This Day in Jewish History

2011: The Holocaust Survivor Who Became a Star Novelist in His 90s Dies

He'd written the books decades earlier but they had to be hidden from the Nazis.

Hans Keilson published his first novel, in his native Germany, when he was in his mid-20s. It was banned by the Nazis almost immediately
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On May 31, 2011, the novelist and child psychologist Hans Keilson, a Holocaust survivor, died, at age 101.

Keilson published his first novel, in his native Germany, when he was in his mid-20s. It was banned by the Nazis almost immediately, and soon afterward, he fled the country. From that point, his life took on a very different trajectory, which included having his fiction rediscovered and published in translation, to international acclaim, when he was in his late 90s.

Hans Keilson was born in the German spa town of Bad Freienwalde on December 12, 1909. His father, Max, was a textile manufacturer who would be awarded the Iron Cross for his service in World War I. His mother was the former Else Buttermilch.

Life goes on strangely

Keilson completed medical school in Berlin in 1934, just in time to be banned from working in the profession, after the Nazis came to power. Instead, he found employment as a gym teacher in Jewish schools. He also wrote fiction, and in 1933, he succeeded in having a first novel, “Life Goes On,” brought out by the prominent German publisher S. Fischer.

“Life Goes On” is about the political and artistic awakening of a young man much like the author, in a Germany where an unnamed political demagogue rises to power on the back of a severe economic crisis. He also watches as his own father, a businessman, is destroyed economically.

It was the last debut novel by a Jew that Fischer would release before World War Israeli. But within a year, his book was crushed by the Nazis, as his medical ambitions had been.  By this time, Keilson’s editor, Samuel Fischer, warned him to “get out of here.”

But it was only in 1936 that Keilson, together with his companion, Gertrud Manz, a Roman Catholic, did leave Germany, for the Netherlands. They had not been able to marry in Germany, because he was Jewish; nor could they marry in Holland, because they were Germans. Initially, Hans worked as a pediatrician, while he continued to write fiction.

In 1938, Keilson persuaded his parents to leave for the Netherlands too, but after the Germans occupied the country, in 1940, the parents were rounded up and deported. Both died in Birkenau. Hans survived by going into hiding.

He was taken in by a family in Delft, and supplied with a new identity by the Dutch resistance, which allowed him to travel around the country, meeting with and counseling children who had been separated from their parents.

A belated doctorate

Gertrud also survived, living in the open, just a few doors down from Hans in Delft. When she bore the couple’s daughter, in 1941, she claimed that the father was a German soldier.

After the war, the family reunited and settled permanently in Holland. Gertrud, who was deeply disappointed with the position taken by Pope Pius XII vis-à-vis Hitler, decided to convert to Judaism.

Hans continuing working as a child psychiatrist, and was a founder of the organization Le’Ezrat Hayeled, which worked with Dutch Jewish children survivors. He himself met with 200 of the 2004 Jewish children who survived the Holocaust, and it was this work that served as the basis of his PhD thesis, completed only in 1979, at the age of 70.

After the war, Keilson largely confined himself to professional writing. But while he had been in hiding, he had written two more novels, whose manuscripts he buried in the garden of his guardians’ home in Delft.

The first, “Comedy in a Minor Key,” concerns a German Jew in exile in Holland. When he dies in hiding, the couple that has been protecting him must dispose of the body while trying to avoid detection. That was published in Dutch in 1947.

“The Death of the Adversary” was only published in 1959, and in its English translation, in 1962, it became an American bestseller before passing into obscurity.

In 2005, when he was in his mid-90s, Keilson’s German publisher republished his three novels in a boxed set. Translation and publication in English, and a rave review in The New York Times, soon led to international fame. Fortunately, Keilson was still healthy and mentally sound, and thus able to enjoy several years in the literary limelight before his death in 2011.