THE PAINTING ‘Kristallnacht,’ painted by German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in the early 1940s, before she was deported and murdered in Auschwitz..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I found Wunderland extremely difficult to read. It’s not because it is poorly written; Jennifer Cody Epstein is an accomplished writer.
My problem stems from my wholehearted identification with the protagonists of this novel, the Bauer family – Jews living out the nightmare of Nazi rule in Germany in the 1930s.
My psychological bond with the Bauers caused me great anguish. Compounding my problem, the narrative began in the early 1930s, at the start of Nazi rule. Things were about to get much worse for German Jewry, and I knew what was coming. My identification was so complete, it’s almost as if I were reading about my own relatives. Efforts to remind myself that the book is fiction did not help matters.
When the father says the Nazis will be gone quickly, I almost yelled at the pages. When the mother explains that she and her husband were not trying to leave – they’re both academics – because her husband cannot work in another language, I was shouting in my heart. And when I learned that the family’s two children – Renate and Franz – were slated to depart for America on November 25, 1939, I worried, because very few Jews were able to leave Germany after the war began in September of that year.
By 1937, all the Jewish children had been expelled from Renate’s class. Now, all the vile antisemitism was directed toward her, a Mischlinge – a person with both German and Jewish blood. “Notes that read Dirty Jewess and Half-blood Abomination have been slipped into her bookbag and coat pocket,” the author writes. “The Racial Hygiene instructor makes her and the other Mischlinge wipe down their seats after his class ‘to minimize the reach of Jewish contagion.’”
One day, Renate came home from school early and heard a strange man’s voice coming from her parents’ bedroom. It was a Gestapo agent who was blackmailing her mother into giving him money, jewelry and sex. His leverage was his claim that the Aryan-bona fides of her grandparents were suspect. If her grandparents were Jewish, then her children would be Jews, not Mischlinge, and their condition would significantly worsen.
Renate also saw her friends turn their backs on her. Ilse was Renate’s best friend until the Nazis came to power. Then, she broke off their friendship, telling Renate that she “is not part of the new Germany.”
“‘You can’t be,’ Ilse continues. ‘I know that it’s not your fault, but it’s the truth.’ Renate stared at her, stunned. Not part of the new Germany? She knew other people believed this. But she never expected to hear it from Ilse.”
Despite her predilection for Nazi ideology, Ilse missed her friend and began writing her unsent letters, a major vehicle for the book’s narrative.
In one of those letters, Ilse revealed that while she was working on a farm close to the Polish border – she had been sent there as part of a contingent of Arbeitsmaiden (Labor Maidens), in part “to impart German cleanliness and order” – a few boys of Polish descent had mocked the “Sieg Heil” greeting. She had intimidated nearby merchants into giving her the boys’ names. She then took the names to the Nazi leader in the town. He raped her.
Sure, she wrote in one of unsent letters to Renate, it was not what she had envisioned her first sexual encounter to be. But the Nazi official “agreed to help me ensure the security of myself and my fellow Arbeitsmaiden in town. And he told me that he saw potential in me, and that he was going to help me realize it. Surely these two outcomes alone were worth the pain [and] initial discomfort [that word has a line through it] surprise of [his]... romantic attentions. Sacrifices have to be made to secure the future of our nation.”
THE BEST – or worst – parts of Wunderland concern Kristallnacht. The fictionalized events surrounding this pogrom are more powerful than historical accounts, but are still in sync with what happened during that nightmarish day. The narrative follows a terrified Renate, released early from the Jewish school she attended, fearful of what the mobs could do to the gathered students. On her journey home, she witnessed Jewish shop owners beaten up and their stores destroyed. The synagogue, not far from her home, was desecrated and burned.
When she finally arrived at her apartment building, she saw a group of thugs beating a man in the street. It was her father, whose life was unexpectedly saved by Ilse, who happened to be passing by during the assault. She assured the drunken brutes that the man they were beating was not Jewish and threatened to report them to the Gestapo. Her brazen lies worked.
All the loose ends planted by the author come together in the book’s final chapters. The ending is bittersweet, but with more honey than lemon and a hopeful look to the future.
This is an engrossing book with true-to-life characters. It’s worthwhile reading, but beware of the pain of over-identification.
The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel – Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family – which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.
THE PAINTING ‘Kristallnacht,’ painted by German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in the early 1940s, before she was deported and murdered in Auschwitz. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Jennifer Cody Epstein
365 pages; $27
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