting a long time – longer even than the book I’m currently reading, The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, which comes in at a whopping 975 pages.  It may be hot outside by the time I blog that one.  But beforehand I read Alone in Berlin, at a more modest 568 pages that really felt more like 300.  It is currently being packaged as a modern thriller:  “Berlin, 1940.  The city is paralysed by fear.  But one man refuses to be scared.”  But it isn’t.  Yes, Berlin was paralysed by fear, but Alone in Berlin isn’t a modern thriller, nor should it be sold as such.

Author Hans Fallada is as fascinating as his book which, with writers, is not always the case.  Born Rudolf Ditzen, he engaged in a suicide pact staged as a ritual dual in his teens; he killed his friend (and perhaps sexual partner) and turned his friend’s gun on himself.  He survived and was charged with his friend’s murder, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital when he was deemed unfit for trial in 1912.  In the hospital he began a reliance on prescription drugs that would blossom into full-blown addiction.  His debut novel in 1920, Young Goedeschal, was published under a pseudonym, a name from Grimm’s fairy tales, to avoid reminding the public of the earlier scandal.  But scandal did not leave Fallada alone.  He was twice convicted for embezzlement and recommitted to a psychiatric hospital in 1944 for threatening his ex-wife with a handgun.  While in hospital again, Fallada began work on a book about his own substance abuse, The Drinker, deliberately written unintelligibly, so that it could not be deciphered and published until after his death.

Alone in Berlin was also not published until after his death in 1947.  It was written in a manic 24-days while undergoing hospital treatment for substance abuse.  It is based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a middle-aged couple who left handwritten anti-Nazi letters in buildings throughout Berlin; they were arrested in 1942 and beheaded in 1943.  In the book’s afterword, you can see copies of some of their postcards and read police reports.

It is a cracking read, but it isn’t a modern thriller.  There are none of the devices we have come to expect: no hooks, no cliffhangers.  The writing, in translation, is written in the present tense.  It is fluid, straight-forward, and filled with details of life under the Nazis and the day-to-day rationales of people who did not see themselves as colluders or collaborators but who, by their actions and justifications, allowed the regime to flourish.  It is neither a tale of evil, nor the banality of evil; it is about getting through life a day at a time, in extraordinary times, which Fallada did.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, he chose not to leave, even though Putnam in London arranged for his emigration in 1938.  Fallada’s war-time history is as gray and conflicted as any of his characters.  He was neither a collaborator nor a resistance fighter.  He cooperated with the regime with some of his lighter works while challenging it in such pre-war books as Wolf Among Wolves.  His eldest son was a Hitler Youth, but Fallada also found ways to suport authors and publishers who were discriminated on political and racial grounds.

Primo Levi declared that Alone in Berlin was “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” I am not qualified to dispute this, but Fallada’s book is less a celebration of heroic resistance than an exploration of self-justification among ordinary Germans.  The campaign of resistance was unsuccessful, even futile.  Only those who found ways to collaborate with clean consciences, or to disappear, were successful.  Fallada’s strength is in articulating this ambiguity, in reminding us that war is never black and white.

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