Friday, April 13, 2007

Invisible Jews in Nazi Germany: A Book Review

(Editor’s Note: This week ItsFourthAndLong initiates its first book review.)

Too often history comes across as dull, gray, lifeless text that will sooner put people to sleep than give them any insight on the lives we live today. Part of that is due to the way it’s taught, which is not all that well from everything this correspondent has learned from those who detest the subject. And part of it is attributable to the very nature of the subject itself: Why should anyone become excited about something that happened decades or centuries ago? How does it apply to the lives we lead today?

This is the reason I’m a fan of first-person accounts. They bring historical events to life because someone has taken the time to write down their experiences, often during a tragic, horrible or dramatic period of time.

No. 12 Kaiserhofstrass: The Story of an Invisible Jew in Nazi Germany, written by Valentin Senger, brings Nazi Germany alive. Senger and his family survived the Nazis in Frankfurt, right out in the open, even though they were Jews. And this is what makes his story all that more compelling.

Senger’s story is one of constant deception. His mother and father were Russian émigrés who had been associated with Communists revolutionaries during the early days of the 20th century; they immigrated to Germany to escape the Tsar’s henchman, well in advance of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. So no one in Germany would know they were Communists, they lied on their immigration papers that they were from Switzerland.

As they were settling into their apartment in Frankfurt in 1909, they completed residency papers for the local police who noted that the Sengers were “Hebraic.” It never occurred to Senger’s parents, the author writes, “that in a liberal, cosmopolitan city like Frankfurt, where Jews and Christians had been living side by side for centuries, the mere fact of being a Jew could ever become a mortal danger.”

The author, born in 1918, describes his neighbors, friends, acquaintances and professional colleagues; what is frightening is how some of them could so easily betray and inflict harm on people they'd known well in advance of the Nazis ever coming into power.

Whether or not they believed what they were being fed by the Nazis is something we will never know. They may have thought they were being good, patriotic Germans. They may have feared for their own safety, thinking they needed to make a deal with the devil; or, perhaps, they wanted all whose lives didn’t reflect theirs exterminated.

Senger’s childhood, with the exception of a few events, was unexceptional. He attended school and did all of the normal things any boy would do – ran around with other boys and challenged his mother and father.

In the 1930s, after the Nazis took power, everything changed. From 1933 to 1945, the Sengers “felt trapped” in their apartment, “expecting the Gestapo or the SA to arrest us (at) any minute.”

They survived the Nazis, in large part, because a local policeman, Sergeant Kasper, risking his own life, perhaps because he liked Senger's mother, altered their registration papers. He changed their religious affiliation from “Hebraic” to “Nonconformist,” thereby keeping the Gestapo on the search for others but not the Sengers.

The Sengers became as inconspicuous as possible so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. But they did have a few a moments when they were convinced they’d be arrested.

One of the more frightening times was when the author needed medical assistance. Unlike European Christians at the time, circumcision was standard practice for Jews. Since the author was suffering from a stomach ailment, his parents knew he’d be required to drop his pants, thereby giving away his religious affiliation.

To make matters worse, the local doctor wore a Nazi uniform. He looked over the young man and even noticed his circumcised penis. Senger told the doctor that his family was from Russia and a particular Christian sect that believed in self-mutilation. The doctor didn’t buy it for a minute, noting that his circumcision looked like the ones performed at a bris.

The doctor kept young Senger’s circumcision to himself. And, as it turned out, this same doctor saved a few Jews who continued to live in Germany, outside of the concentration camps, during the Nazi regime.

As the war progressed, Germany, desperate to fill the ranks of their killed and missing soldiers, started drafting eligible men who were not citizens. Senger and his younger brother soon had their papers to report for a military physical. Here, again, they thought the game was over because, certainly, the doctors would notice their circumcisions.

They may have but the doctors passed them anyway, sending the two brothers to basic training. Senger’s younger brother, Alex, was killed during the war, fighting an enemy he knew would save him. Senger himself survived the war due to some unforeseen medical issues as well as a kindly doctor who drew up orders to send him to a hospital.

One of the book’s more interesting moments happens shortly after the author leaves the doctor who had written his orders. This was weeks prior to the war’s end. Senger was making his way out of the military base when he was befriended by a local man who put him up for a few days. Essentially, the author deserted.

During Senger’s stay at the local man’s house, he met a woman, named Gerdi, who had served in Germany’s army as an auxiliary. He described her as taller, a few years older and “as strong as an ox.” He never says she’s beautiful. In spite of all that, they made love one day. One can’t help but to wonder what it was like to have sex with the enemy. Maybe this proves that hormones can overrule politics.

After the war, Senger became a reporter, working for German newspapers and at television and radio stations.

No. 12 Kasierhofstrass is a gripping account that, at times, will have readers on the edge of their seats. The tension, the fear and the downright fright of living under conditions few can imagine comes through loud and clear in this book.

At times, while reading this book, you have to wonder if the author isn’t suffering from survivor’s guilt. There are times when he’s speaking to his mother, sometimes in an accusing tone of voice.

The author appears to have mixed views about his mother. She certainly ruled the roost. She also did everything possible to keep the family intact – and alive. Compared to joining Germany’s underground, or heading off to a death camp, it may not have been particularly heroic. But by keeping her family alive, Mrs. Senger did all of us who never lived through the Nazis an incredible favor: Her son wrote a rich account about their experiences under a terrible regime.

No. 12 Kaiserhofstrass was first published in 1978 in Germany, and the English translation was published two years later. It can be purchased on by searching under the author’s last name. (ItsFourthAndLong is not schilling for, although any money they’d like to throw this way would be happily accepted.)

While reading this book, I wondered if anyone, at some point, will write a first-hand account of their times under more recent dictatorships, like North Korea or Saddam Hussein. I hope someone does so we gain some insight about life under these regimes.

And while George W. Bush and his band of Republicans certainly have their detractors, all of those are opposed (or consider themselves oppressed) to his presidency, his policies, his followers, and his government would be well served by reading No. 12 Kaiserhofstrass. Mr. Bush is flawed man but he is no Adolf Hitler.

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