Apr 2013 Journal

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Devastating depiction of post-war German society

Some 400,000 so-called non-Aryans emigrated from Germany and Austria during the Nazi period. A mere 5 per cent returned after the war. This is the story of one of this ‘minority within a minority’.
The book, published in German, is described as a Roman - a novel. But is it? It alternates between studiously researched, detailed documentary evidence and imaginative fiction. The author herself has revealed that her story is ‘not invented but found’. Indeed, one AJR member, Ruth Barnett, has identified the central character as based on her own father, Robert Michaelis. In this book, however, the central character is called Dr Richard Kornitzer.
Richard Kornitzer is described as an up-and-coming Berlin jurist, alienated from traditional Judaism, married to a non-Jewish advertising executive. They have two children. Immediately after the Nazis come to power he is dismissed from his post as a judge. The fact that he has converted to Protestantism, apparently to be closer to his wife, gives him no advantages. To the Nazis he is a Volljude. For a while he ekes out a living in Berlin but in 1939 he emigrates to one of the few places still open to him - Cuba. However, he fails in his efforts to bring his wife out before the outbreak of war. The children had earlier been sent to England on a Kindertransport. For 12 years the family is dispersed but in 1947, after great efforts, Kornitzer returns to Germany to rejoin his wife, to reclaim his post as a judge, and to reassemble the family.

End of agony? No, not at all! Reclaiming his job and getting compensation for financial losses turns out to be difficult, unpleasant and time-consuming in the hostile environment of post-war Germany. He is regarded as one of the lucky ones. He has never had to huddle in overcrowded shelters during air raids. Nobody appears to be aware of the fate that would have awaited him had he not managed to get out of Germany in time.
In his old-new post Kornitzer finds himself surrounded by former Nazis or others who collaborated too closely for comfort. For them the proximity of a colleague who has no guilt to hide is an embarrassment. When Kornitzer becomes responsible for ‘denazification’ cases, he is shunted off to examine the personal histories of abattoir workers and piano teachers but kept far from cases involving fellow officials. Such cases are left to judges with far more opaque personal histories. Similarly, he is excluded from compensation cases because, he is told, he might be considered partisan. Former Nazi judges are, apparently, not suspected of being partisan.
There are long flashbacks about Kornitzer’s years in Cuba, the hair-raising corruption of the Batista regime, and Kornitzer’s relations with an attractive Cuban woman by whom he has a daughter.
Reuniting the family in Germany after long separation turns out to be painful. The daughter would much rather remain with her English foster mother than join a German mother whose language she no longer understands.
Post-war German financial compensation legislation is described, analysed - and found wanting. A Social Democrat parliamentarian is quoted as describing it as legally and morally so bad that, once again, he feels ashamed to be German.
Kornitzer pursues his rights with what some might consider obsessive determination. The author herself hints at the parallel with Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. The stress of working in this environment takes its toll on Kornitzer’s health and when, after years of battle, he is offered an enhanced pension - apparently to encourage his premature retirement - he accepts. His awkward colleagues will have been relieved.
This is a long book and an important one. It won the Deutsche Buch Preis but, in this reviewer’s view, it would have packed far more punch if numerous long tangents, often with little relevance to the main theme, had been pruned. Why pages about the different varieties of apple grown near Lake Constance, where Kornitzer’s wife Claire has found refuge? Why the detailed description of the room in an English farmhouse where she meets her estranged daughter after years of separation? Why a long diversion about the architect Mendelsohn’s elegant buildings in far-flung lands? Why pages about the Grundbuch – the German official record of landed property?
But this is certainly an important book and its highly critical depiction of post-war German society is devastating.

Peter Fraenkel

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