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The Good Germans?

Book Review: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian


Published June 11, 2008 at 5:57 a.m.


Germany’s systematic murder of six million Jews prompted two questions that still nag today, despite reams of literature on the subject. Why didn’t ordinary German citizens protest what they surely knew was going on in their own backyards? And why didn’t more Jews resist their own arrest and deportation?

Lincoln writer Chris Bohjalian’s new book, Skeletons at the Feast, explores these questions through a story with gratifyingly heroic protagonists. Set in eastern Germany and opening in January 1945, the novel follows three parties on the move, all trudging west through the snow ahead of the advancing Russian army. The three — a Nazi-connected German family, a young Jewish man in disguise, and a group of Jewish women prisoners being herded from a concentration camp — are unknown to one another until their routes happen to cross. The result is generosity and forgiveness all around.

The Emmerichs are a family of Prussian aristocrats whose land, near Kulm, lay directly in the path of the brutally retributive “Ivan.” For 20 years after the end of World War I, the region belonged to Poland, so Rolf, Mutti (“Mommy” in German) and their four children were ecstatic with Hitler when he reunified them with Germany. Nevertheless, they lack anti-Semitic feelings. They even briefly harbored fleeing Jewish friends — without thinking too closely about that family’s subsequent disappearance. The party line that the Jews are merely being “resettled” is enough for them.

Having lost their farm help and oldest son to the war effort, the Emmerichs have been using the slave labor of Allied prisoners of war, secured through party connections. Now, as they plod west, they’re hiding one remaining POW, Callum Finella, under horse feed in one of their wagons. The 22-year-old Scot will be their “goodwill offering” once they reach Allied lines. That’s lucky for 18-year-old Anna, the family’s only daughter: She and Callum have secretly fallen in love.

Then there is Uri Singer, a 26-year-old Jew from Schweinfurt. Uri is the rare escapee from a deportation train headed to Auschwitz in 1943. Forced to board the cattle car without his family, he decided to jump — and avoided the bullets fired by enraged SS officers. He has survived by shooting Wehrmacht soldiers and appropriating their identities. To the Emmerichs, whom he soon joins on the road, he’s Manfred, a decorated officer temporarily separated from his unit. Uri sticks with them because he thinks the red-haired Scottish paratrooper might be useful to him if he ever reaches Allied lines. And this “clan of Nazi beet farmers from Prussia” is rather friendly, despite Anna and Mutti’s whopping ignorance of their government’s atrocities against his people.

Finally, Cecile, a 23-year-old from Lyon, is one of hundreds of Jewish women forced to walk untold miles to continue their slave labor — or perhaps simply to be shot — farther west. Sweet Cecile’s principal attribute is hopefulness, which helps highlight the horror of the SS guards’ random acts of violence against the women. But Bohjalian’s vivid and sometimes oddly extended descriptions don’t really need the help.

The titular “skeletons at the feast” are Germans facing their crumbling Reich’s defeat. Anna’s uncle utters the phrase, implying that they are doomed whether they stay and wait for the Russians or flee. Ironically, the real-life skeletons are Cecile and her friends. Bohjalian’s characters love to savor the ironies around them, but this is one observation he leaves for the reader.

Skeletons at the Feast has been inaccurately billed as a wartime love story. It’s really the story of the Emmerich women’s gradual acknowledgment, under gentle pressure from the men, of Nazi atrocities and their own unintended complicity with them. Bohjalian’s 11th novel is also his first to tackle this subject. He derived the framework of the trek west from a Prussian woman’s diary of that era, authored by a friend’s grandmother.

In any case, the book is not so much a love story as a love-making story. Fumbling for Callum’s hand under the sacks of feed, Anna thinks of a different appendage — and that’s the reader’s introduction to their relationship. Three detailed sex scenes succeed in conveying the abandon of youth and the relief the act brings during war, but they also seem prurient and film-script-oriented — rather like the book’s scenes of violence.

Big-screen clichés, in fact, abound. Callum’s hair is “sunset red,” Anna’s “the color of corn silk”; both traits are noted throughout the book, like a lighting cue to future filmmakers. Anna is, of course, the most beautiful woman around, and Callum is “brawny and tall.” The latter choice is briefly justified when, halfway through the book, Gabi — the racist daughter of Mutti’s longtime friend Klara — declares him wonderfully close to the Aryan model of human perfection.

But there is a certain disappointing Hollywood quality to a novel in which the likeable characters are dashing and capable, and the despicable — or merely pitiable — ones are decidedly not. Gabi is “pathetically homely.” Her friend Sonje, who nearly jumps Uri, to his utter shock, is “tall and gangly with a skeletal stalk linking her collarbone with a chin as sharp as a goatee and eyes that bulged out like a bug’s.” Phew.

The least predictable character, appearing late in the novel, is a young SS soldier manning a checkpoint: His every infuriating utterance could be quoted from a border grilling at Highgate Springs. One reading of this scene, and the old adage “write what you know” springs to mind.

Bohjalian’s book no doubt will appeal to World War II aficionados and fans of historical novels. Skeletons fulfills the expectations of its genre: It entertains while imparting historical detail. It will also most likely catch the eye of film directors looking for another box-office hit set during “the good war.” And no one would begrudge the Oprah-chosen novelist that next step in his career.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the Holocaust should not be handled lightly as a source material for literature. The horror of its reality is still difficult to process today. Authors grappling with the unfathomable facts tend to avoid stock characters and feel-good resolutions, finding them inadequate. French writer Michel Tournier’s unforgettable 1970 novel The Ogre, for example, features a main character who cannot tell myth from reality; Canadian Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces (1996) is a dense meditation on memory. But perhaps these novels about Nazi atrocities are unfair comparisons: They are intricate literary works, not plot-driven historical tales. Fortunately for Bohjalian, readers of the latter tend to outnumber those of the former.

In any case, Bohjalian’s main purpose is to write not a Holocaust novel but a kind of fable, judging by his epigraph from William Faulkner (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”). That friendly, patriotic German family unwilling to believe its government isn’t entirely well intentioned may be meant to ring a bell. Woe to ordinary Americans, the message presumably goes, who fail to educate themselves about the atrocities being committed in Iraq and elsewhere in their name. (One hopes the lesson is meant to have broader scope; the Third Reich comparison may lend a little too much grandiosity to the Bush administration’s self-interested invasion of Iraq.)

Skeletons at the Feast offers comforting answers to the two questions at the start of this review. Ordinary Germans didn’t really know what was going on — with a little help from their desire not to know — and outrageously daring Jews existed. Personal stories of heroism always make for great page turners. But Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz will do far more to remind us not to repeat the past than will Bohjalian’s entertaining narrative.