Kinder Sculpture

 

Jun 2012 Journal

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On the side of the underdog: From Kindertransport child to renowned DDR writer (review)

IM FLUSS DER ZEIT – AUF DREI KONTINENTEN (In the Flux of Time: On Three Continents)
by Walter Kaufmann
Berlin: Dittrich Verlag, 2010, 288 pp. hardback, illustrated, ISBN 978-3-937717-45-6

The cover of this autobiography quotes from a speech by Professor P. G. Klussmann at the award to Walter Kaufmann of the 1993 Literature Prize of the Ruhr Region, linking his travel journals with those of Goethe, Chamisso, Heine and Fontane. A big claim I am unable to verify, but Kaufmann’s writing here is certainly vivid, compelling and engaging.

Kaufmann was born in Duisburg in 1924 and brought up by a Jewish couple, the father a respected lawyer, leader of the Jewish community and recipient of the Iron Cross during the First World War. Like so many Jewish men, he was interned for some weeks in Dachau - a traumatic experience about which he never spoke. But things were not what they seemed. After the war, when Kaufmann reclaimed a few of his father’s belongings from a former secretary, he discovered adoption papers showing he was born to an unmarried and impoverished 17-year-old Jewish woman by the name of Rachela Schmeidler, who had felt unable to bring her son Jizchak up and had had him adopted at the age of three. One of the most poignant stories in the book is how Kaufmann, by then a well-known writer, tried to discover his birth mother’s history and how he managed to speak to a woman who had known her and had minded the little Jizchak while his mother was at work.

The three continents of the title are Europe, Australia and the USA. Kaufmann was sent to England early in 1939 on a Kindertransport, with a well-to-do uncle in London who failed to turn up at Liverpool Street Station to meet him, having expected him a day later. Uncle Hugo soon washed his hands of him and dispatched him by railway with a label stating his destination, ‘Faversham’, to join Bunce Court School – the progressive Jewish boarding school evacuated from south Germany to the North Downs of Kent in 1933. Kaufmann was happy with the relaxed way the school was run, though his memories here are, in some respects, suspect! Having arrived at the school at roughly the same time, I cannot recall some of the teachers and pupils he names and there certainly was no woman teaching maths …. After a year his school life was terminated by internment as an ‘enemy alien’, a fate that befell many Jewish males over the age of 16 in 1940.

Worse was to come. With hundreds of others he was sent to Australia on the Dunera of ill repute, though strangely he doesn’t mention the presence of several other Bunce Court boys, and especially one of the teachers, Hans Meyer, who elected to accompany ‘his’ boys to Australia. Despite the trauma this entailed, Australia proved to be his making. It was there that he met his first wife, Barbara, published his first novel, Voices in the Storm, and became involved with left-wing politics and trades unions, leading to membership of the Communist Party. He gave many readings from his novel to seamen and dockyard workers in Sydney harbour and this led him into an exciting life as stoker and working on deck on freighters sailing in the Pacific. This provided him with rich material for some of his later, much acclaimed travel books. One photo of that period shows him as a debonair seaman, with prominent black moustache and sailor’s cap. No wonder women found him attractive.

This autobiography is not written in chronological order, has no chapter headings and no index, and is written in a wildly free kaleidoscopic manner and interspersed with extracts from his novels. Perhaps it is not surprising that I failed to establish exactly how and when the author returned to Germany in the early 1950s. His choice of the DDR rather than West Germany was clearly dictated by his left-wing ideology and his anti-Nazi stance and, with his background and reputation as a budding author and holding a British passport, Kaufmann was given a warm welcome. His literary output was prodigious, both in travel reportage and novels. He travelled widely - to the Middle East (Beirut and Damascus, as well as to Israel on several occasions), Belgium (as an envoy of the DDR Olympic Committee), West Germany, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Japan, the UK and the USA, gathering material for his travel books and reportage wherever he went. In America he attended the trial of Angela Davis, who was falsely accused of murder, hitchhiked to the deep South to witness at first hand the fight for emancipation of the black population, and was always on the side of the underdog. He met a plethora of interesting people, including Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. But meanwhile his marriage to Barbara had, perhaps not surprisingly, failed. The final trigger was a torrid affair with an American woman he had met accidentally – one of several affairs he describes with disarming frankness and sometimes in rather purple prose. He later married Angela (Brunner, not Davis!), with whom he had two daughters, and has lived happily with Lissy, a radiological nurse, for the last few decades.

What I missed in this otherwise thoughtful book was a penetrating discussion of Kaufmann’s attitude to the less agreeable side of the DDR. It so happens that, as I wrote this review, a television interview with the widow of the former DDR leader Erich Honecker was shown in Berlin. In exile in Chile, she was wholly unrepentant, even though it was she who had been responsible for thousands of forcible adoptions of children from parents who opposed the regime. She dismissed the brutal shootings of the many who attempted to flee to West Germany over the notorious wall as trivial. Early on Kaufmann was, in fact, given the choice of returning to Duisburg but, having tried it, he found its Nazi past oppressive and soon returned to the DDR. There he was lionised, became a member of the committee of the writers’ association and PEN, and had his numerous books readily published. The only novel that had a frosty reception from the press was written about a doctor who was determined to leave the DDR for West Germany, based on a real-life incident.

This book testifies to the incredible richness of the German language and chronicles the life of a man who has come triumphantly through the turmoil of the 20th century.

Leslie Baruch Brent

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