The German House, by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer) is a story of ordinary people woven around the first Auschwitz trials that ran from 1963 to 1965 in Frankfurt. The protagonist is a young woman named Eva who lives with her parents and siblings above their thriving restaurant. She works as a translator and is drawn to offer her services to the specially created legal court when she realises the truth of what happened at the Auschwitz camp and how it has been swept under the carpet of her country’s collective conscience. Jürgen, the wealthy young man she hopes will become her husband, is against Eva taking on the job, going so far as to try to forbid her. Likewise, her parents are concerned, although for more intimate reasons.
Twenty-two defendants were tried in Frankfurt under German criminal law for their roles as officials in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death and concentration camp complex. They all denied the charges. The court’s proceedings were largely public and served to bring many previously unknown, horrific details to the attention of the German population who, two decades after the events, had chosen to move on with their lives. The hundreds of witnesses called included camp survivors, many of whom had observed the worst of the atrocities. The sheer scale of what had happened was not believed by many, including Eva’s sister, Annegret, a nurse with dark secrets of her own.
The subject matter – systematic Holocaust – is obviously distressing to read about. What makes this story particularly powerful is the parallel consideration given to more everyday matters. After listening to the terrible detail of witness testimonies, the characters continue with their family concerns and pleasures. Jürgen and Eva meet each other’s parents. Annegret starts an affair with a colleague. A Canadian on the legal team grows closer to a prostitute he has been using, who is distracted by her son’s educational aspirations. All have personal issues to contend with, now affected by the reminder of what their fellow man is capable of.
The writing is jagged in places, – dynamic and direct – as the trial progresses. Eva is struggling with the growing realisation that her beloved parents have not been entirely honest with her. Annegret is disdainful, accusing the witnesses of attention seeking, something she understands all too well. Jürgen grows jealous and attempts to exert greater control, fearful of taking on a wife who will not obey him. Eva’s crisis of identity results in her becoming less pliable and ever more alone.
It is too easy to assume that those who do monstrous things must be monsters. What this story brings home is the selfish complicity of supposedly good people and how shame leads to secrecy or even denial. Towards the end of the story there is a scene where Eva, wracked with guilt by association, talks to a camp survivor. His response provides a moving and candid understanding of how self-absorbed even those seeking some form of redress often are.
This is a moving but also compelling tale that opens a window on human behaviour – and how the instinct for survival can result in a terrible cost. It is a timely reminder that, “crimes of such magnitude […] could never have come to pass had only a tiny sliver of the population been complicit.” As Eva discovers, complicity can include doing nothing.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Harper Via.