Postwar Germany, Through an African Lens
Somewhere in Germany
By Stephanie Zweig, translated by Marlies Comjean
University of Wisconsin Press, 280 pages, $24.95.
Stephanie Zweig first introduced readers to the Redlich family in her autobiographical novel, “Nowhere in Africa.” Assimilated German Jews who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938, the family — Walter, Jettel and daughter Regina — spent the war years on a farm in Kenya. The book, which was made into an Oscar-winning film of the same name, chronicled the Redlichs’ dislocation, their sense of helplessness in the face of the unfolding European tragedy and, ultimately, their grudging affection for their African refuge.
In “Somewhere in Germany,” Zweig picks up where her previous novel left off. It is 1947; the war is over and the Redlichs, now with a second child in tow, arrive at still another startling destination. It’s not the wilds of Africa, but the rubble-strewn streets of Frankfurt, where Walter, who was a lawyer before the war began, has been made a judge. Despite protests from his wife, he feels that it his duty to return to and somehow help cure the country that stripped him of everything, including all but his most immediate family.
This is in many ways a remarkable book. For one, it offers an all-too-rare glimpse of Jewish life in Germany immediately after the war, a glimpse made all the more fascinating for being filtered through an African lens. It also shows what books published in Germany long could not: a postwar German public nursing its wounds. The Germans in Zweig’s account waste no time in developing alibis for themselves, but they are slower in shedding their anti-Jewish resentments.
Though available in English only now — in a fine translation by Marlies Comjean — the book was originally published in 1996, just after the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. It was a time of soul-searching in Germany. The novel appeared at the same time as the German translation of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (Knopf), a damning portrait of the role that “ordinary Germans” played in the Holocaust. Both books were best-sellers.
The Germany that welcomes the Redlichs at the book’s start is a bureaucratic nightmare. The hotel where they have reserved a room is under American occupation and turns out to be off limits to Germans, even to German Jewish refugees recently returned from Kenya. The family ultimately finds shelter in a Jewish nursing home, where everything from space to food is in short supply. They hear from the home’s residents about the recent horrors of places like Theresienstadt. To save electricity, the city is on double daylight-saving time. After some six months, the Redlichs are assigned to an apartment already occupied by an elderly Nazi couple. To make room, the couple is forced into the building attic.
Things ultimately begin to look up for the Redlichs. After a year and half, Walter leaves his judicial post and, together with a kindly partner, opens a law firm. With time, the family moves into a home of its own, a stately edifice once owned by Jews “that, in spite of bomb damage, still symbolized the bourgeois pride of a self-confident generation.”
If nothing else, “Somewhere in Germany” is about the resurgence of the German bourgeoisie and the postwar “economic miracle” that it helped spawn. It is a movement best exemplified by Redlich matriarch Jettel, who hires a maid even while the family is staying in cramped quarters at the nursing home. Jettel is a spender whose taste for travel, clothes and fine foods is easily rekindled — with sometimes absurd results. In one of the book’s more delightful passages, Jettel buys a hunk of scarce Roquefort in advance of a visit from her husband’s future law partner. When the time comes to serve it, the maid appears with a tiny saucer, carrying just a few crumbs of cheese. “I cut off all the mold, Mrs. Redlich,” she says sheepishly.
The spirit of dislocation that suffused Zweig’s first book is again in evidence here, albeit in altered form. Though the Redlichs have returned to Germany, it is not the Germany they once knew. Indeed, the region they hail from, Upper Silesia, is now considered not Germany but Poland, and the ethnic Germans who lived there have been expelled. Interestingly, it is these displaced non-Jews with whom Walter identifies most closely, an affinity that irks his wife. The synagogues burned there, too, she tells him tartly.
One might be tempted to describe “Somewhere in Germany” as Regina’s coming-of-age story, but the label does not quite fit. Though the novel begins with her at 14 and ends with her as a successful journalist in her mid-20s, she strangely undergoes little maturation. She starts out a precocious teen dutifully looking after her infant brother, and ends up a somewhat stunted adult, still very much under her father’s spell. Indeed, the two sexual adventures she describes — the first, with an old family friend; the second, with her boss — are, somewhat creepily, both with father figures.
In the end, the book fizzles out a bit. As the Redlichs grow more prosperous, they become what history kept them from being for almost two decades — ordinary. The novel ultimately becomes the story of their everyday hardships — marital squabbles, illness, death. Zweig is out of her depth as a chronicler of the quotidian, but her book will have lasting value as a window into the immediate postwar period.
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.