Annette Hess’ The German House (expertly translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) is a deeply uncomfortable read. It’s supposed to be. As protagonist Eva Bruhns works as a translator at a trial modeled on the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, she finds that the very human impulse to avoid conflict, to let bygones be bygones, has become a national pathology. But, unlike so many of the people if her life, Eva finds that she can’t let history be swept under the rug anymore…especially when she finds her own direct connection to the Holocaust.
I’ve read both fiction and nonfiction about the historical failure for survivors and victims of the Holocaust to find justice. The Allies geared up to fight the Cold War almost before the end of World War II. Programs like Operation Paperclip and Vatican ratlines allowed dozens, even hundreds, of war criminals to escape. Some were allowed to stay in Germany, to take up their civilian lives as if nothing had ever happened. Post-war tribunals were under pressure to wrap up quickly and sentences could be outrageously short for criminals who weren’t in the top tier. When a new wave of trials began in the 1960s, I’m sure it felt like a shock to people who thought they had successfully escaped justice and for their children, who had never been told what their parents did during the war.
Eva Bruhns did not know what her parents did during the war. Her biggest concern at the beginning of The German House is trying to get her boyfriend to finally propose. After yet another disappointing evening in which said boyfriend once more fails to ask the question, Eva is asked to translate for Polish witnesses at a trial. When she takes the job, everyone tries to talk her out of it. Her parents tell her to let things go and not dig up the past. Her fiancé (after he finally does pop the question) tells her to quit because it’s “not good for her nerves.” I took a strong dislike to the fiancé after he went to Eva’s boss and asked him to fire her. Thankfully, Eva turns out to be braver than anyone else in The German House. She keeps working. And when she discovers her own connection to the crimes of Auschwitz, I admired her all the more because learning about these secrets spurred Eva to consider how far the blame might go. Is the next generation guilty for keeping their parents’ secrets?
As if this weren’t enough plot, there is also a very disturbing subplot involving Eva’s older sister. (At times, the book seems overstuffed.) The just thing to do in this plot, as with the larger story, would be to clear the air, to punish the criminal, and to make sure the crime never happens again. But the embarrassment, the questions about how this could have happened, the emotional discomfort all conspire to keep things quiet. The German House is an infuriating read. To an outsider, who doesn’t have any emotional or historical baggage, it is incomprehensible to think that justice would lose out to the feeling of not making a fuss. But then, I can think of people in my own country who don’t want to consider the idea of slavery reparations or who don’t want to discuss the genocides of indigenous people in the Americas because it makes them uncomfortable.
There are no easy answers in The German House. It’s true that the crimes of the Holocaust are so monumental that there is no adequate punishment or redress for them. It’s true that a lot of time had passed. It’s also true that it is hard to take responsibility for unprecedented crimes against humanity. Even though all of that is true, The German House is a stark portrayal of the evil that ostensibly good people can do when they can’t bring themselves to do the difficult but just thing of exposing criminals in their midst and seeing to the punishment of those criminals. The ending of this novel is the perfect last slap in the face to make sure the lesson sinks in.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.