Revenge against the Nazis — the ultimate battle between good and evil. Could it be more clear-cut? Maybe, maybe not.
This theme is visited in two new works of fiction that have the Holocaust at their center. The first is an interesting murder mystery by contemporary, non-Jewish German historian Christian von Ditfurth. A Paragon Of Virtue (Toby, cloth, $25) is set in modern-day Hamburg and translated for British audiences by Helen Atkins.
Ditfurth’s protagonist, Prof. Stachelmann, is also an historian, specializing in World War II Germany. While struggling to complete his long-delayed thesis, the very shy Stachelmann is persuaded by an old school acquaintance, now a police detective, to help solve a series of puzzling murders. It’s his historian’s thoroughness that leads him to clues before almost becoming a victim himself. These crimes go to the heart of his expertise; all concern the appropriation of Jewish property by local police at the time.
The case also forces him to look at, and finally confront, what his father did during the War. The author is only about 50, but he has clearly struggled, as many Germans have, with the moral and ethical questions that arise over actions of “ordinary German citizens at the time.” Readers of both mysteries and of Holocaust literature will be interested in seeing how Ditfurth has handled the subject in this format.
Vengeance lives in the heart of novelist Norman Lebrecht’s new work The Game of Opposites (Pantheon, cloth, $24.95), which also deals with questions of good or evil and what ordinary citizens did during the War.
His protagonist, Paul, escapes a brutal work camp a few days before the end of the War. Almost dead from starvation, he collapses while scavenging for garbage and is found, taken in and hidden by the 19-year-old daughter of a local innkeeper.
During the time she harbors and nurses him, they fall in love, marry and have a child while Paul becomes an established part of the town. They never speak of his past, but as he becomes a village leader he continues to hate his neighbors for ignoring the plight of the men who were worked to death outside the town. He also lives with his obsession of revenge against the commandant of the camp. As he becomes friend and family to a few, good and evil become less black and white.
Lebrecht tries to make this a story without a place. The camp, the village, the country, the war — all remain unnamed. It’s an interesting idea, assuming Lebrecht wants to free the reader from preconceived notions, but it proves too challenging to sustain through to the end. It also removes the reader emotionally from the characters, but remains an interesting idea in an interesting book.
More common Holocaust literature is the memoir and as Holocaust survivors reach the ends of their lives, we see more books written by their children.
One new offering is Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village (Nebraska, paper, $16.95) by Mimi Schwartz.
Schwartz had an all-American childhood and didn’t pay much attention to her father’s stories about the Holocaust or growing up in a German village that was half Jewish. But years later, she hears that her father’s Christian neighbors saved the synagogue’s Torah on Kristallnacht, and she is consumed with curiosity about her dad, his home and surviving villagers, Jewish and gentile. Traveling to Germany and Israel to hear first-person accounts she finds that judgment, which seemed so easy before, is a little muddier.
Readers of the New York Times may already be familiar with the work of Sandra Hurtes, whose personal essays are collected in a short book, On My Way to Someplace Else (Poetica, paper, $15).
Hurtes’s parents were both survivors of Auschwitz. Survivors seem to fall into two groups: The tell-all and the tell-little, with Hurtes’ mom of the tell-all persuasion. Hurtes writes movingly about the influence of these stories on her life and how they made her the person she is today, even creating her career. Even when not writing directly about the Holocaust or her parents, they still shadow almost everything she does.
A more typical Holocaust biography is The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope, and Survival in Theresienstadt (Schocken, cloth, $26). A decade ago, Swiss journalist Hannalore Brenner met 10 of these surviving, now-elderly women at their annual reunion in Europe and decided to bring their stories to us.
In Holocaust history, Ronald Florence tells the story of Joel Brand and the Jewish Rescue Committee of Hungary in Emissary of the Doomed (Viking, cloth, $27.95). The committee, which had successfully brought individual Polish and Slovakian Jews to the relative safety of Hungary, then turned their efforts to saving Hungarian Jews, including secret negotiations with Adolf Eichmann. Without the aid of the Allies, they lost their race against time.
Other new Holocaust non-fiction includes Who Will Write Our History: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel D. Kassow (Vintage, paper, $16.95) and Rediscovering Traces of Memory: The Jewish Heritage of Polish Galicia, by Jonathan Webber, photographs by Chris Schwarz (Indiana U, paper, $27.95) from the Littman Library.