Illustration by Moran Barak
Inscription reads 'Mother, Hitler killed my son.' Photo by Illustration by Moran Barak
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In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Goose Girl," there's a talking horse by the name of Falada. The horse belongs to the Every man dies alonestory's heroine, a modest, good-hearted princess. While on her way to a faraway kingdom to join the prince to whom she's betrothed, her evil maidservant forces her to switch places and swears her to silence - on pain of death. When the two reach the prince's kingdom, to keep Falada from revealing the truth, the false princess orders that the horse be beheaded. The real princess, now forced to tend the geese, bribes the local butcher to place the head of Falada on the fence she passes each day so she can see a friendly face. From then on, every day, as she goes out to work, the decapitated head of the talking horse says to her: "O princess, if your mother could only see you now, it would break her heart in two."

Hans Fallada's "Every man dies alone" was translated to Hebrew from the German by Yosefa Simon and published by Yedioth Books . Not for nothing did its author, Rudolf Ditzen, choose the pseudonym Fallada (which he spells with two Ls ): His book, just like the horse's head in the fairy tale, reveals a simple truth. The prose is spare and utterly straightforward. It is a book written by a man fighting for his sanity, who knows his days are numbered, who conducted profound soul-searching - and surely viewed himself above all as that disembodied head, telling all of Germany and every German: "If your mother could see you now, it would break her heart in two."

Decades after the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the nations of the world still cannot make up their minds: Were the Germans of the Nazi era a monolithic bloc of inhuman monsters? Or were they human beings, like me and you? This is a double-edged sword: Say that the Nazis and their supporters were human beings and you're ostensibly saying that the responsibility for the horrors does not fall on them alone, but also on their life circumstances; say that the Nazis and their supporters were inhuman monsters caught in the grip of mass psychosis and you've absolved all the individuals of responsibility.

In "Every man dies alone," Ditzen/Fallada tells the truth about these people, under extreme conditions. Conditions in which the average person discovers his true identity: as either a despicable creature or a human being.

The biography of Ditzen is complicated, replete with contradictory events, due to the alternating demonization and glorification of him by successive generations. He was born in northern Germany in 1893, the son of a respected judge who moved from city to city in accordance with the demands of his work. Until adolescence, he was raised at home with strict Prussian discipline; afterward he was sent to boarding school. At 16, he was struck by a traveling cart (the horse also kicked him in the face ) and at 17 he became ill with typhus. The many medicines and pain-relievers Ditzen took because of his injuries and his illness fostered a dependence that developed into a life-long addiction to drugs.

At 18, a melancholy young adult acting in the finest German romantic tradition, he made a morbid agreement with his best friend, Hans Dietrich von Necker. The two wanted to commit suicide, but felt that it was too shameful a way to die. So they decided that they would face each other in a duel and kill each other. But only Ditzen hit his target. Von Necker was killed and Ditzen immediately shot himself in the chest - but the bullet missed his heart. He was arrested and charged with murder, but acquitted by reason of temporary insanity and committed to a mental hospital in what would be the first of many hospitalizations over the years.

After World War I (in which he served as a supply clerk, far from the front ), Ditzen worked at a wide variety of jobs (book salesman, farming consultant, estate agent, accountant and potato grower ), the money from which mostly went to feed his addiction to morphine; twice he was convicted of stealing seeds. By the time of his second prison stint, in 1926, he was completely addicted to morphine and also a full-blown alcoholic. Nonetheless, he still managed to publish two novels, which did not garner much attention. In prison, at any rate, he was weaned off the morphine, and upon his return to Hamburg, aimless and unemployed, he married a woman by the name of Anna Margarete Issel. He got a respectable job at the local newspaper in Holstein and things began to look up.

In 1930, he resumed writing, and in 1932 his most famous work was published - "Little Man, What Now?" which depicts the life of a young couple, a clerk and the daughter of a working-class family (alter-ego of his wife Anna ), who are struggling to survive in the shadow of the terrible unemployment crisis that ravaged Germany in those years.

Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Graham Greene were among those who praised the book and made it a best-seller in Germany, England and the United States. Two years later, it was made into a Hollywood movie.

When the authorities in Nazi Germany discovered that the movie's producers (Universal Studios ) were Jewish, they prohibited Ditzen from selling translation and adaptation rights to his books outside of Germany. In 1935, he was blacklisted. He returned to alcohol and drugs, had an affair with another morphine addict (whom he later married in 1945 ) and was repeatedly summoned for questioning due to his ongoing refusal to register as a member of the Nazi Party. His British publisher even organized a rescue boat to help him escape, but Ditzen decided at the last minute that he couldn't leave his home.

For a while he also became a favorite of Joseph Goebbels, thanks to a novel he wrote that was perceived by the Nazi propaganda ministry as a polemic against the Weimar Republic. But after rebuffing Goebbels' attempts to get him to write an anti-Semitic novel - and following an incident in which he threatened to shoot his ex-wife - Ditzen was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. In an effort to buy time, he promised to write the requested anti-Semitic novel, but instead used his time and the paper he was provided with to write three other novels, in a coded text that was only deciphered after his death. One of these books was "The Drinker," thought by many to be his best work. It's the brutally honest confession of a chronic drunk, based in large part on the author's autobiography.

Toward the end of World War II, when the Red Army conquered the city of Feldberg, as a well-known figure unaffiliated with the Nazi regime, Ditzen was asked to give a speech. In wake of the address, he was appointed mayor of the city, but only served for 18 months. From there he moved to East Berlin. In 1945, Johannes Becher (who later became the East German culture minister) gave him the Gestapo file on the Hempel couple, and encouraged him to write a novel based on their story.

'You and your Fuhrer'

Otto and Elise Hempel were a middle-aged, working-class couple, among the small minority of Germans who independently opposed the Nazi regime. Their resistance included the writing of protest postcards against Adolf Hilter and the Nazi regime, and disseminating them in Berlin. Although their protest barely caused a ripple (most of the postcards that were found were immediately handed over to the Gestapo), their activity embarrassed the heads of the secret police, who for over two years were unable to put their hands on the unknown distributors of the cards.

Ditzen took on the challenge of writing their story and did so with lightning speed (some say the entire book was written in just 24 days; others say it took 47). This was not unusual for the author, who since the early 1930s had been writing his books at a very fast clip, even remarking once that his "writing attacks" were not much different in their intensity from his episodes of drinking or drug-taking. However, his unstable mental state and serious addiction finally did him in: Just a few weeks before the book came out, Ditzen died of a morphine overdose. "Every man dies alone" is based on the story of the Hempels, but it is fiction. This is a novel whose framing story is the resistance campaign waged by a couple called Otto and Anna Quangel. But it also paints a broader picture of all the tenants of the building in which they live, at 55 Jablonski Strasse, close to Alexanderplatz. The tenants comprise a wide array of characters: old Mrs. Rosenthal, the last Jew in the building; the eminent Judge Fromm, who also takes action against the Nazis in some ways; the pitiful postwoman Eva Kluge, who is harassed by her no-good ex-husband and is devastated to learn of her son's horrifying activity in the service of the SS; Borkhausen, the informer and his prostitute-wife; and the loathsome and loud Persicke family, consisting of drunkard father and cowed mother, two sons in the SS plus the most successful son, Baldur, an ambitious type climbing his way up the Nazi ladder thanks to his loyalty and devotion to the party's ideology and activities.

The book opens with a letter from the army that the postwoman, Kluge, delivers to the Quangels on the day the German nation learns of France's surrender. The letter does not contain good news: They are informed that their only son, who was stationed at the front, has been killed.

Anna, distraught with grief, vents her fury at her husband, shouting at him: "You did this with your miserable war! You and your Fuhrer!" Otto is profoundly hurt by this sudden and unfair association with the Fuhrer, and so begins his process of rebellion. It is a process that will evolve throughout the book, a process that starts with his taking exception to the words "your Fuhrer," continues with the dissemination of the resistance postcards and culminates, of course, with the execution of the Quangels for incitement and treason against the Nazi regime.

In the book, Ditzen presents a world ruled by fear, and perhaps above all, by the pernicious culture of informing. There are no one-dimensional heroes or villains in this tale. The author depicts the complexity of each character not in order to justify or praise that character's actions, but like any good story-teller, to paint an authentic picture in many shades of gray. The main protagonist, Otto Quangel, for example, is not a nice fellow. He doesn't like to chat with his neighbors, doesn't join his co-workers for smoking breaks, doesn't like to visit relatives and has no friends. There is just one person in the world whom Otto truly loves, and that is his wife Anna; he loves their son mostly to please his wife. And the love Otto shows for Anna isn't very warm and tender; although there are moments when he desires to express his love more affectionately, he's just not that kind of guy, and he accepts that. Perhaps the reason he accepts it is that he knows that deep down he is a decent person. He has never cheated anyone, never lied to anyone, never informed on anyone, has always worked hard (even when the authorities transferred him from his job as a master carpenter, which he loved, to a job as a plant manager, which bores and depresses him, although he performs it well nonetheless ). He is repulsed by the Nazis, but at first prefers to just ignore the situation around him and quietly await their downfall and defeat. But there comes a time when he decides to take a stand. To risk his life and confront the reign of terror.

"Every man dies alone" has barely any out-and-out bad guys, but it has evil aplenty, and anyone is liable to be on the receiving end, including those who perpetrate the worst deeds. By the same token, there are no unreservedly good guys, and those characters that do good are far from perfect angels. They get scared, they get angry, they would prefer above all else (like most people ) to just safeguard their own home and family, but extreme circumstances push them to go out on a limb and take action.

Refuting the criticism

After his death, Rudolf Ditzen was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis. The first claim is not very difficult to refute; perhaps the clearest evidence is the main character in "Little Man, What Now?" - a Jew by the name of Johannes Pinneberg, represents the typical little German man, a decent fellow just trying to survive in a world that is going mad. At one moment of crisis in the story (one of many ), in which the protagonist and his wife are confronted with a new edict obliging the salespeople in the shop where Pinneberg works to meet a certain sales quota (a practically impossible goal, given the deep economic recession ), Pinneberg's wife Lammchen says: "What they are doing now, to the workers for some time and now to us, is creating nothing but wild beasts and - I tell you, Sonny - they've got something coming to them." Johannes agrees and says: "It certainly will. Most in this place are Nazis already."

As far as the accusation of collaboration with the Nazis: It is true that the author did have a certain relationship with Goebbels, one that evidently caused him much suffering and which he maintained solely in order to survive. But he steadfastly refused to write the anti-Semitic novel that Goebbels pressured him to produce, even though this refusal could have cost him his life. "Every man dies alone" contains a particularly grotesque depiction of a relationship between Goebbels and a random protege.

After he died, Ditzen was gradually forgotten outside of Germany. The fact that he hadn't fled from Nazi Germany at a time when most German writers did, and the fact that he chose to settle in the Soviet-conquered territory and to support the Soviets after the war, made his name unfashionable in certain circles - especially in the English-speaking world, in the shadow of the Cold War. In Israel, where many translations of works by writers from the "new Germany" (Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll and others ) can be found, only Ditzen/Fallada's "Little Man, What Now?" and "Who Once Eats Out of the Tin Bowl" have been translated into Hebrew, and his name was hardly known in the past. And this is the author of the book ("Every man dies alone" ) that Primo Levi once called "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis." Well, now readers of Hebrew have their chance.

The book, also publsihed under the title "Alone in Berlin", was first entitled "Every Man Dies Alone" - a concept which is "something you will never understand," Quangel tells his interrogator, when he finally realizes the ineffectiveness of his resistance. "It doesn't matter if one man fights or 10,000; if the one man sees he has no option but to fight, he will fight, whether he has others on his side or not. I had to fight, and given the choice I would do it again only I would do it very differently."

"Every man dies alone" is a must-read for anyone who has ever asked himself, "What would I have done if ...?" But not because it supplies clear-cut answers. No great literary work provides a message that can be boiled down to five words. "Every man dies alone" is a great literary work first of all because it is wonderfully written and affords a broad perspective of a period that human society has yet to fully grasp (and probably never will ). But its profound moral importance lies in the way it reminds every reader of conscience that, in the end, every individual, even when waging a struggle for change that could cost him his life, lives and dies for himself. According to Ditzen's outlook, the heroism of self-sacrifice is a mere byproduct. In a reality of evil and oppression, any display of decency and good-conscience is the result of an inner compulsion felt by a human being who understands that the war between good and evil is played out, first and foremost, within his or her soul.

The Fallada phenomenon

A year ago, "Every man dies alone" was published in the United States by Melville House Publishing, a small independent publisher. Its trajectory contrasts neatly with that of Jonathan Littell's "The Kindly Ones," another tale of Germans under the Nazis. After Littell's book made such a big splash in Europe, the U.S. rights were sold for an astronomical sum, but sales subsequently proved quite disappointing. "Every man dies alone" was purchased for a modest sum, but became a chart-breaking best-seller, dubbed "the literary event of the year" in numerous articles and made "Hans Fallada" a celebrated name in American literary circles.

The British distribution rights to "Every man dies alone" were purchased by Penguin, and the book became a best-seller in England, too.

"I feel that a lot of good literature disappeared during the time between the two world wars, and so every time I hear about someone who is traveling or about someone who knows something that I haven't heard about before, I get interested right away," says Dennis Johnson of Melville House, by telephone from New York.

"One of the first books we published was in cooperation with fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg. We published a book about a relative of hers who was a doctor who did forced labor at Auschwitz. She told us about Hans Fallada and said she couldn't understand why this writer was unknown in the English-speaking world. I started looking into it and discovered that some of his books had been translated into English in the 1930s. Of course, all the copies were long gone, but I went on a private hunting expedition and I found them. I made up my mind that I had to rescue him from oblivion. At some point, I met an admirer of Fallada who had also translated 'Every man dies alone' into English and was searching for a publisher. It was a lousy translation, but at least I could read him in English.

"When I finished reading it, I knew that I had to publish it. I knew it would make people think and that as soon as they finished the book they would have to talk about it with someone. The book was received very well. It started with a very good review in The New York Times and it took off from there. That's how it works in publishing: You gamble on something and you have to go with your instincts. But our goal wasn't just to publish one book of Fallada's so that it would be a hit. The goal was to bring him back to people's awareness."

Asked about the secret to the book's hold over readers, Johnson says: "One of the main achievements of 'Every man dies alone' is that you cannot help thinking 'What would I have done in that situation? Would I have been able to show such courage?' The Quangels' resistance activity has little effect, it's almost pathetic, but they know that they are risking their lives and they do in fact end up paying with their lives.

"I read the book for the first time during the Bush presidency, when America had become a very right-wing country. I'm not saying that Bush is a Nazi, but a lot of people felt that their country was slipping through their hands. The United States behaved like a bully, and attacked countries that had no connection to the events of September 11. These were very dark moments in our country's history, especially when we began to discover all kinds of frightening truths about this administration. I think that's also something that made the book reverberate. People talked about it."

As a rule, he adds, the danger of a fascist regime is never very far away. "After reading 'Every man dies alone,' it's very easy to imagine your neighbors as some of the characters. You think to yourself: 'I have a neighbor who's just like that. I have a neighbor who would behave in just the same way in those circumstances. How would I behave in such circumstances?' This is what great art does, and why I consider this book a masterpiece."

Ditzen was accused of collaboration with the Nazis.

Johnson: "I think that 'Every man dies alone' is also his atonement for not having done more to oppose the Nazis. And in a certain sense I also see this book as his final metaphor. For what do his protagonists do in order to oppose the regime? They write. Yes, they write postcards, and the modesty and ineffectualness of their struggle evokes pity, but they still risk their lives with their writing. And that's what the author himself did."