|Page 23||Book Reviews Non-Fiction||August 2005|
My Wounded Heart
by Martin Doerry, Bloomsbury, 269 pages,
By Alidë Kohlhaas
It isn't easy to write about a book, which is not only one of the saddest stories I have read in connection with events in Nazi Germany, but one that took place in a rural section of Germany with which I am highly familiar. The place names are all well known. Stories that were told through innuendo and are vaguely remembered, are suddenly confirmed on the pages of a book that is an appalling tale of betrayal and cruelty. My Wounded Heart by Martin Doerry is the story of the author's grandmother, who happened to have the misfortune of being Jewish in Nazi Germany.
Doerry, a former deputy chief editor of Germany's major publication, Der Spiegel, has taken the letters his grandmother wrote to friends, to his grandfather during their courtship, and lastly, to her children, and letters the children wrote to her, to fashion a beautiful story, but one that leaves the reader if not in tears then close to it. It is a story that lingers on the mind. It keeps reminding us that cowardice, self-preservation, a desire for self-advancement, envy and jealousy can turn seemingly civilized people into human beings devoid of caring, of taking responsibility for their actions, of being capable of total disregard for fellow human beings.
While some have compared this book to The Diary of Anne Frank and to Victor Klemperer's Diaries (reviewed here at an earlier time), I find My Wounded Heart stands on its own with the insight it offers into Germany's darkest period. It has none of the exploitive aspect associated with Anne Frank's story because of her father's manipulation and alteration of the girl's diary, nor is it as emotionless and at the same time as self-pitying as Klemperer's diary entries had a tendency to be despite the valuable information they contained. Most importantly, he survived those years despite some severe hardships. His wife did not abandon him.
Dr. Lilli Jahn was a woman of a different fabric. She had courage despite the mental and physical humiliation she suffered that ended only with the final tragic end, at the age of 44, in a concentration camp. Her gentile husband did abandon by her.
Lilli Schlüchterer was born in Cologne on March 5, 1900 into a respectable middle class German family of Jewish faith. She and her sister Elsa "grew up in a small modern family unit, free from many social and religious constraints, and unlike their mother, were even allowed to study for a profession," writes Doerry. Lilli, highly intelligent, was one of only two percent of German girls, who attended secondary school at that time. Upon graduation, she chose medicine as her career, and that is how she eventually met her future husband, Ernst Jahn.
Just a few weeks younger than Lilli, Ernst suffered from bouts of depression, perhaps caused by his unsettled childhood. This moodiness of Ernst's seemed attractive to women, and there is a sense he somewhat exploited this. Although Protestant, he had strong leanings toward Catholicism, and was an ardent Marian worshiper. Lilli was by no means his only love; while they courted by letter he also carried on a relationship with another woman in mostly the same fashion. Among the letters found in his estate were some 200 that relate to a relationship carried on between 1922-27; the female partner in the relationship, however, had abnegated her connection to Ernst in favor of Lilli, and married someone else.
Overcoming objections from her parents, Lilli married Ernst on Aug. 11, 1926 and moved to the small town of Immenhausen, just north of Kassel, where he had finally established himself as a medical practitioner. At the time the place had less than 3,000 inhabitants. Strange, it hasn't grown much since. By having absorbed two neighboring villages, it has grown to 7,310 citizens by 2004. It's a place where Lilli found little cultural activity, and only the presence of a Dr. Bonsmann, who headed the local tuberculosis sanatorium (the place still exists) provided her with some intellectual stimulus.
Ernst is eager for her to give up practicing - her shingle hangs on one side of the Jahn front door, Ernst's on the other. He is unable to accept, in typical German fashion, a woman at his side who is other than a mother and housewife. There may even have been some professional jealousy involved. Lilli had obtained her doctorate, Ernst had not. She eventually relents, bearing Ernst five children, one son and four daughters, and stops working as a physician. In a photo from 1936 her plate has been removed from the side of their front door.
When the Nazis come to power, the atmosphere in the small community soured very quickly against Lilli. As the years passed and more and more anti-Jewish degrees were issued, Lilli eventually finds herself unable to go out, and pressure is put on Ernst to divorce her. The local mayor, one Herr Gross, was particular vehement in ensuring that his little town was freed of Jews.
One of the first of many betrayals comes from what Lilli thought was a friend. Once the Nazis increased their anti-Jewish agitation, Dr. Bonsmann suddenly let it be known he can no longer keep the friendship going. When a young female doctor is assigned to help Ernst in his growing praxis, he eventually has an affair with her, and she bears him a daughter out of wedlock. Thus further betrayed, Lilli still keeps a stiff upper lip. But then the final betrayal comes. Ernst divorces her in 1942 despite warnings from friends that he is condemning Lilli to possible death. As long as the marriage stayed intact, she was protected, but Ernst was too weak a character to take the social ostracizing that his marriage to a Jewess had brought with it. Of course, he then married the other woman.
Lilli continued to reside at the Jahn residence with her children despite the divorce. But eventually, with pressure from the mayor, she and her children are forced to move to Kassel. It is the only major city in the vicinity, but also a target of Allied bombing because of the Henschel Werke and other industrial concerns that were part of the war machine. Shortly after the move to Kassel, Lilli is arrested on Aug. 30, 1943 on a minor infraction of the law governing Jews. She ends up in Breitenau, a converted former monastery in the small town of Guxhagen, just 15km south of Kassel. It had been made to serves as a correctional labour camp, ostensibly to teach incorrigible individuals to work. It actually served as a slave labour camp, and as a collection point for major concentration camps. Her misdemeanor called for a sentence of at most two months of imprisonment, yet she was held there for more then six and then suddenly was moved to Auschwitz. There she died on or about June 17, 1944 from unknown causes.
Lilli's arrest came about because someone informed the Gestapo of her infraction. It was either an eager tenant in the building into which she had moved with her five children, or someone who had passed by and noticed that she had placed her visiting card next to the doorbell. It simply read Dr. med. Lilli Jahn (Dr. med. is the German equivalent of MD). As a Jewess she should have crossed out the Dr. med., and she should have added Sara as a forename to show her Jewishness.
The letters her children wrote to her were smuggled out of Breitenau by some unknown person after her deportation to Auschwitz. During the time in Breitenau, Lilli had been allowed to write just once a month to her children, but some sympathetic person posted secretly written letters for her until it became unsafe to do even that. By late 1943, every letter mailed in Germany was censored, regardless of the writer.
What makes this book so poignant and so sad are the letters that Lilli wrote to her children and they to her. She attempted to run their household from Breitenau, while Ilse, her eldest daughter, just 14, took on the responsibility of looking after her siblings, of which the youngest was only two years old and three when her mother died. Lilli's letters are full of courage, never depressing, never letting on what is happening to her, although there are some oblique references to life in the prison. She constantly worried about the children sending her food and thus depriving themselves. Yet she is also grateful for such gifts. It was well known that the camp inmates had hardly anything to eat.
Ilse finally managed to find an excuse to see her mother and is allowed just 10 minutes. It was a dismaying moment for the child. She saw her emaciated mother feeling cold in thin, rough prison clothing, wearing wooden clogs with no stockings, with a missing tooth in an unheated prison as winter approached. Worse, by seeing her, Ilse had put herself in danger of possibly also being arrested. She is, after all, a half-Jew even if she was raised a Christian. It is Ilse's son, who is the author of the book.
When the children were bombed out in Kassel in late 1943, they had to return to Immenhausen to live with the hated stepmother. Their father, by now, had been drafted into the army. Shortly after Lilli's final letter from Birkenau (Auschwitz) arrived, the Gestapo called Ernst's house. Rita (a pseudonym given to the stepmother by Doerry, no doubt to protect his half-sister), took the call that informed her that Lilli had died. The caller specified no cause of death. "Today, Lilli's daughters recall that their stepmother conveyed the news without emotion," writes Doerry. Only a Dr. Karl-Werner Schupmann, who had taken over Ernst's praxis while he was in the military, comforted them in their grieve. "That they were informed at all was unusual, but they refused to accept the truth. They had little idea of what a concentration camp was like and absolutely no knowledge of the barbarism practiced at Auschwitz," Doerry explains.
From all of the letters written by Lilli and published in this book, one senses a highly intelligent, well-spoken, well-read and well-educated individual. The three older girls obviously inherited their mother's gift, for their letters are wonderful examples of what life was like around them, yet they also attempted for the most part not to let their mother feel any anxiety about their lives.
Even if this book does not move the reader to tears, it should arouse a sense of outrage at the inhumanity of this period in German history. Most of all, though, it should make people aware that to accept the oft repeated statement, "but I didn't know," from the adult population of Germany after WWII is to accept a lie. In Lilli's case hundreds of people knew what was and finally happened to her. Multiply this by all of the Jews and others who were sent to various concentration camps, and one can quickly see that the adult population of Germany should have known, must have known.
In and around Kassel alone there were 200 slave labour camps, mostly filled with foreign workers, many of whom did not survive the horrendous conditions under which they worked. Kassel was a central nerve system of the railway that served as a collection point for shipment of undesirables to concentration camps, never to be heard of again.
Few communities in Germany escaped the horrors of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) on November 9, 1938, and those who did were close enough to other towns and villages where this event took place. That night Jewish establishments and homes were vandalized, even burned down, and especially Jewish men were beaten, often to death. Those who survived the beatings were made to clean up the mess that the vandals had created despite their injuries.
How, one has to ask, can people claim they did not know? Here I have to go back to the review of the book, "spies" by Marcel Beyer. Secrecy, spying from behind curtains, pretending things did not happen, and xenophobia still appear to be part of the German social fabric. But, most of all, one notices even now among a certain layer of the population an apathy that makes people avoid answering or asking questions, and an acceptance of the status quo without resistance. What one perceives again and again is that a desire still exists for the state to be the supreme father figure, who must provide for everything without individual citizens taking responsibility. It seems to harken back to an age when the aristocracy served as the autocratic patriarch, who decided about the well being of citizens. This reliance on a patriarchal figure is one reason that allowed Hitler eventually to take over as the supreme father figure of all Germans.
This amazing book give us an insight into how easy it is to betray someone, for whatever reason, and it should be a warning to all of us that to simply accept daily life unquestioningly is to run the danger of allowing democracy to die.