The Ger­man House

Annette Hess, Eliz­a­beth Lauf­fer (trans.)

  • Review
By – April 6, 2020

While the set­ting of this nov­el is an actu­al tri­al of Nazi offi­cers that took place in Frank­furt, Ger­many in 1963, the mul­ti-lay­ered plot is a total work of fic­tion. The tri­al was one of a series of tri­als known as the Auschwitz-Prozess, that ran from Decem­ber 1963 to August 1965, charg­ing twen­ty-two defen­dants for their roles in the Auschwitz-Birke­nau death and con­cen­tra­tion camp com­plex. The read­er must be remind­ed that the tes­ti­monies of wit­ness­es, respons­es of the defen­dants, and behav­ior of the pros­e­cu­tors are all prod­ucts of the author’s imag­i­na­tion. Eva Bruhns, the pro­tag­o­nist of the nov­el, recruit­ed when the offi­cial Pol­ish trans­la­tor was not able to secure a visa, is chal­lenged by rev­e­la­tions that ulti­mate­ly incrim­i­nate her family.

Annette Hess, a well-known screen­writer for Ger­man tele­vi­sion, cre­ates a cast of char­ac­ters reflect­ing the vari­ety of reac­tions of the pop­u­lace to the tri­als. As Eva becomes increas­ing­ly con­sumed by the tri­al and is assailed by vague mem­o­ries con­nect­ed to her family’s role in World War II, she encoun­ters obliv­i­ous­ness, non-inter­est, bore­dom, resent­ment, sus­pi­cion and denial on the part of friends and fam­i­ly. Less than twen­ty years after the end of the war, these reac­tions reflect the over­all post-war sen­ti­ment of That was then, let’s move on.’

The most nuanced depic­tion is that of Eva’s father and moth­er, pro­pri­etors of The Ger­man House, a small restau­rant serv­ing basic Ger­man fare of stews, goulash and the like. Her father, Lud­wig, and his wife, Edith, are sim­ple, good-heart­ed peo­ple who, like many apo­lit­i­cal and une­d­u­cat­ed Ger­mans, were caught up in the war before they under­stood — if they ever did — what was happening.

Eva, in her role as trans­la­tor, accom­pa­nies the pros­e­cu­tors to Auschwitz, where her vague mem­o­ries become clear. Many of the mys­ter­ies of behav­ior that have bewil­dered her are unrav­eled, and rap­proche­ment with her fam­i­ly and with Jür­gen, her suit­or, becomes possible.

The nar­ra­tive is ham­pered by the author’s obvi­ous inten­tion to con­ceal the iden­ti­ties of liv­ing per­sons by cit­ing a pros­e­cu­tor as the blond man” or a defen­dant as the Beast.” Implied also, is that the fic­ti­tious char­ac­ters who do have names have flaws that, in some aspects, can be relat­ed to the events of the war.

While the plot is in need of edit­ing and the trans­la­tion often seems stilt­ed, The Ger­man House should be read as yet anoth­er con­tri­bu­tion to Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture that attempts, if not entire­ly suc­ceeds, to com­pre­hend obscene human behavior.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions