It is 1963, and in Frankfurt twenty-four-year-old Eva Bruhn is living at home with her parents, her elder sister Annegret, a paediatric nurse and her much younger brother, Stefan. Home is an apartment above The German House, a restaurant owned and run by her parents. Eva has few memories of WWII and her home city, which was left so badly bomb-damaged at the end of the war, is now prospering. Her dreams are focused on wishing for the day when her rich boyfriend, Jürgen Schoormann, will ask her father’s permission to propose to her, thus enabling her to move away from her family to start married life.
When the story opens she’s working as a Polish language translator for an agency, dealing mainly with contracts and business disputes. However, her rather mundane life, along with all her plans, are turned upside down when Canadian investigator, David Miller, approaches her to temporarily stand in as a translator in a war crimes trial. However, the first time she attempts to translate what a witness is saying she struggles to find the right words to describe what she is hearing and makes a number of mistakes which change the essential meaning of what he has said, so David has serious doubts about her competence and is reluctant to employ her again. However, as there is no alternative interpreter available, he reluctantly does so, but she is told that she must quickly learn the appropriate vocabulary. When she hears that this will include learning “every conceivable word for how to kill a person”, she gets her first chilling insight into the nature of the testaments she will hear during the trial. Neither her parents nor Jürgen want her to accept the position but, once she has realised the importance of what must be brought to light, she refuses to let them persuade her to turn the job down. She soon realises that everything she hears will challenge all her previously held beliefs and will change her life completely.
At the first Frankfurt Auschwitz trial, which began in December 1963, twenty-two defendants were charged, under German law, for crimes committed when they were SS officers at the camp. It is against this background that the story is set, following the naïve Eva as she gradually comes to learn of the almost incomprehensible magnitude of the horrors which were perpetrated in that camp. As she translates the testimonies of the succession of witnesses, her passion for seeing justice done and her desire to see the guilty be held to account for the crimes they committed increases. As a result, she struggles to understand her parents’ lack of interest in the trial, and their reluctance to talk about what they did during the war. Their determined avoidance makes her increasingly wonder just what it is they are hiding.
Eva also discovers, through the reactions of neighbours and some aspects of the media coverage, that her parents aren’t the only ones who think that there is nothing to be gained from the trial. There is a commonly held belief that whatever might have happened in the past, it should now be left there, that nothing could be gained from raking up old – and possibly false – memories. Her own conscious memories of her very young childhood are vague but, as the trial progresses, disturbing, dreamlike memories become ever-more vivid and she wonders what they signify. Memory, and the reliability, or otherwise, of an individual’s memory is a recurring theme throughout the book and I found this one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the story, especially as this is something with which we are all familiar, in the reporting of historic sex-abuse trials.
I loved the character of Eva and felt moved by her transition from being a rather naïve young woman, with limited aspirations, to being someone who was prepared to confront the past, and to stand up for what she believed in. Although she was portrayed as being prepared to act against the wishes of her family, and her boyfriend, at a time when such independence of thinking and behaviour was not the norm, there was never a moment when I found it difficult to believe in the credibility of her characterisation.
As well as Eva, I thought that each of the other characters was convincingly portrayed, with not one of them feeling superfluous to the developing story. Instead, the author’s depictions of their individual struggles to come to terms with past experiences, with current relationships and with everyday concerns, added layers of depth and enabled an exploration of a whole range of different attitudes and expectations. It’s difficult to go into any detail about what all these other characters bring to the story without spoiling the carefully controlled development of the various sub-plots, so I urge you to read this remarkable story in order to discover for yourself!
Questions about how much “ordinary” people knew about what was going on at Auschwitz, and about all the other atrocities being carried out during the Nazi regime, threaded their way through the story, challenging any claims to innocence through ignorance because it’s inconceivable that, given the scale of the imprisonment and slaughter, this could have occurred in a vacuum. The story also explored how those who were children during the war coped when they came to understand what had taken place, when they perhaps discovered that their own relatives had played a part, either by participating in the atrocities or by “turning a blind eye” to what was going on. It’s impossible to read a story like this without asking “what would I have done if I had known, or suspected what was happening, would I have been courageous enough to put myself, and my family, in danger by taking action to challenge the authorities?” However, it’s complacent to think that this questioning belongs in the past, that nothing so appalling could possibly happen today. It’s all too easy to think of any number of modern-day examples of the world still being prepared to look away, even when confronted with evidence of persecution and torture, and of minority communities being displaced. As the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke observed … “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.
This is one of the most profoundly moving stories I’ve ever read and is one which I know will remain vivid in my memory for a long time to come. Even though I learnt nothing new about what happened in Auschwitz, that in no way diminished the horror of both the nature and the scale of the atrocities which were perpetrated, and of such overwhelming evidence of “man’s inhumanity to man”. I frequently found myself in tears as I read the harrowing accounts of what the survivors and their relatives had endured, the doubts which were so frequently expressed about the veracity their memories, and therefore the veracity of their testaments. Equally moving was following Eva’s distress as she realised what had happened in her country, her own family’s part in this, and then her passionate determination that the guilty should be brought to justice and that the world should listen, believe and atone.
This is an assured, beautifully written debut novel and I’m left feeling in awe of the author’s ability to combine her meticulous research into her story-telling and her cast of, mostly fictional, characters. (In her author’s note she explains how she approached this balancing act.) I think the fact that she is, amongst other things, an award-winning screenwriter, contributes to the story being such a powerfully visual one. Whether she was describing the courtroom scenes, everyday activities in the Bruhn household, Stefan playing with his toys or his little dog, service in the restaurant, or the countryside, I felt totally immersed in each scene, able to hear, see, smell and feel everything that the characters were experiencing. But, powerfully evocative as I found so much of the story, the final paragraph of Part 3 had the effect of “stopping me in my tracks”. This marked the end of a visit the members of the trial team had made to Auschwitz. During their time there they had seen for themselves the conditions the victims had had to endure, had stood in the same places the victims had stood, followed the same path through the woods to the gas chamber where the victims had experienced their last moments on earth and, as they sat in the open air, reflecting on all this, they were speechless, reduced to tears. When Eva, who had been going to record the events of the day in her diary, later that night, reflected “that there were no words for this”, I was not only in floods of tears, but I also empathised completely with what she meant. And yet, words do have to be found because the world must never be allowed to forget what happens when evil is enabled to thrive.
Although there are many ways in which this is an extremely sad and disturbing story to read, I feel it’s important to say that it is not without some delightful moments of lightness and humour, many of which are provided by the mischievous young Stefan and Purzel, his pet dachshund!
A final reflection: although I did wonder, when I first started reading, how I would feel about the lack of conventional chapters (the book is divided into four parts … and in Part 1 the first natural break doesn’t come until page 49!) it wasn’t long before I hardly noticed the format because, feeling so engaged with the story, I felt no desire whatever for any interruption to the narrative!
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The German House by Annette Hess
HarperVia 9780008359867 hbk Dec 2019