A new novel opens the records of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials – The Economist

Posted By on January 14, 2020

The protagonist of The German House is a court interpreter

The German House. By Annette Hess. Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer. HarperVia; 336 pages; $26.99

JUST BEFORE Christmas in 1963, the trials began in Frankfurt of 22 middle-ranking and junior personnel from the Auschwitz extermination camp. The hearings, which ended in August 1965 with six life sentences and other terms of between three and 14 years, marked the start of West Germanys agonising years of Vergangenheitsbewltigung: the public struggle to acknowledge and overcome the nations Nazi past. In Krakow in 1947 41 senior Auschwitz staffamong them commandant Rudolf Hsswere tried for crimes against humanity under international law; 22 were executed. Frankfurt was a domestic affair, conducted strictly according to German lawssome inherited from Hitlers Reich itself.

The trials, with their hundreds of witnesses and meticulous sheafs of evidence prepared by the heroic Hesse state prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, helped break the postwar silence of the economic miracle era and plant the bitter truths of Nazi genocide at the heart of European culture. Peter Weisss controversial documentary play, The Investigation, opened just weeks after the sessions ended. Yet, half a century later, the resurgence of Holocaust denial, doubt and simple ignorance mean that the Frankfurt files must remain open. Annette Hess, a German screenwriter, seeks to halt this new tide of forgetfulness with an unpretentious but effective novel. It traces the impact of the Frankfurt revelations on ordinary locals: a family in the now-booming city who run a cosy restaurant defiantlyand symbolicallycalled The German House.

Ms Hesss questing heroine is Eva Bruhns, a translator and the daughter of Ludwig and Edith, the houses hosts. Eva speaks fluent Polishthe reasons why become the novels big reveal. She signs up to work as a court interpreter. This entirely unimportant young lady alone with her questions serves as a German postwar Everywoman. Statement by statement, horror by horror, the carapace of excuses and evasions falls away from her bustling, newly affluent world. The mild-mannered defendants, considered harmless family men and good, hardworking citizens by the press, slowly see their vile crimes come to light.

Evas wealthy fianc, Jrgen, thinks that wartime atrocities need no memorials, since people already carry them around within themselves. Taxed with her complicity in evil, Edithlike much of her generationmaintains that were no heroes, but we never hurt anyone. In contrast, David Miller, a Canadian Jewish lawyer and a child refugee from Germany, swoops on the guilty like an avenging angel, though wracked with his own traumas.

Ms Hesss plot-twists and coincidences can test the readers credulity; her screenplay background shows not only in some soap-operatic elements but also in a slick command of courtroom-drama ploys. The German House belongs with popular calls to remembrance, such as Bernhard Schlinks The Reader, rather than in the upper ranks of post-Holocaust fiction. Still, when Eva, the embodiment of everyone who lives on the right side of the fence, begins to grasp the pain of others, her awakening is moving. And, in a new age of willed oblivion and lies, her story still matters.

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A new novel opens the records of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials - The Economist

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