Celebrating Jewish Literature: In Germany before the war

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Novels that take place in Germany when the Nazis began to control the country, but before World War II and the Holocaust occurred, can offer a different perspective on the feelings of German Jews. Two recent works – “Reunion” by Fred Uhlman (Everyman’s Library) and “The Oppermanns” by Leon Feuchtwanger (McNally Editions) – focus on the relationships between their Jewish characters, who consider themselves fully German, and Christian Germans, who don’t always agree. Both novels are reprints of works by authors who lived in Germany during this time: “Reunion” first appeared in the 1970s, while “The Oppermanns” was published in 1933, years before World War II began in 1939.

“Reunion” is a slender work; the actual text is only a little over 70 pages, although this version includes an introduction by Ali Smith and a chronology of Uhlman’s life, including his escape from Germany. The story is deceptively simple: it tells of two 16-year-old boys – Jewish Hans Schwarz and Christian Count Konradin von Hohenfels – who become best friends. Hans has a very old-fashioned and romantic idea of friendship: before Konradin arrived, there was no one Hans “really admired, for whom I would have been willing to die and who would have understood my demand for complete trust, loyalty and self-sacrifice.” Even 30 years later, the time in which Hans is writing these words, he notes that it still “was no exaggeration and that I would have been ready to die for a friend – almost glad.”

At first, their friendship remains on the school grounds and during their walks home. Hans finally invites Konradin to his home and Han’s parents try to make the young man feel welcome. However, a return invitation is not offered at first, something that bothers Hans. When he is finally invited to Konradin’s house, it’s only when his friend’s parents aren’t home. It soon becomes clear that at least one of Konradin’s parents would prefer him not to be friends with a Jew.

When the Nazis take over the country, Hans notes that his family has lived in Germany for more than 200 years. He and his parents – particularly his father, who fought for Germany in World War I – feel as German as they do Jewish, if not more. Han’s father is anti-Zionist, arguing that “I want to be identified with Germany. I would certainly favour the complete absorption of the Jews by Germans if I could be convinced it would be of lasting profit to Germany, but I have some doubts. It seems to me that the Jews, by not completely integrating themselves, still act as catalysts, enriching and fertilizing the German culture as they have done in the past.” 

To reveal more of “Reunion” would spoil the plot, but anyone who knows the events of the 1930s won’t be surprised by much of what occurs. However, there are a few surprises – happy and sad – that made this wonderful story of friendship well worth reading.

While “Reunion” was written years after the events it portrays took place, “The Oppermanns” was written as changes were taking place in Germany. Its almost 370 pages focus on a far wider variety of characters, although most of its main characters are members of the Oppermann family, who own a chain of successful furniture stores in Germany. The family sees itself as an authentic part of German culture. In fact, Gustav Oppermann at first refuses to accept the idea that they are anything but German. Unfortunately, while he sees all the wonderful things that are authentically German, he also comes to accept that the National Socialists in their brown uniforms are also Germany. That means the German culture he adores may be disappearing. 

Gustav’s nephew Berthold also sees himself as Germain, in fact “German in a more profound sense than most of his companions. His head is full of German music, German words, German thought, German scenery.” Unfortunately, a new teacher at the school sees him as a foreign influence who should be expelled from the school. The school’s principal, who is a friend of Gustav’s, tries to ameliorate the situation, but the new teacher is not interested in the truth, only in National Socialist propaganda, something he wants his other students to accept without question. 

Gustav’s other brothers also face problems: Martin, who runs the business, is trying to protect the family’s assets, but people are starting to protest against Jewish-run businesses. Edgar, a professor and doctor who is doing ground-breaking research, is accused of using Germans for experiments, even though he treats these patients without charge. Their brother-in-law, who was not born in Germany, is far more realistic about what is happening and pushes them to better understand how to protect themselves.

These are only a few of the characters who are trying to continue their daily lives while profound changes are occurring in the world and culture around them. Although Feuchtwanger’s writing style is dense and the characters’ emotions don’t always register, “The Oppermanns” is an impressive work due to the author’s ability to write about these events in real time in a way that will resonate with contemporary readers.

“Reunion” and “The Oppermanns” succeed in showing the reality that German Jews faced and the love they felt for a country that was betraying them. Their characters feel real because the authors were once the Jews about whom they are writing. Both authors fortunately managed to leave Germany before the worst began, which must have made it easier for them to focus on the years before the war and the Holocaust. The reprints of these works are a welcome addition to novels about the Jews of Germany.