This is the third of Rachel Seiffert’s books that I have read. I have loved them all in very different ways; but I think this one most for the cavernous depths that it attempts to navigate in such soulful and patient ways. It is also the most complex of the Seiffert books that I have thus far read – the others have been relatively straight forward in terms of their narrative structure, but this one presents three vignettes which each shed light on some different aspect of the war. Reading these vignettes made me feel as though I was looking through a tiny porthole, seeing a slice of history, a moment of time, captured and held in the palm of my hand, separated from everything else happening at that moment but somehow connected because of its inescapable context. I loved the way that Seiffert managed to create this reading experience. It made it rich and particular and somehow spirited.
In the first story we meet Helmut. A German boy born to German parents. He is wholesome, the apple of their eye but imperfect, missing a muscle in his chest. The parents mourn but are determined to provide him with every opportunity that other boys his age have. Helmut flourishes, relatively unaware of his difference, until he is rejected by Hitler’s army and then, unable to serve, he becomes the flanuer, walking the streets of Berlin, trying to find a formula to account for the numbers of people leaving. Helmut apprentices as a photographer and it is through his camera lens that we, the readers, come to know Berlin. “He can see the war in the queues outside shops, and the ever-present uniformed figures. But tonight he can also see … an ordinary, busy city. Lively and full. … the faces, arms and legs, the many hats on many heads… His Berlin, his home.”
But Helmut’s Berlin is not as pure as he imagines and one day he stumbles upon a group of Nazi’s herding a community of gypsies to their death. He is shocked by what he witnesses and even more traumatised by the fact that he fails to capture the raw emotion of the moment on film. He flees and Berlin crumbles around him.
The second segment of the book is called LORE. The perspective presented in this piece is vastly different to that of Helmut. It’s Bavaria, 1945 and Lore is one of the daughters of a Nazi officer. The war is over and Lore’s mother is trying to save her children. In desperation, she gives Lore money and jewelry and tells her to take the children and travel to Hamburg to her grandmother. Lore is 12. Her mother is arrested by the Americans and Lore is left to fend for her young siblings. This part of the book is majestic in its scope, and even though it is short, it has epic qualities. I won’t spoil the story but Lore finds help in an unlikely source and eventually finds her way to Hamburg and her grandmother.
The third vignette, MICHA, is set in Autumn 1997. It tells the story of Micha, a young man who discovers that his grandfather was an SS officer and becomes obsesssed with finding out exactly what his grandfather did during the war. He travels to Belarus where his Opa served, carrying with him his photograph, hoping that someone will identify him and testify to his actions. In Belarus, Micha has meets a man called Kolsenik who himself committed terrible sins during the Nazi occupation. Kolsenik says: “I made the choice, you see? I watched the Germans kill the Jews for almost two years and then I killed, too. It was my choice, you see?” and then: “It is hard to say this, Herr Lehner, even after so many years. It is difficult to know this about myself, do you see? I can give all these reasons. I lost my father. I was hungry, I wanted to help my family, orders were orders, I was not responsible, they said the Jews were Communists, Communists caused my pain. Over and over I can say these things. Nothing changes. I chose to kill.”
Although it is spare, her writing is filled with movement, across plains, over hills, through rubble. Reading this book is quite literally a journey through an experience that is at times quite macabrely beautiful and at times so sharp and painful that it hurts to keep going. The boundaries of the story are as firm as the boundaries of the spaces that Seiffert explores – Micha stands in the room of the museum. He “doesn’t cross to the other side of the room; he doesn’t dare risk seeing the same faces again over there.”
Seiffert’s message is expressed by Micha: How do you make it right? “Is it enough to feel sad?” Kolesnik’s answer is simple: “How can I apologise? Who can I apologise to? Who is there to forgive me?” There is no punishment fit for this crime.
And throughout this magnificent novel, there are the beautiful bookends of photographs – capturing a moment in time in still life frame, artificial but preserved and remembered, a testimony to existence like a forgotten song on the wind.
This is one of those life changing books. You have to read it. At least once.
You can hear Rachel Seiffert speak about this book at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival on August 27th at Waverley Library.