When Joanne Intrator’s father—echt Berliner and Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany — dies, his last words to her are enigmatic: “Are you tough enough yet? Do they know who you are?” Like so many North American Jews of the postwar generation, Intrator grew up in a household full of silence, of emotion thwarted and hidden. She becomes a psychiatrist out of her compassion for people like herself — people who’ve been traumatized by history and family secrets.
Mystified by her father’s final question, Intrator begins the age-old, heartbreaking process of going through his belongings. She finds a trove of family documents and letters, many dating from “the dawn of the end of time,” the year the Nazis came to power (it is phrases like this that make this book so compulsively readable). She learns of his law career, cut short by the Nuremberg Laws, as well as his escape to America and his own parents, whose tragic trust in the fundamental decency of the German people leads them to put off their own flight until it is almost too late. A broken man, Intrator’s grandfather dies within hours of setting foot on American soil.
She also learns of a building — 16 Wallstrasse, a factory and office complex in Central Berlin — that belonged to her family until it was “Aryanized” in 1938. Intrator decides that she will demand the justice that her family was denied and seek restitution for the loss of 16 Wallstrasse. It is through this perverse, looking-glass world of Holocaust restitution-and-compensation bureaucracy that she finds the answers to her father’s ultimate question.
It would be misguided to suggest that Germany — a country that has gone to extraordinary lengths to come to terms with its past — is still haunted by actual Nazis. That said, unrepentant and influential Nazis were present in West German government and industry well into the 1970s, fueling the rage of terrorist groups like the Red Army Fraktion. But LAROV (the German acronym for “The State Office for the Settlement of Unresolved Property Issues”) seems disinterested, even obstructionist, when it comes to Intrator’s claim. “In 1933, your grandfather took out a second mortgage on 16 Wallstrasse,” one official tells her. Another chimes in, “He must have exploited the mortgage to drain the building dry … leading to the forced auction.”. The implication is clear: No Nazi stole 16 Wallstrasse. The building was lost in a fraud scheme gone wrong.
It gets worse. Officials, even Intrator’s own German lawyers, skate delicately around the problem of language: Nazis are never Nazis, but merely the far less provocative-sounding Ariseurs, or Aryanizers. And when the descendants of the Ariseurs make a claim of their own (after the war, 16 Wallstrasse was seized by the Communist government of East Germany), Intrator is advised to split the proceeds with them to avoid litigation. Even the revelation that 16 Wallstrasse was used for the manufacture of Judensterne—the Yellow Star — is, to the intransigent German bureaucrats, “ … merely of historical interest.”
Eventually, Intrator prevails. The “they” her father has asked her about know who she is. She photographs a stunned LAROV official, warning her, “I am going to show my family what you look like!” Yet the first part of her grandfather’s question remains: Is she tough enough? She is. Thanks to her efforts, a brass Stolperstein—a memorial “Stumbling Stone” — is positioned in front of her grandparents’ Berlin apartment; and another plaque, this one at 16 Wallstrasse, details the building’s sordid wartime history. But it has all come at a terrible cost for herself. The victim has been revictimized, over and over again. Intrator calls it “soul murder.”
As a physician, Intrator is a pioneer in the study of the psychopathic mind. In her struggles with the German state, she avoids stereotypes and obvious explanations — but she is clear about what W. H. Auden called the “psychopathic God.” “The propaganda and lies perpetrated on the German do not just dissolve in thin air,” she says. “ … we underestimate the power of tyrannical psychopaths.” Wisdom, indeed, for our own time.
Angus Smith is a retired Canadian intelligence official, writer and Jewish educator who lives in rural Nova Scotia.