Hilmar & Odette:|
Two Stories from the Nazi Era
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|Dances of Death in the Cupboard
by Gerald Owen
In a family I know, a saying of Eric Koch's has become a proverb: "I'd rather read about it in the New York Times"-meaning, roughly: "I don't want to see or even hear about this-or-that unpleasant thing. Let me experience it indirectly." But here he has looked some horrors in the face, and ones that come close to home.
Koch was imported to Canada as an enemy alien, being a German Jew who had been interned in England. He was a CBC producer for a third of a century, and has written several books. It is typical of his engaging impudence that his novel The French Kiss contained a note saying that resemblances to living persons were not coincidental. That was in the days when McClelland & Stewart was daringly (or rashly) led by Jack McClelland. The book was about de Gaulle's visit to Canada in 1967, and there were characters who indeed were like René Lévesque and Daniel Johnson père. Now that they are dead and can be libelled with impunity, perhaps it should be re-issued. At the time, M&S had to withdraw the already printed book-paying the bills and forgoing the sales.
Some of the same mischief appears in Hilmar and Odette. At the beginning, Koch says that "there is something particularly delightful in uncovering skeletons in the family cupboard."
True enough, but it can be grim, too. One of the main characters becomes a living skeleton, surviving the death camps only to die of malnutrition after the war's end. This is a book that shows how the mishaps of domestic and sexual life-often the subject of comedy-get embroiled with great historic tragedies.
Maybe it would be truer to say that the delight in question is the finding of whole new cupboards, like a dream in which one's house turns out to have previously unknown rooms. Here, what adds dimensions to the writer's family is a pair of births out of wedlock, in 1911 and 1920, and the resulting lives that he learned about after 1988.
If it's a wise child that knows his (or her) own father, neither Hilmar and Odette was wise. But they had virtue and grace. The book moves back and forth between their two lives.
Odette was Koch's father's daughter; her mother was married off to a co-operative Swabian baron. She never knew she was half-Jewish. Koch met her in her old age, but did not quite venture to tell her she was his half-sister. She was a charming and admirable person, in effect the hostess of a literary salon, happily married to a shifty book publisher who made his way among the Nazi cultural bureaucrats like Hans Hinkel and Goebbels (keeping quiet his enthusiasm for Stefan Zweig, an Austrian Jewish writer whom the party held to be decadent). She had one son.
Hilmar was Koch's stepfather's nephew, conceived in a Swiss hotel, the father being unknown (perhaps even at the time). He and a comfortable sum of money were placed with a Lutheran pastor and his wife. Unluckily, his adoptive mother met him too late in his life, when he was already more than a year old, and she gave all her fondness to a ne'er-do-well younger brother, Horst, adopted at the age of two weeks.
At some point in boyhood or youth, he learned he was at least half-Jewish. His predicament was that he could not prove he was not a full Jew. So he could not join the army, and stuck out as a young male civilian during the war. Much worse, he could not marry his fully "Aryan" girlfriend, Brunhilde. This is a story of their mutual devotion, and of the tragicomic effects on him of the Nuremberg laws. It didn't help that his adoptive mother (who was sometimes manifestly crazy) tried to get him in trouble with the authorities. He did not cease to be a good and loving son to her.
But he was free until early 1944, when he was sent to a sort of suburb of Auschwitz, and then to Mauthausen. He died in July 1945. Brunhilde and their two children survived.
Eric Koch is a great raconteur. Hilmar and Odette travels by a winding route, and opens up vistas along a surprising number of by-ways that disclose those (and these) times.
In his conclusion, he asks what the book tells us. He puts forward three theories, and accepts none of them: "In short, I don't know what the book is about.. But I'm not sure I know what Hamlet is about either." This is characteristic pertness.
I have a fourth theory.
I know of no German Jewish émigré who takes a kinder view of Germany than Koch. He believes that what happened to the Jews there could equally have happened, say, in France. (I don't quite agree, but that is another story.) For all his years in Canada, he has written books in German that have been published in Germany.
My theory is that the book is about the deeply entangled place of German Jewry in Germany-possibly even a surviving, half-hidden place. The author's passion is heard in these words:
"Who, he must have asked himself, were the Jews? There was nobody Hilmar knew, I suppose, in the mid-thirties who could have informed him. Nobody could tell him why the Jews were being deprived of their rights. During the war he repeatedly asked Brunhilde to tell him something about them, about their `Sitten und Gebräuche'-their customs and usages-an expression used in textbooks about remote peoples. Nobody could tell him, when he was a teenager, that German Jews were essentially Germans and that Jews in Eastern Europe had originally come from Germany, spoke a language rooted in medieval Middle High German, and had for centuries exercised a pro-German influence, both politically and culturally, in a hostile Slavic world. In 1914, the Kaiser's army was welcomed as an army of liberation. Nobody could tell him that many intellectual Jews everywhere had a deep respect for the German language and culture, whatever their views on the attitudes of non-Jewish Germans to Jewish Germans. Neither could he learn whether non-Jewish Germans actually welcomed assimilated Jews into their society, or what the place of Jews was in the world generally."
Among the most moving passages are two near the beginning of the book, Koch's portraits of his two fathers: one by nature, whom he cannot remember, the other his stepfather. Otto Koch, Odette's and Eric's father, who came from a family of Frankfurt jewellers, was one of the best horsemen in Germany, and in the Great War an exemplary officer: someone suited to be a nobleman, not a merchant. Emil Netter, Hilmar's uncle and Eric's stepfather, was a hands-on partner in his family's iron-working business, yet also an intense intellectual of a very German kind, a man who seemed like a character out of Thomas Mann. To me the most striking detail about him is that he "had a collection of small mediaeval Todestänze, dances of death, in a glass cupboard in his library."
At one point, Koch remarks, "A special chapter in the history of German Jews could be devoted to our grandparents' worship of the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner."
Hilmar and Odette is another such chapter, a lament with a strangely light touch, about the pathos and the paradox of an ultra-German community that is gone.
But who knows? Perhaps the ebb and flow of the Ashkenazim across central and eastern Europe is continuing. The westward movement of Russian and Ukrainian Jews may mean the birth of a new German Jewry.