Marrow and Bone

Jonathan Fabrizius is a journalist living comfortably in 1980s Hamburg thanks to a rich uncle, but his thoughts often turn to the Nazi years and the end of WWII when his family fled East Prussia.  His mother died in a cart giving birth to him and that death and the chaos of flight sometimes seem more real than the life he’s living.

Out of the blue, he gets an assignment to travel in a luxurious new Japanese car into former East Prussia to report on local culture while the driver and another passenger record the route for a future rally.  And the fee is tremendous: 5,000 marks with negotiable expenses.

As he thinks of it, “his job was to write an article about the cultural riches of the People’s Republic of Poland.”  Given that he’s traveling through a once-German region that was called Masuria, despite new Polish names for towns, those riches don’t seem very Polish or even much in evidence.  He’s most impressed by a massive medieval fort built by the Teutonic Knights and a huge Gothic redbrick church.  Such churches in northern Europe are his obsession.

The tone of dark and sometimes bizarre humor is set almost immediately by the work his Swedish girlfriend is doing to curate a museum exhibition on cruelty.  She’s gathering materials about massacres and torture with a museum director who actually believes that excessive “pedantry” can be a form of “secondary” cruelty–and so can hit-and-run accidents.

There are no accidents on Jonathan’s off-kilter road trip, but it’s broken up by an unexpected robbery, encounters with curious peasants and obnoxious German tourists, meals that are inconsistent or not available, shabby hotels, and Jonathan’s travel companions. They work for the car company:  Hansi is a famous race car driver with epic adventure stories behind him and chatty Frau Winkelvoss wears twenty-six necklaces, harem pants and a blizzard of scarves as she and Hansi help record the route in meticulous detail. Their “map” will guide drivers in some future rally.

Jonathan’s snark is his shield against feeling anything much at all.  A typical observation: When Frau Winkelvoss can’t get good coffee at a Polish café he notes “Presumably during the war there wouldn’t have been any coffee here under the Germans either.”

The trip into his past (and Germany’s) challenges and then slowly strips away his sarcasm as he comes closer and closer to where his parents died and to an infamous concentration camp–that he can’t get into.

In Europe Kempowski is considered one of Germany’s greatest postwar writers but I hadn’t heard of him until I was on a book tour for the memoir My Germany and a professor said I had to read his book Have You Ever Seen Hitler? It’s based on interviews with people who lived through the rise and ruin of Nazi Germany and had wildly different opinions of their Fuehrer.  The book is a stunning record of a country where many people worshiped Hitler like a god,.

Equally stunning is the richly layered and detailed novel All for Nothing, set in an East Prussian manor house whose inhabitants see waves of refugees fleeing the Russian troops.  That book and this one have particular bite because Kempowski apparently himself witnessed waves of refugees as a teenager near the end of WWII.

Marrow and Bone is a sobering meditation on memory, forgetting, and the price paid for both.

Lev Raphael is the author of The German Money and twenty-six other books in many genres.

Review: “Did You Ever See Hitler?”

You’ve probably never heard of one of Germany’s most important post World War II authors, Walter Kempowski, but he’s a must read.  History doesn’t get much more intimate than it does in Did You Ever See Hitler?, his slim volume of interviews German citizens published in the mid-1970s. He asked them the provocative brief question: “Haben Sie Hitler gesehen?“ Did you ever see Hitler?

Kempowski compiled the book from over 300 interviews with people of all ages and professions, and the project gives you a crowd’s-eye view of Hitler from the 1920s through the end of World War II, concentrating on the effect the dictator had on people and was still having decades later.

Several threads emerge. Some people only saw him once, or barely at all in a motorcade rushing past. Others often saw and heard him in Berlin. The older respondents were the generation that “had fallen for Hitler” and tried to make sure that “the memory of this fall — and the memory of the man — died out.”


There are plenty of Germans in the book who almost brag that they weren’t impressed by Hitler, or that they found his manner or face weird (“like a pink marzipan pig”). Then there are others who said they couldn’t imagine he was going to be so powerful. Some of these same people report many public appearances in the 1930s that were less than crowded, and cities where Hitler was not wildly popular. Though as one man notes wryly, after the war, every German city claimed it had disappointed Hitler with small crowds.

But there are far more accounts of the elaborately stage-managed productions that thousands swarmed to, even if the school children or Hitler Youth were required to be there. And one after another, people talk about the hysteria Hitler evoked in women and girls: “The women were howling with delight,” “They were peeing in their pants with excitement, and the older women were moaning as if the Savior were coming,” “The women turned their eyes up so that the whites showed, and dropped like flies. Like slaughtered calves they lay there, breathing heavily,” “We hardly dared wash our hands for three days, we were so affected simply because he had touched them.”

And then there are the people who blame others for his mistakes or the war, and still believed in him. A number of Kempowski’s respondents refer to crowd psychosis and tell him that nobody today can imagine what it was like to be there, whatever one felt about Hitler. Even opponents could feel swayed by the spectacle and apparently by the man.

The volume, available used on Alibris, is illustrated with photos that don’t appear in the German edition. These were propaganda shots that made Hitler out to be avuncular, friendly, approachable, human. They were designed to fill albums which were printed in the hundreds of thousands, then given to students and youths who won prizes for filling them up.

Though many people speaking to Kempowski would claim  that Hitler didn’t move them, the main impression this amazing book leaves you with is the strange mixture of the quotidian and the bizarre. You can almost feel the hungry, thirsty hordes waiting for hours with their feet aching, and then coming to life when they see Germany’s new God appearing, blocking out the sun, promising to punish all enemies and make Germany great again.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in many genres including the memoir-travelogue My Germany.


*”hitler1″ by billium12 is licensed under CC BY 2.0