Litany of horrors

Rachel Seiffert’s latest novel explores suffering under the Nazis, but sometimes leaves Jews as an afterthought.

Ukrinian forces welcome Nazi officers 1941 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ukrinian forces welcome Nazi officers 1941
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Who is entitled to write about the Holocaust? Should anyone be allowed? Is a German writer on her own quest to rid herself of the shame she carries from her own family’s horrific legacy the best candidate? Rachel Seiffert’s grandfather was in the Brownshirts and then served as a doctor for the Waffen SS. Her grandmother was an enthusiastic and active Nazi Party member. Seiffert, now middle-aged, grew up in Britain, where she remembers being bullied for being German: something she understood as being flawed and defective.
Her own mother remembers looking out the window as a small child and seeing people being rounded up and being scolded by her grandmother. Yet Seiffert remained close to her grandmother throughout her childhood, often returning to Hamburg to spend lengthy vacations with her. She would marvel at the watercolors on the walls of her grandmother’s home that were painted by her grandfather and listen to her grandmother talk about him with affection about his love of the German fatherland.
Seiffert’s first book in 2001, The Dark Room, received extraordinary acclaim. It contained three stories: the first about a young German man rejected by the military, who spends the war taking photographs that reveal the Nazis’ heinous crimes; the second story is about a young girl whose Nazi parents have been taken to prison camps; and the third story involves a schoolteacher in 1997 who finds out that his grandfather was part of the Waffen SS.
Seiffert has claimed in interviews that she is not trying to resurrect the image of the good and righteous German in her stories, but we do detect a strange combination of chutzpah and shame in some of her German characters. They are often presented sympathetically and depicted as being pulled into monstrous acts by the pressures bearing down upon them.
She never seems to confront the persistent evil of antisemitism head-on; presenting it as a given of sorts that defies explanation. She describes Germans committing horrible acts of cruelty with a certain denseness that seems to leave essential things out.
It feels as if she thinks describing horror holds the same weight as trying to comprehend or mourn it – or genuinely confronting it. Yet some of her characterizations are startlingly good, and her storytelling can be compelling.
In her new book, A Boy in Winter, Seiffert writes with the same pared-down prose she used in The Dark Room. The story begins in 1941, weeks after the Germans have invaded a small Ukrainian town overrun by the SS. We meet Yasia, a Ukrainian peasant girl and her lover, Mykola, who has deserted the Red Army and joined the Germans as the Soviets retreated.
Mykola is already scarred by the ravages of war and tells Yasia that things will soon get worse. He whispers in her ear, “We had the Soviets, remember? Well, now we have new masters. And your father, he might think well of them. But it will be just the same; just the same under this new lot. I am telling you... No one takes a land out of kindness. Just to take what they can, see?” But even Mykola does not realize what he will soon be forced to do. He will be recruited to round up the Jews and participate in mass shootings that leave him falling to the ground in despair.
We soon meet Otto Pohl, a German engineer, who believes he can outsmart the Nazis by coming to the Ukraine to build a bridge so he can avoid fighting. But when he is taken to a brick factory to choose Jewish workers to help build his bridge, he refuses all of them; unaware he is sentencing them to certain death.
Later on, when he understands what he has done, he thinks that “He could have taken 20, 30, 40. He could have selected so many, men and women both: they wanted to be chosen. But he refused them. He did nothing.”
At night, he wonders how he will ever explain this to his beloved wife. He practices how he might begin: “Our soldiers came for the Jews in the early hours…” Seiffert writes with great tenderness about Ephraim and Miryam, who have been rounded up at daybreak and held in a small space with other terrified Jews.
Their two sons have not yet arrived and Ephraim is worried. Miryam knows they are trying to escape, but she has not told her husband. Her boy Yankel, 13, had always seemed extraordinary to her, and her younger son, Momik, always clung to Yankel always as if he were an actual appendage.
Yankel and his little brother run into Yasia, who shelters them, unaware at first that they are Jews. She is moved by the older boy’s tenderness toward his brother, noticing how he “lays his brother down, keeping his back to Yasia, as though still defying her to put them out of here.”
It finally dawns on her that they are Jews on the run and that their mother and father must already be dead. She knows she must get rid of them; they pose a threat to her she can’t risk – but something stops her.
It is Yankel who stole my heart and provided the tiniest slivers of hope for a Jewish future where Jews would no longer be forced to comply with the orders of those who wish to destroy them. Yankel has a wonderful stubbornness and determination; a refusal to die and a loyalty to his little brother’s survival that overwhelms you.
We picture him as the new kind of Jew the world does not yet know, but will soon emerge. Yankel is constantly thinking and maneuvering toward an elusive safe haven that doesn’t yet exist; but he is comforted by remembering his mother’s words that it must exist somewhere. He clings to memories of stories she has told him of her own brother who fled the country years ago for a faraway place called Palestine. The story had always fascinated him.
Seiffert’s stories hold your attention with their ongoing sense of urgency, but she never reaches higher. Jews are characterized with empathy, but often as an afterthought; a people not worthy of too much consideration.
There are often interruptions in the lives of the other characters who hold star billing. These Germans or Ukrainians are presented with too much sympathy and are often shown as being caught up in forces beyond their control.
Seiffert seems to suggest that the horrific acts they committed were simply a response to the complexities of evil mingling with the fog of war. But we all know the reality of the Nazi regime and the willingness of the masses to comply with its plans. Seiffert seems to have trouble confronting this reality. Perhaps it hits to close to home.
I finished Seiffert’s book troubled by something I couldn’t at first identify about the starkness of her prose. In the pages of narrative that chronicled a litany of horrors perpetrated upon the Jews there was something essential missing, but I wasn’t sure what it was. There was something rippling through her narrative that seemed tinged with resentment and bitterness, but it was hidden beneath the text. That’s when I remembered W.G. Sebald.
Sebald, like Seiffert, was born after the war and also fled to England after discovering the horrors committed by his parents, who were enthusiastic Nazis. His father returned after the war and never spoke of it. Later in life, he began writing about the Holocaust, but unlike Seiffert he never addressed it head-on, feeling it would be obscene to do so. His books are a sophisticated blend of memoir, travelogue and history scattered with black and white photographs that offer us his meditations on loss and grief and the tragic terrors of the Second World War.
He never forgave his parents or Germany for their abominable silence after the war and the superficiality of their culture of mourning, which he feels was artificial and not heartfelt.
His books had a magical quality about them; his prose was calm but packed with an emotional wallop. He claims he felt responsible for the crimes committed by the Nazis, because his parents were Nazis.
He often wonders whether he was offending anyone with his books, asking in interviews “Do I, who carry a German passport and have two German parents, have the right? I try to do as well as I can. If the reactions were different, I would stop – you do take notice.”
In many of his most famous works, which have spellbound readers around the world, he writes about the lives of some who survived but withered with time, as friends watched them silently suffer. His melancholic writing continually confronts the impotence of language to express the incomprehensibility of the Shoah.
Its numbness breaks your heart, but Seiffert never pierces it.