The German House

Surely, in the sixties, all Germans knew what had happened? Any German you meet in an international context will still, often enough, soon enough, apologise for their existence. Living in Germany in the 2000s, the flags were out for the football for the first time in a long time, and not everyone was comfortable with it, even then. Being German wasn’t something to shout about.

Yet this young woman has no idea. Her main concern is whether her man will propose or not – sorry, ask her father for her hand or not. Her mindset feels a lot more old-fashioned than our image of the sixties.

But this is 1961, not 1968. And Frankfurt Main, not Paris or Frankfurt Oder (or even Nuremberg, as some readers thought).

And this young woman is working, as an interpreter for business clients in a commercial hub.

Until one day, the man they really wanted can’t take the job, so she gets asked to step in (what’s changed in 60 years?). And it’s not the job she expected.

It’s really traumatic.

Shocking.

It turns her world upside down and her family inside out.

She’s interpreting for witnesses to Nazi war crimes; people who survived Auschwitz.

The ITI German Network book club chose this one because it was about one of us – an interpreter. I read it with difficulty, because my heart was on the other side – I have Polish family, some of whom were in those camps. I wanted to shake Eva for her naivete and sometimes the author, for her sentimentality.

Yet Hess gets the story across for a new generation. As far as I know, this is what the sixties were like – Germans who lived through Hitler’s rule, the war, and the Shoah did not talk about it. Their children discovered only later only later what their parents had done or allowed. Many reacted with the same rage that explodes in Eva.

I could see why Annette Hess’s Deutsches Haus was published so late (2018 in German by Ullstein, 2020 for Elisabeth Lauffer’s English translation by HarperCollins). This is one of a cluster of recent books in which younger Germans tell their story of the Second World War. They’re more morally muddied or nuanced than the literature before them. While reading this, with other book clubs, I was reading Dom tęksnot by Piotr Adamczyk (2016). It’s about a Wrocław lad with a Polish dad whose Breslau mum was in the Bund der Deutscher Mädel and stayed when nearly all the other German speakers moved West. And Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See (2014) has a teenage protagonist, a radio engineer in the Wehrmacht. The conversation between these characters – and their authors and readers – is still going on in my head. Something has shifted. In Europe in March 2022, “what did you do in the war” has become “what are you doing in this war, now?” We must keep returning to these questions.

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