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After publicly supporting Hitler and making close connections with high-ranking Nazis whose gambling habits he bankrolled, Hanussen was found dead in the spring of 1933, with a pile of Nazi IOUs. While Magida also attempts to implicate Hanussen with foreknowledge of the Reichstag fire, the reasons for his murder still remain a mystery.
The saga of Hanussen is a riveting one that Magida tells ably. But while Magida engages in a fair number of intellectual meanderings regarding the verisimilitude of Hanussen’s own stories, as well as stories told about him, “The Nazi Séance” doesn’t quite manage to measure up to another book that tells virtually the same story: Mel Gordon’s “Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant,” which appeared 10 years ago from the independent publisher Feral House.
In fact, with Gordon’s book on the shelves, it is not entirely clear why Magida made the attempt. Though his rendering is unquestionably solid, Gordon — a Weimar culture expert who teaches theater at University of California, Berkeley — produced a book that is far richer and far more engaging. Going the extra mile, Gordon translated many of Hanussen’s psychic teachings and typeset them exactly as they appeared in the original, in order to give readers a sense of what Hanussen fans would have read when he was alive. Whereas Magida simply tells you about the world of Erik Jan Hanussen, Gordon brings you into it.
Moreover, Gordon provides dozens of intriguing reproductions of Hanussen-related documents and photographs. Magida gives us a measly 10-page insert of photographs, half of which are not particularly compelling. With a plethora of fascinating visual material at hand, it is a mystery that Magida, who was fascinated by the undeniably lurid sensationalism of Hanussen’s story, chose not to include it.
Whatever the relative merits of the versions of its retelling, it’s still a story worth reading. Moreover, it’s a part of Jewish history that, for some inexplicable reason, had to wait until the 21st century before it appeared on bookshelves. With the historical obsession on all things Hitler, who could have predicted that?
Eddy Portnoy is a contributing editor to the Forward and teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University.