by Grete Weil. Translated from the German by John S. Barrett. Verba Mundi, 2008, 114 pages, $16.95.
August 28, 2008
Grete Weil is an important figure in post-Holocaust German literature. Born in 1906, she spent her early years preparing for a career as a writer. Little did she realize that what she calls “the aftershocks” of the Holocaust would become the subject of her fiction and of her conflicted life.
If one divides the Holocaust community into three groups — the murdered, the murderers, and the bystanders — Weil belongs to the last.
Margaret (“Grete”) Elizabeth Dispecker married Edgar Weil, a theatrical personality, in 1932, and after he was briefly arrested by the Nazis, Weil abandoned her university studies and the couple immigrated to the Netherlands. What followed was the story that Weil would later retell in four extraordinary novels: how their short-lived hiding ended when her husband was rearrested and sent to his death in a concentration camp; how she successfully concealed herself and her elderly mother; and how, after the war, she returned to the Munich of her birth.
Weil began writing her unsparing fictions in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until 1963 that her first novel, The Last Trolley from Beethovenstraat, was published. Because Weil insisted that she “has Auschwitz the way some people have cancer,” it is perhaps understandable that there would be a certain resistance in the publishing community. However, by the early 1960s, German attitudes had so changed that Weil’s novels were widely and enthusiastically read.
The seven stories collected in Aftershocks will introduce many American readers to Weil’s uncompromising investigation of the tremors — the afterpains — that the Holocaust continues to generate. On one hand, she believes that — like the aftershocks of an atomic blast or a catastrophic earthquake — “aftershocks” of the psyche ripple on for days, months, and in Weil’s case, years. She also believes that “writers have the accursed responsibility of telling people what’s really going on in the world and that human beings are murderers.” In this important sense, Weil is a witness, even though she realizes, in a self-lacerating story titled “And I? A Witness to Pain,” that she “didn’t know a thing.”
“Whenever I read Primo Levi, I realize that I couldn’t visualize a concentration camp. My imagination wasn’t sick enough,” she writes.
Weil’s fiction inhabits the space between a nagging doubt that Holocaust fiction is, finally, possible, and an utter conviction that it is necessary. For her “survivors,” life after the Holocaust is at best a temporary reprieve; moments of recognition keep flooding back, and in. Whether their stories are set in California, New York City, or the Yucatan, characters keep running into ghosts of the past.
As the protagonist of “The House in the Desert” puts it, “Once the body’s picked up momentum, it doesn’t just stop suddenly”:
“It doesn’t matter that there are no more Gestapo agents asking for your papers, that no trucks are driving through the streets to pick up people, that no one’s ringing your doorbell at night, that the concentration camps have been turned into museums where cut-off hair and knocked-out teeth are displayed in glass cases, that there’s no reason to run away any more. The running away goes on. Running away from the name. When Auschwitz wasn’t yet a name, you didn’t need to run away, but who’s going to take the name back? Who’s going to tell me it’s not my hair, my teeth. They meant it for me.”
In “Finish What You Started,” Weil’s protagonist is sightseeing in the Yucatan when she sees a person who may (or may not) have been a Nazi guard. Whatever he may (or may not) have been, he points out that there was a moment in 1931, sitting in an outdoor cafe in Paris, when she might have done something, might have acted, but didn’t:
“That was the moment of your guilt. You had enough understanding and imagination to know what would happen if every loving woman spoke the way you did. Guilt against guilt. Who’s going to weigh that? One justice against a different one, faites votre jeu. So the thing happened that neither of us can understand today, that no one understands. It came, turned into the present, and when it was no longer able to be that, it was no longer anything. Our past is not one that can be lived with and since we’re living, it can’t have existed.”
The Mayan ruins and the horrific murders that occurred there provide a grim backdrop for Weil’s ongoing ruminations about the Holocaust because, as the story suggests, given enough time, the most unspeakable acts can become the subject of objective discussion and even a certain aesthetic interest.
Small wonder, then, that one of Weil’s protagonists commits suicide (“The Most Beautiful Spot in the World”) while another has been so traumatized by the Holocaust that she refuses to let an emergency room doctor “touch her,” and as a consequence, she soon dies (“Don’t Touch Me”).
The “aftershocks” of Weil’s collection reverberate long after the pages of each story have been turned. The result is that readers will discover, each in his or her own way, afterpains of their own.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida, where he writes about Jewish literature and culture on cloudy days.