Chris Bohjalian’s excellent novel Skeletons at the Feast has been a resource I’ve consulted in my research for both the novel I’ve just finished writing and which is about to be released on April 20: Accidental Saviors, and the one I will begin after a brief respite for my brain and my two typing fingers.
Skeletons at the Feast is a rare World War II novel in that it focuses on German refugees in the latter part of the war (1945) instead of Jewish refugees. An eighteen-year-old Prussian girl, Anna Emmerich, her mother (Mutti) and her younger brother pick up and leave their ancestral farmstead and join the stream of other German civilians heading westward to escape the rapidly advancing Russian army. In their party is also a Scottish POW, Callum, and Uri, who unknown to the family, is a Jew who escaped from a train headed to the extermination camp at Auschwitz. The family knows him only as a Wehrmacht corporal named Manfred, however, a false identity he assumed when he shot and killed a young German soldier and stole his uniform and papers.
Anna and Callum fall in love, and Uri (Manfred) falls in love with Anna. There’s a lot in the novel, and I highly recommend this work by one of America’s better contemporary novelists.
One of the questions Bohjalian explores in the novel is the one about the possible complicity of ordinary Germans like the Emmerich family in the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, especially the Holocaust. He grants that the Nazi leaders tried to keep knowledge of the death camps instituted in 1941 from German citizens. But there was no hiding the notorious Nuremberg Racial Laws of 1935 which stripped all Jews of their German citizenship and prohibited marriage between a Jew and an Aryan German, among other repressive measures. Likewise, it was common knowledge that on the evenings of November 9 and 10, 1938, Nazis incited crowds to smash windows of Jewish shops throughout Germany, and set them on fire, and beat and murder Jews in the bloody event known as Kristallnacht.
At the beginning of the novel, young Anna is totally oblivious to Nazi atrocities committed in her name, and the name of her family and neighbors in the years leading up to 1945. She not only becomes defensive, but retreats into actual denial, when her lover Callum questions how much she actually knows about what the Nazis are doing.
Both of Anna’s parents had joined the Nazi party, but it was virtually impossible to carry on a dairy farming business without being such. The reader is not convinced that they are totally committed members of the party or adherents to the extreme Anti-Semitic party line. However, Anna’s mother has a subtle crush on Hitler and refuses to believe some of the rumors of the kinds of suffering the Führer has been wreaking on the Jews, Gypsies, and disabled, among others.
In a masterfully described scene, Anna and her family, as well as Callum hiding under the vegetables on their wagon and Manfred aka Uri, come upon a column of bedraggled, almost skeleton-like prisoners being marched for the almost umpteenth time from one work camp to another to prevent the Russians from discovering them.
The family assumes that the haunting figures are men.
“Old men? Are you blind?” Callum admonished. “They’re girls! Young women!..Some probably the same age as Anna here!”
“Are they….” Mutti (mother) asked.
“Yes, they’re Jews,” Callum chastises the woman. This, he was saying in essence, is what your people are doing. Have done. Here it is in full view. No more hiding it behind barbed wire fences and cement crematoriums, no more burying the corpses in ditches. Here’s a whole bloody parade of the walking dead.”
Still, Mutti is disbelieving.
Callum continues, “They’re Jewish girls! Here’s what your thousand-year Reich is really about.”
The truth dawns slowly to Mutti and Anna, not entirely. When it does, it’s absolutely devastating.
I ponder the very same question in my novel Accidental Saviors. One of the two protagonists, Dr. Felix Kersten, reflects on what he has witnessed in his seven years of semi-forced service as SS Chief Heinrich Himmler’s private masseur and living among the German people from 1938-1944. Here is an excerpt from a late chapter in the novel:
“Kersten still wondered if the brutal suffering Himmler had wrecked upon the Jews and others was simply a matter of a deep-seated hatred, or merely a product of his dogged devotion to conscientiousness, unquestioning loyalty, eagerness to please and methodical efficiency. Most would say “conscienceless efficiency”, Kersten supposed, but he was confident Himmler’s physical ailments were symptomatic of a fragile, tortured, split, pathetically disjointed conscience.
There will be simplistic minds and readers of history who regard evil as black and white, to be sure, and that the only solution is to eliminate evil completely somehow. The Allies and Russians may feel that by defeating Hitler, they will have erased forever the kind of evil perpetrated by the Nazis from the face of the earth, that it would never be allowed to happen again. I truly wish it were so.
Whose hands are completely clean of the Jews’ blood, however? The blood of the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the mentally ill or retarded, the Poles, the Slavs? What about the hands of the ordinary German husbands and fathers who served in the police battalions, conducting routine police duties in the cities and towns, hired to merely maintain the rule of civil law…until they were assigned by the SS to round up Jews and deliver them alive to the train stations? Are their hands clean of blood?
Or, the hands of the farmwife who came to market in town and saw a haggard group of exhausted, broken, demoralized Jews being marched forcibly through the center of town to the waiting trucks at the town square? Did it never occur to them to wonder who these Jews were and where the trucks were taking them? Or, didn’t they have the moral courage or imagination to wonder, and just went about making their purchases instead?
What about the hands of the engineer of the cattle train that was requisitioned by the SS to transport these Jews from the trucks to the camps? Did he and his fireman ask each other what the Jews in the cattle cars would do once they arrived at the work camp? Did they ever discuss what the working conditions were like at the camp, and how the Jews were treated by the guards? Or, did they consider it none of their business?
Or, the hands of the farmer out in his potato field. Did he not notice the unusual odor of smoke drifting downwind from the “work camp” between the neighboring village and his? Did he not know what…or who…was being burned? Did the men with whom he had a glass of beer or two at the local watering hole at the end of a workday ever mention to one another the odor or the smoke? Did they ever acknowledge, even to themselves, their suspicions about what really went on in the camp?
If we don’t acknowledge to ourselves our own capacity for evil, we will, like Himmler, project it and attack it elsewhere.”
Bohjalian’s novel, and I hope mine, too, should make us ask ourselves if we, too, are looking the other way as the current administration in Washington is waging a war, not just of words, against immigrants, refugees and people of color?
Accidental Saviors will be released approximately April 20 by Can’t Put It Down Books. You can preorder the ebook version for $2.99 at: https://www.amazon.com/Accidental-Saviors-Jack-Saarela-ebook/dp/B07BN5NBZ9/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522629843&sr=8-1&keywords=Jack+Saarela.
On April 20, the ebook will be delivered directly to your e-reader.
The paperback version will be available at the same time. You can pre-order for $9.99 on my website: jacksaarela.com. Click on “Purchase Jack’s Books”.
Until the next time, live this unique day given to us as a gift to its fullest. And, let me know what you’re reading and what you like.