This is a very well-written story of betrayal, bravery and its shameful opposite, cowardice. In an imagined novel about true events, acclaimed author, Anna Funder, has presented a visual of Hitler’s brutality, the political games played during his regime, and the accompanying blind eye of the world, from shortly after World War I, leading up to World War II. This book shines a bright light on the lives of those unsung heroes who bravely fought injustice but were often betrayed by those close to them who were spineless or misguided by their own fear or bigotry.
The author’s use of the English language is superb. The reader is treated as an educated observer, drawn carefully into the mystery with excellent character studies and scene set-ups. Sexual images were not reduced to the erotic descriptions of some books today, but rather were beautifully drawn, tasteful, and sensitive, not meant to titillate but to educate the reader about the interaction of the characters.
The book starts simply enough, with a statement that was the harbinger of things to come,
“when Hitler came to power, I was in the bath…” No one could have imagined the horror to come more than a decade later. The book is told in two voices, one is Dr.Ernst Toller, a famous playwright of that time who opposed Hitler. The other is Dr. Ruth Weseman, based on the real life Dr. Ruth Blatt. It is through these two characters that the story of Dr. Dora Fabian is told. She was truly a brave, young woman, single-minded in her opposition to Hitler, who risked her life to get the truth out into the open, but the world was not listening to her or any of those like her. The world was busy playing politics. Disbelief about the unimaginable crimes against humanity, along with personal bigotry and a need for self preservation, and the fear that this unthinkable cruelty would be visited upon themselves, their families or friends, kept the public from accepting or acting upon, the magnitude of the injustices perpetrated by Hitler during his slow, but steady, rise to power.
In the 20’s and 30’s, a group of Jews, members of the Independent Social Democratic Party, intent on creating a more just world after World War I, opposed to Hitler and his rising regime, left Germany, in fear for their lives, and settled in London. They were allowed to remain for three months at a time, with renewable visas, forbidden from doing anything political. They, however, were unable, without shame, not to fight back against the growing army of Hitler’s supporters, and so they disobeyed the law. In some cases, although Britain was aware of the atrocities being committed, they remanded some of them back to German custody.
Ruth is quite elderly, retreating into her memories. She is a resolute woman who seems a bit cynical and also unsure or confused about why she is still living and others are not. She was once married to Hans Weseman. Ernst and Dora were acutely well suited to each other. Although they were not married, Dora loved her freedom, still, their love was constant, even if troubled, and it chronicled Hitler’s rise to power. Ernst, Dora, Ruth and Hans were all friends, members of a Socialist Party that opposed Hitler’s National Socialists. Hans, among them, is the only non-Jew.
Because the book is narrated by two characters separated in the telling by several decades, the timeline of the speakers was sometimes confusing. Toller relates his experiences with Dora, beginning in the early 1920’s, to the woman working for him in the late 1930’s. At times, I wasn’t sure if he was speaking to Clara or Dora. Ruth relates her story to her caregiver, Bev, in the 1990’s and when she slips back into the 30’s, it is sometimes difficult to discern immediately. Once the rhythm is established, however, it all falls into place and we witness the author deftly moving us from a memory in the past to one in the future. For instance, Toller sets out to deliver a note to his wife, Christiane, in the 30’s, and suddenly, the narrative switches to Ruth, in the 90’s, who is also setting out to go for a walk to get some air and escape the confines of her living quarters. Both walks are followed by disastrous incidents. As Toller remembers Dora and her minimal drug use in the 20's, we are suddenly witnessing Dora in the bathroom with a hypodermic in the 30's. Then we see Ruth in a hospital, in the 90's, on drugs for pain, after she has fallen. We witness the performance of a woman, sometime in the 1930’s, as Ruth and Hans watch; she is pulling handkerchiefs out from under her rubber dress, and then, we are witnessing Bev, Ruth’s caretaker, in the 90's, asking her for the location of her rubber gloves. These scenes and so many others, truly segue seamlessly together to move the dialogue along, throughout the story.
In the two narrations, one speaker is old, with memories that fade in and out, while the other, younger, in his middle 40’s, is also a bit unstable, with memories that grieve him to distraction. As Ruth dreams, Toller has visions. Their memories tell the story of this indomitable, free- spirited precursor to the woman’s libber, Dora Fabian, a forward thinker, a woman with the purest hunger to rescue Jews and those willing to fight the good cause, against the growing threat of National Socialism. It is through their combined reminiscences that we learn of their lives during the time of Hitler, of their heroism; we learn about their friends and their enemies, some that will be very surprising to the reader. Treachery came from surprising quarters. Ruth attempted to fight Hitler in any way she could, helping her cousin Dora who was really the central figure in the resistance effort. Dora and Toller attempted to spread the word about Hitler’s hateful behavior to the world. The world continued to be deaf, dumb and blind. Hitler was taking over quietly, subtly assuming more and more power, placing himself above the law, without opposition from any quarter. His grasp of politics and his skill at taking control was huge. The changes in the laws were insidious. Before anyone was aware of the changes, freedom was truly lost for enormous segments of the German population, and this was, surprisingly, even before he brought war to the world.
As the book moves back and forth from the US in 1939, with Toller’s effort to immortalize Dora, by writing about her, to Australia in the 1990’s, where Ruth’s memories bring her into the present and past at will, we learn of the bravery of this small group of people and their courageous efforts, often thwarted by the highest authorities, because of their refusal to recognize what was in front of their eyes, because of politics, because of blatant anti-Semitism, and other prejudices coupled with enormous greed and envy.
On p. 187 of the book, there is a statement about the fact that they underestimated that the liberation from selfhood offered by the Nazis, would have such a lure of mindless belonging and purpose, and in its essence, that statement is the crux of the explanation of the times and the rationalization of the people. Hitler offered the Germans a way out, a way to feel good again, and they simply took it and never looked back or thought about the cost.
The heroism of those few who stood up to the madness of “the madman”, is simply and credibly expressed between these pages. They had no idea what motivated the people to follow Hitler and believed, if only they knew about his heinous activities, they would soon wake up to prevent his further rise to power. They were woefully naïve, although well intentioned.
I was not surprised to learn of the widespread anti-Semitism, which is now common knowledge, but I was surprised to learn that England, which offered them safe haven, after a fashion, also betrayed them by sending them back for the sake of political expedience, even knowing that the Nazis had often entered illegally into countries and assassinated those speaking against their regime, and knowing that those they returned would be imprisoned or worse. The Jews were not truly welcomed anywhere but Shanghai, China. All other shores forbade their entrance without a passport and Hitler confiscated their passports to make them stateless. All of the countries were complicit in the mass slaughter, one way or another. This stain upon history will not easily be erased.