My Germany –
A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped
By Lev Raphael
Terrace Books – £22.75
For as oddly compelling and in parts, harrowing as My Germany is, it’s also rather strange in as much as the author Lev Raphael tackles numerous subjects simultaneously. It’s essentially all about him, the child of Holocaust survivors, coming to terms with a haunting Germany and everything that that entails. Be it the country’s current manufacture of Mercedes Benz and the world’s finest coffee blenders, or indeed Adolf Hitler’s vile, ghastly doctrine towards the Jews during the Second World War – which ultimately culminated in the (thankfully) failed Final Solution during which so many members of Raphael’s family perished.
In itself, this makes for a wrought, interesting and socially challenging story, as the author boldly states in relation to his parents: ‘’Their lives were monumental and – because not entirely known – mysterious. Our lives were insignificant. Nothing we suffered or accomplished could match their having survived.’’
Suffice to say, it’s really hard to argue with such powerful sentiment. Eventhough it may in some way, partially explain why the author then feels the fundamental need to write of his academic persuasion and (initial) vexed relationship with Judaism. Not to mention his partners and his sexuality. The latter of which, I found particularly diversionary and rather unnecessary. Especially with regards coming to terms with a nation whose prime political ideology, was once the entire extermination of the Jews.
It was the book’s ‘coming to terms with’ subject matter, that initially attracted me to My Germany in the first place; for I too, once had numerous qualms with the nation – although these have now been resolved to such a degree that I now live in the country’s capital, Berlin.
But having read the book from cover to cover, I don’t in any way feel any wiser or enlightened for having done so. It’s as if there’s so much more Raphael could have written about and addressed, especially from that of a psychological perspective. Instead, he merely skims the surface. He places a troubling dynamic before us, but never truly argues it through nor dissects it. Never truly gets down to the dark, cancerous nitty-gritty, of how to come to terms with Germany’s former policies in relation to anti-Semitism.
He admittedly looks back and writes more than admirably on his parents’ plight(s) of extreme suffering; to which one would have to be immensely immune to humanistic feeling, not to be touched: ‘’More than once in talking about Bergen-Belsen, my father has described what he saw ‘’in front of my own eyes,’’ repeating the phrase as if he didn’t think I’d believe him. Or perhaps because of everything he experienced during the war, this is what to this day still most astounds and horrifies him. Maybe he can’t believe it himself. As conditions at the camps sunk ever more deeper into fathomless misery, there were more and more unburied bodies. My father said that he remembers ‘’two pyramids’’ of dead bodies. That wasn’t the end of the horror: ‘’People from the camp, they crawled over there, cut people open, and took their livers to cook.’’’’
But, and this is a big, albeit perhaps tenuous but, the above is a different subject matter altogether to that of forgiveness and an entire nation’s mantle of redemption. And herein lies the book’s fundamental flaw – as brave, commendable, open and well written as it is.