By Eugene Drucker
Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $23.
To write a novel about the Holocaust is to enter, willingly, into precarious territory. What at first seems like a rich mine for inspiration is a subject seemingly ever present in contemporary literature of a certain sort, yet ever impossible to label cliché. Authentic tales of the concentration camps — the memoirs of survivors like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi — have become such literary standards that fictional accounts seem almost superfluous. So how, then, to tell a hypothetical Holocaust story?
In his first novel, “The Savior,” Eugene Drucker makes a brave go of it. Instead of telling a Jewish inmate or survivor’s harrowing tale, he chooses an outsider, gentile violinist Gottfried Keller, as his protagonist. Drucker is sticking to what he knows; he’s not only a violinist in the renowned Emerson String Quartet but also the son of a German violinist, who, like Keller, graduated from the esteemed Hochschule conservatory in Cologne.
Because of “a weak heart,” Keller can’t serve in the German army, and so instead he plays underappreciated concerts for hospitalized soldiers (or, as he calls them, “idiots”). Keller is dissatisfied, frightened and utterly obedient, which makes his sudden pickup one morning in a black Nazi car particularly ominous. As he learns, the Kommandant of the concentration camp down the road would like him to play for a select group of inmates as part of a four-day-long “experiment,” the purpose of which involves some murky ideas about reminding prisoners of the beauty of life in the face of death. We, of course,
know that his motives can’t be so pure, but the Kommandant has Goethe on his bookshelves and recognizes Bach partitas and sonatas, so Keller steps in willingly for his first audience — albeit one that’s afraid to clap when he’s through.
Drucker’s story becomes somewhat less plausible from then on. In a mere four days, Keller transforms his audience from “automatons” to a weeping, shuddering mass of emotion, and he himself changes from a ball of nerves eking out notes to a virtuoso giving the performance of a lifetime with Bach’s Chaconne. He also befriends the one Gestapo officer who happens to know Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” inside and out, and decides that a single-handed attempt to rescue the prisoners might be a good idea.
Keller’s abrupt transformation might be an endearing one: the blank-slate German who descended into the inferno, saw the truth and emerged with the capacity to act back in the real world. Unfortunately, the development of Keller’s character as a largely unsympathetic figure throughout the story makes such optimism nearly impossible.
In flashbacks, Keller remembers his only two Jewish friends: Ernst, a fellow Hochschule student, more talented and far more outspoken than he, and Marietta, his ex-fiancee. Keller ultimately failed both of them, thanks to an irksome combination of naiveté and cowardice in the face of the impending Nazi horrors. He won’t ever admit it, but Keller thinks himself above Ernst’s hot-bloodedness and above the pride of Marietta’s father, and, as the Kommandant smugly notes, above the Jews and their filthy camp existence, too. In a disturbing scene — all the more disturbing for his previously established reputation as a ladies’ man — Keller catches himself thinking of an inmate sexually, and then subsequently decides to attempt to free her instead of confronting his lecherous feelings. Keller fancies himself a savior of many kinds. The tragedy of Drucker’s story is that, with all his opportunity to save, the only survivor (of sorts) at the story’s end is Keller himself.
Actually, make that two survivors: Keller’s violin remains in one piece, and thankfully so. The waltzes and tangos blasted over the camp’s intercoms are a testament to how music, too, became a kind of casualty of the Nazi regime, a source of national pride bent and twisted to a more sinister purpose. Drucker’s own musicianship helps this tragedy to speak through, such that, despite Keller’s many faults, we understand how a conservatory-trained musician must nearly re-teach himself to make the most basic pieces speak in a strange new Germany. Keller’s obsessive mental dissections of each piece he’s played demonstrate that for him, escape wasn’t through a visa to England, and he had strongly convinced himself of so much. One of the final images Drucker leaves us with — the violin’s fiery red varnish against the white snow — seems desolate, but might be the most hopeful moment in the story. Survivors’ stories already exist, for sure, but so do Beethoven symphonies and Bach sonatas, which, thanks to Drucker’s respectable first effort, we might hear a bit differently.
Rebecca Milzoff is a reporter at New York magazine, where she covers classical music and dance.