By the time you read this post, I’ll have visited my protagonist’s hometown, Leipzig, Germany. I expect the city will be strange to both of us—I’ve never been there and he, Viktor, left home in 1942 to join Hitler’s army. That was before the Allied air raids, before the mayor and his wife committed suicide in his office just before the Americans stormed in, before it became a city in East Germany with miles of Soviet-style buildings that sprung up where the war-rubble used to be, before Germany was made whole again in 1989. I imagine him walking beside me, squinting and gaping, seeking the familiar, stunned at what is gone and speaking haltingly in the German he was determined to forget.
I’ve been preparing for this trip for awhile. There is an understandable ambivalence among Germans about tourists like me, who make a beeline for museums and libraries and sites that memorialize their horrific past. Leipzig has the double whammy of the relics of Nazi horror and the post-war terror of the Stasi, the secret police, which instituted constant surveillance, neighbors informing on neighbors, children on their parents. But impressively, there are well-funded museums and Germans who run them. They are dedicated to education, to remembering, to warning. But every travel website goes to great pains to emphasize other attractions, e.g. the burgeoning hipster art scene in the Leipzig’s former industrial zone, the newest haven for struggling artists—“Hype-zig,” some wags call it. And there are magnificent churches, a renowned zoo, great musical venues, and a museum that celebrates the city “famous for its coffee culture.” (Who knew?)
But even those committed to remembering are sensitive. Careful. There is an archive dedicated to educating Germans about wartime manufacturing in Leipzig. The city’s factory owners used concentration camp prisoners to produce materièl for the war, everything from thread for uniforms to parts for the Messerschmitts. But on the archive’s website and with the German staff I have contacted, these workers are referred to as “forced labor,” not “slave labor.” Huh. Words matter, right? Is the phrase “slave labor” so toxic that it would shut down the archive’s mission to educate? Or is it residual German denial? Or maybe it’s a distinction that before the journey, I just can’t quite see.
Preparing for the trip, I’ve looked at photos and old city maps online, and tried to imagine Viktor’s neighborhood, the middle class flat where he lived with his morose, bitter father, the park he played in, where Jews were only permitted to sit on benches painted yellow until they were banned from that public place altogether. What went through his mind when he saw those benches, this Aryan boy on his bicycle? That’s the heart of all WWII Holocaust-related literature, isn’t it? What any book exploring this subject inevitably asks? What did otherwise ordinary, decent Germans tell themselves when the horror and insanity was so visible in their daily lives? The question we are really asking, of course, is this: would I have responded better?
Like thousands of writers of fiction and poetry and history, I’m asking that same question and it’s never answered in a fully satisfying way and I won’t manage it either. But after Cambodia, Rwanda, the current horrors in Syria, it’s a question that demands repeated asking. My own belief is that every human being is capable of that kind of denial and complicity. But how universal is the capacity for unfailing moral clarity and heroism? Of that, I’m not so sure.
My protagonist is not the kind of hero often seen in WWII fiction. Viktor saves no one but himself. But I’m going to Leipzig because there are things I don’t yet “get” about this young man I’ve created, even though I named him, gave him a face and body, a wife, parents, in-laws, flaws, fears, favorite books. His genesis is in my laptop: a mash-up of the German men whose memoirs I’ve read plus conscious and not-so conscious pieces of myself, a Jewish American woman born years after the war. Like any parent, I regard this creation of mine as utterly familiar and an enigma. I suspect going to Leipzig will answer a few questions about Viktor and will raise even more. But I already know that when I’m really listening to him, when I’m in that nearly hallucinogenic zone, that place where writers of fiction hope to land, he never fails to surprise me and teach me something.