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Something Unspeakable

September 22, 2005 By:
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Earlier this year, the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld published a memoir, titled The Story of a Life, about his childhood spent on the run from the Nazis, and I praised it as an extraordinary document. Only in the last section of the work, where Appelfeld described his adjustment to living in Israel, did the intensity lessen; for the rest of it, this was the book the author was destined to write, and a text of primary importance to understanding the Holocaust.

The same sense of inevitability pervades German novelist Uwe Timm’s brief, scalding memoir, In My Brother’s Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS, recently brought out by Farrar Straus and Giroux. This, too, was the work he was destined to write, and in a sense, it acts as a counterweight to the Appelfeld memoir. Like the Israeli writer, Timm is primarily a novelist (though he has mixed truth with fiction in unusual ways). But with this new title, he has, like Appelfeld, stuck to the facts. But where The Story of a Life deals with the burden of Nazi dehumanization and the need to survive, Timm’s work details the struggle the author has waged with the legacy of Nazi brutality that infected and crippled his family.

The brother mentioned in Timm’s title was 16 years the author’s senior, esteemed in the family, especially by their father, held up again and again as a shining example of pure German devotion and sacrifice. Timm has only one clear memory of him, however: a game of hide-and-seek the two played several months before Karl-Heinz was severely wounded in battle while serving in Ukraine during World War II. Within weeks, the young soldier succumbed to his injuries. This was in October 1943, when Karl-Heinz was just 18.

The memory of the game begins the book: “Lifted up in the air — laughter, jubilation, boisterous delight — that sensation accompanies my recollection of an experience, an image, the first to make a lasting impression on me, and with it begins my self-awareness, my memory: I’m coming in from the garden, entering the kitchen where the grown-ups are gathered, my mother, my father, my sister. There they stand, looking at me. They must have said something that I don’t remember — perhaps: Do you see anything? And then they glanced at the white cupboard, which I was told later was a broom cupboard. I can see hair showing above the top of the cupboard, that image impressed itself on me very distinctly, fair hair. Someone has been hiding behind the cupboard — and then he comes out, my brother, and lifts me up in the air. I can’t remember his face or what he was wearing, probably his uniform, but the situation is perfectly clear in my mind: all of them looking at me, the moment when I spot the fair hair behind the cupboard, and then the feeling of being raised in the air — I’m floating.”

After his death, Karl-Heinz becomes a mythic figure, constructed through a slow accretion of family tales and speculation. And never more so than in Timm’s mind.

“He accompanied me through my childhood, absent and yet present in my mother’s grief, my father’s doubts, the hints my parents dropped when they were talking to each other. They told stories about him, little tales of situations that were always similar, showing how brave and decent he was. Even when he wasn’t the subject of discussion he was still present, more present than other dead people, in anecdotes and photographs, and in the comparisons my father drew with me, the younger son, the afterthought.”

Years later, the author discovers a cache of letters Karl-Heinz wrote home during his military service. He also discovers a diary, which the young soldier kept as a member of the elite SS Death’s Head division.

The letters give glimpses of the young man’s difficult experiences on the Russian front, how he courageously withstood the amputation of his legs, how he hoped that his mother would not worry too terribly. And he sent good wishes home for young Uwe, just a toddler then.

And though diary writing was forbidden in the SS, this manuscript was returned to the family. Not long or detailed, it ends with a cryptic phrase that haunts Timm: “I close my diary here, because I don’t see any point in recording the cruel things that sometimes happen.”

The author cannot help but wonder what these “cruel things” might have been. What had his brother done in Russia? As Timm combs through the family records, his greatest fear is discovering that his brother’s unit assisted in the Babi Yar massacre in Kiev, where 34,000 Jews were murdered in a wooded ravine near the city limits. But Timm persists in his search, wanting to know how far his brother would have taken his sense of duty and just how far his country, with its exaggerated emphasis on honor and obedience, had gone.

The Toll on Subsequent Generations
And he also depicts for us the silence that fell over the older generation in Germany following the war and the toll those unspoken words had upon subsequent generations of Germans.

Timm is too sensitive and knowing an artist to be asking for forgiveness for any crimes his brother might have committed or those that still weigh upon the German people. Nor is he looking to blame anyone. His goal is comprehension. He has been a witness, much like Appelfeld, and though no one was hunting him like an animal during the war, he has had to withstand a good deal of psychological stress. I am not saying, by any stretch of the imagination — nor is Timm — that the experiences of these two writers were analogous or that the pain suffered has been of the same variety or degree, only that reading these works in tandem can be an illuminating, if painful, experience.

The two memoirs even work like one another in terms of narrative technique, for they are both more visceral than intellectual in effect. In My Brother’s Shadow moves by small increments in which we’re provided with new bits and pieces of information that help widen the picture, filling in details. But each time the story moves forward, even in such minor steps, more of the truth is revealed and another layer of skin is stripped away.

That is the only way I can describe how this book works, the power its words have. The skin peeled back each time is the author’s, of course, but the effect is equally visceral for the reader.

That is because writing about his brother means writing about his father, and his dear mother, and his poor sister, and what the experience of loss has meant to them. For Timm, it has meant never living up to Karl-Heinz’s example in his father’s eyes, and perhaps his own.

“I was what they used to call a mama’s boy. I liked the scent of women, that mixture of soap and perfume; I liked and sought — an early sensation, this — the softness of breasts and thighs. Whereas he, my big brother, was always devoted to our father, even as a small child. And then there was our sister, two years older than my brother, 18 years older than me, who got little attention and hardly any affection from our father, so that she developed a rather brittle, aloof manner that our father in his own turn described as sullen and that only put yet more distance between them.

“Karl-Heinz, my father’s big boy, why did it have to be him? My father would fall silent, and you could feel the loss in him, you could see him wondering which of us might better have been spared.

“My brother was the boy who told no lies, who was always upright, shed no tears, was brave and obedient. A fine example.”

It might be difficult for Jewish readers to give themselves to this book, and then, in doing so, letting it have its effect upon them. But if they can make this imaginative leap, the work provides an incomparable experience, a sad family drama that, in a small space, says much about the human condition.

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