In “The German House,” the charming and the horrifying coexist in a story about a young woman who is called upon to translate the testimonies of Polish Holocaust survivors. The time is the 1960s; the place is Frankfurt, Germany; and the translations are evidence in the trial of SS officers who ran the Auschwitz death camp.
Eva, the main character, is engaged to the serious, withdrawn Jürgen. Ensconced in cozy family life, she’s naive at first about the death camps, but as the trial goes on, the testimonies begin to work on her. The survivors are traumatized by what they have to tell, and Eva becomes increasingly overwhelmed. And certain details are mysteriously familiar to her.
She begins to recall incidents from her childhood. She knew how to count in Polish even before she studied it in school. She doesn’t fully understand the memories that surface – nor did this reader – until almost the end of the novel. Her family is uneasy with her work.
She is so upset by the survivors’ testimony of torture, suffering, degradation, and murder that Jürgen asks for her to be removed from the work. In those days, a fiancé had the legal right to terminate a woman’s employment. Eva rebels. She goes to a party with members of the prosecution team and becomes intoxicated.
Truly everyone in this book has been tainted by Auschwitz. Even children are not exempt. Five-year-old Eva would grow up with odd and troubling memories, but her big sister, Annegret, who was 9 then, would become a hospital nurse with no moral compass.
Author Annette Hess recounts the chief judge’s summary of the trial: “‘There are undoubtedly those among us who will for some time find themselves unable to gaze into the happy, believing eyes of a child …’ The voice that had – for all those months – remained so firm began to tremble as he continued, ‘without recalling the hollow, questioning and uncomprehending, frightened eyes of the children who took their final steps there in Auschwitz.’”
Jürgen, too, has a haunting memory. When he confesses to his ailing father a crime he committed as a young boy, his father has a lucid moment. He says, “My boy,” then comments, “It is hard being human.” This is a turning point in the story.
“The German House” is difficult to read, but Hess is surprisingly subtle, even delicate in some observations. This makes the book bearable and illuminating. She manages to expose horror and guilt alongside family tenderness.
Hess explains in a note at the end that although the testifiers in her book are fictional, she has them speak actual testimony, “in an effort to provide a platform for as many voices as possible.” She thanks those real-life survivors who testified, reliving horrific experiences, and names them. “They provided the world with comprehensive, lasting testimony of what Auschwitz was.”