Two men in whom history has engendered mutual hatred gradually surmount their past experiences in this absorbing novel.
Elderly Nathan Klein is in a nursing home recovering from a stroke when he sees an old man with one leg sitting on a bench in the garden. In a spasm of revulsion, he recognizes the man as Herr Arbeitsleiter Gerhard Reichenberg, the Nazi officer whose battalion demolished Klein’s native Polish ghetto and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Despite the efforts of a warmhearted physical therapist, Miss Hedberg, Nathan cannot help but envisage Gerhard as the epitome of Nazi cruelty. Gradually however, with Miss Hedberg acting as postmistress, the two men begin a correspondence.
The halting revelation of their memories is well paced and convincingly drawn. Nathan vents his hatred of those who perpetrated the Holocaust, and is surprised when Gerhard reveals his secret: He had fallen in love with a beautiful young Jewish girl who had been sent to clean his military quarters. He has been vainly searching for her for 50 years, meanwhile having metamorphosed into a man ashamed of his country and its wartime atrocities.
The book’s most impressive passage is Gerhard’s description of a post-war visit to Jerusalem, vividly illuminated with precise sensory images and sociological detail. Equally as moving is Nathan’s description of returning to his empty village after six hellish months of hiding in the nearby forest. A jarring note, however, occurs when Klausenstock emphasizes Nathan’s lonely existence by giving him a pretentious son married to a spoiled materialistic flibbertigibit, both of whom Nathan despises.
Reconciliation of Holocaust enemies is not a new theme, but the story gains substance and dimension by Klausenstock’s assured use of physical and atmospheric details, and by psychological insights that slowly reveal the sources of each man’s behavior. Klausenstock is a fluent writer, in command of his material and his historical period. The novel’s redemptive message should satisfy anyone looking for an uplifting read.
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