Keep Saying Their Names, by Simon Stranger

Trigger warning for torture and rape.

In a narrative that strongly reminded me of HhHH, by Laurent Binet, author and narrator Simon Stranger dives into the history of his Jewish Norwegian family and into the story of traitor Henry Oliver Rinnan. Stranger dramatizes conversations and scenes that are based on actual history. The title of the book, Keep Saying Their Names, comes from an old Jewish saying that the dead are only truly gone from us when we forget them. By recounting the stories of the dead, we ensure that they live on in some fashion. But what does it mean when saying the names of long-gone family members also means saying the name of the person who killed them?

Stranger frames his historical narrative as an alphabet. Each letter provides a quick entry point to themes, historical events, dialogues, etc. The impressionistic way that Stranger tells his stories is part of what reminded me of HhHH, which remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The other part comes from Stranger’s fascination with Rinnan. Like Binet’s fascination with Reinhard Heydrich, Stranger’s initial portrait of a man who I can only describe as a monster runs the risk of making us feel sympathetic to Rinnan. Rinnan did truly terrible things to a lot of people while he was given the run of Trondheim and the surrounding area by the occupying Nazi forces. Stranger admits to feeling sorry for the bullied, short child, who would later become a monster. To me, I saw a child who was always going to be attracted to positions where he might be able to bully others unless someone intervened. It’s all too easy to see why Rinnan became a force for evil—very depressingly easy to see.

Stranger marries into a family that has two connections to Rinnan. Stranger’ wife’s grandfather, Hirsh Kommisar, was arrested by Rinnan, before being tortured and killed in a villa that—in the second link to the family—became the home of Hirsh’s son, Gerson. It should have been inconceivable that anyone would stay in the villa at Jonsvannsveien 46, especially a Jewish family, especially a Jewish family that lost a relative to Rinnan and his gang. And yet, Gerson, his wife, and their two daughters lived in the villa for a few years around 1950. They heard all kinds of terrible stories. They even found bullets and bullet casings.

Feder Family Stolperstein, Kolín, Czech Republic (Image via Wikicommons)

To me, Keep Saying Their Names subtly tackles the idea of how the family history of good people can be closely entwined with the history of evil people. Go back far enough, I suppose, and you can find all kinds of skeletons in closets that you have some claim on. For example, so many American family histories cross paths with chattel slavery and/or the theft of land from indigenous people. How do we come to terms with our connections to evil while at the same time celebrating our family’s survival? At the beginning of Keep Saying Their Names, Stranger discusses the Stolperstein. In 1992, Gunter Demnig began installing brass plates with the names and dates of Holocaust victims in places where they lived and worked before they were killed by the Third Reich. The name means stumbling stone, recalling something small that we can trip over at any time. Most of the time, we can walk past them–the same way we can ignore historical events. But when we trip over them or notice them, the Stolperstein cause emotional (and possibly physical) pain as we recall those who are were taken from us during the Holocaust. Like Stranger and his family, we’re not thinking about the past and our losses all the time, but we should periodically contemplate our pasts—good and bad alike.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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