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'The Black Cloud of the Holocaust'

March 5, 2009 By:
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Reputation in the arts is fickle, filled with mystery. Why is it that some writers have reputations beyond their capacities, and keep them despite the less than commendable works they publish? On the other hand, why is it that certain good writers, who entertain and enlighten audiences throughout long careers, lose their reputations the minute they die and are then lost to history, never to be heard from again?

And why is it that truly fine writers -- who manage to turn out superlative work with each try -- can exist among us and be known by so few?

For example, take Grete Weil. Perhaps the problem stemmed from her being European -- German, to be exact. Still, her subject matter -- the Holocaust, recalled by those who suffered it -- is not one that has gone begging for attention. Nor did her publisher fail to promote her work.

Granted, here in the United States, she was published by a small, literary house, the ever-more-estimable David Godine in New England. The company has printed beautiful editions of her fiction and, though her output was small, her books, which have appeared here at a slow pace over the last 20 years, did attract attention from critics and considerable praise.

Weil lived an eventful life, though she might have gladly traded it in if she could have avoided its tragic consequences. (Then again, the sad irony is that she might never have become a writer without the catastrophes that befell her.)

Four Novels, a Memoir ...

Born in 1906, the daughter of a lawyer, she married playwright and director Edgar Weil in 1932, and emigrated with him to Holland when the Nazis came to power. He was arrested in 1941 and died in the Mauthausen concentration camp. In 1943, Grete Weil went into hiding, where she began to write, first theater pieces, then fiction. She managed to survive the war and returned to Germany, settling near her native Munich, living there till her death in 1999. In all, she published four novels, a memoir and several short-story collections.

The first of her works to appear here was The Bride Price. The novel has two strands: it begins with the story of King David as told by his first wife Michal, the daughter of King Saul; but woven through it are Weil's own Holocaust experiences. This sort of basic counterpoint is a method that the writer utilized several times. When she appears to be telling one story, she is, in fact, telling another.

Next in the Weil cannon was Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat. The central character is Andreas, who's married to Susanne. They live a fairly comfortable life in postwar Germany, but nothing is at it seems, especially in terms of the external parts of their lives. Andreas was once a promising poet but he is now stuck, unable to write, obsessed by memories of the past. It seems that, during the war, he had sheltered Susanne's younger brother, Daniel, while they were in Amsterdam. Daniel, though, was discovered eventually by the Gestapo.

Andreas' life in the "new" Germany has been an attempt to recapture the spirit of Daniel through his marriage to Susanne. But nothing has helped the struggling writer; he can no longer write, and all peace eludes him. At last, he returns to Amsterdam to confront the past and his terrible memories.

... and Short Stories

Now Godine has issued a group of Weil's short stories called Aftershocks, translated by John S. Barrett. The tales are like bits and pieces that have broken off the novels, echoing, on smaller canvases, their concerns and the author's methodology. It is appropriate that a quote from Last Trolley From Beethovenstraat precedes these stories: "They who have gotten away with their lives are doomed." This is the leitmotif, according to Barrett, that Weil sounds repeatedly in these tales, ringing remarkable changes on this haunted notion.

As Barrett writes in his introduction, "Aftershocks presents the stories of those whose survival represented only a momentary reprieve from suffering and even doom. In that sense, Weil could have titled the present volume Radiation Sickness, but instead chose the deceptively neutral word 'Spätfolgen,' that is, 'sequellae' or 'aftereffects,' thus echoing the many seemingly neutral words used by the Nazis to conceal their crimes.

"But the radioactivity analogy holds: Like the globe-circling fallout from Chernobyl, the black cloud of the Holocaust in Weil's Aftershocks reaches far and wide, exerting its malign influence on the victims, on those left alive in Europe and those who had seemingly escaped to safe places like New York or California, the latter location suggesting the translation's title. The Holocaust's aftereffects, as Weil portrays them, have no expiration date, reaching years later into professional as well as private lives, tarnishing success and thwarting attempts to find simple, human pleasure, sometimes with the sudden destructiveness of a buried bomb."

The first story in this collection that contains a mere seven stories is called "Guernica" and is about one of the people who sought to escape fate in America. There is a narrator, a female, someone like Weil, who has made a date to meet this old friend named Hans. Their place of rendezvous? The Museum of Modern Art at the time when Picasso's "Guernica" -- that ode to horror and destruction from the sky -- was still hanging there.

Hans now goes by the name John. These two had been friends when young, but haven't seen one another since John emigrated. John "didn't approve," the narrator says, of the fact that she'd left Holland, the country where she'd found refuge, and returned to Germany after the war. They'd almost lost track of one another over this sticking point, but now that the unnamed narrator was in New York, she'd decided to phone him.

The reader understands rather quickly that she doesn't completely approve of Hans' choices either. Not only has he taken a new name, but this man "who'd once studied history, art history and philosophy -- subjects with which he felt at home" is a lawyer, who heads a successful New York firm, is married to a Jewish girl from California and has two children, a son and a daughter. It obviously seems far too pat, too comfortably rounded off, for the narrator to abide.

Theirs is not a good meeting; every note is wrong, rubbing one or the other the wrong way. Much might have been made of this sudden "distance" by a different sort of writer; but, though at the heart of "Guernica" there is sadness, Weil also finds the humor. Her touch is very light, but only because she does not want to overemphasize the ironies.

The friends lunch at a restaurant John has chosen, located near the museum. It goes no better there. "[W]e are," writes Weil, "sitting across from one another, strangers, almost hostile. And yet our youth was identical, we both grew up in cultured families, went to the university, and, because we were Jews, had to leave Germany before we could get around to doing what we really wanted to."

After lunch, John insists on taking the narrator to his home, a beautifully appointed "American" apartment with nothing out of place. It is there that the story turns, and we see just how devastating the aftereffects have been, even for one who'd escaped Germany and never heard "the tread of the hobnailed boots night after night," one who never saw the inside of a concentration camp.

Aftershocks, though a slim book, is by no means a minor one. Its effect, as its astute translator has pointed out, is radioactive -- perhaps even toxic. 

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