Four Generations of a Jewish Family Tainted by Nazi Poison

'A Reunion of Ghosts' by Judith Claire Mitchell features three suicidal sisters whose ancestor created the precursor to Zyklon B.

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“A Reunion of Ghosts,” by Judith Claire Mitchell, Harper Books, 400 pages, $26.99

There’s a chart, concise yet precise, on the wall of the New York apartment shared by the three spinster Alter sisters. It’s a family tree of sorts: a reminder of the sisters’ illustrious roots, but also a memento mori pointing the way to the family’s end. Four generations, two continents and a Nobel prize, held together by a single, malevolent thread: the suicide of every direct ancestor of the sisters in the three generations that preceded them.

Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel “A Reunion of Ghosts” begins in the summer of 1999, as the three childless sisters conclude the time has come to end their lives, and the Alter family tree. “We like the chart,” they explain in the epistle that serves as their collective suicide note. “We see order and routine. We see soothing predictability and reassuring inevitability.” And so the book explains why the Alter family history, spanning 1870s Germany to 1990s America, must end in their apparently inevitable death.

Poison, both figurative and real, is the leitmotif of this family saga. By the time we meet the Alter sisters, they have been consumed, in different ways, by the unsparing vicissitudes of their times; their emotionally drained childhoods have led to inconclusive relationships and unfulfilled ambitions. Lady, the oldest at 49, has allowed herself to succumb to a gentle yet insistent despair. She dresses in black, “in the way of someone who finds making an effort exhausting”; she holds her greying hair back in a long braid. She gave up wearing a bra long ago, and “her sagging breasts make her appear rounder than she is.” She affects to be untroubled by her amorphousness: “It’s not like I’m trying to meet someone.”

Vee, the middle sister, goes braless too, but not by choice. Cancer and a double mastectomy have stripped her of her physical identity; many years earlier, her one true love was excised from her life just as violently and cruelly. Delph, at 42 the youngest, could be mistaken for the optimist of the three, with her untamed hair, peasant blouses and flowing skirts. But the tattoo wrapped around her calf suggests otherwise. From a distance it looks like a chain, but up close it reveals itself to be a single sentence, a restraint of another kind: “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations.”

Jewish by culture, German by faith

Otto Lenz Alter, the father whose sins will in due course filter down to the fourth generation, had his fate settled for him early. “Three fathers,” his father crooned to him in his cradle. “Me, Bismarck, God.” But for a German Jew born in Breslau at the beginning of the Second Reich, there’s no chance of balancing family, faith and Fatherland.

First to be let down is the biological father, when Lenz decides to pursue a doctorate in chemistry rather than join the family’s dyeing business. Judaism comes next. Lenz wasn’t observant to begin with, and once he understands that his academic career would benefit from certain adjustments to his personal circumstances, he willingly converts. “Being Jewish was his culture, but being German was his faith,” Mitchell writes. Professional success — discovering a process for the synthesis of artificial manure, a guano substitute, from liquid ammonia — and directorship of the prestigious Dahlem Institute for Physical Chemistry follow. Perhaps Lenz’s pragmatic choices might pay off after all. When Kaiser Wilhelm II delivers the inaugural address at the institute, he says of Lenz: “His current work is crucial to maintaining Germany’s stature in the world.” It is 1911, three years before the Great War, and Lenz would soon have the chance to prove his devotion to the Fatherland, but at significant personal cost.

Lenz’s skill in tweaking ammonia into fertilizer saved lives, by increasing crop yields and feeding growing populations. But tweaking it there instead of here created something else, something capable of taking lives rather than saving them: the world’s first effective chemical weapon. When the Great War breaks out, Lenz — patriot and German above all — presents his breakthrough to the kaiser: “How is being dead different if it’s caused by chlorine gas rather than by flying pieces of metal?” Lenz asks rhetorically. The gas killed thousands; this, and the guilt that followed, became Lenz’s poisonous legacy to his descendants.

For a pessimistic contrast to Lenz’s optimistic, assimilationist tendencies, Mitchell gives us Iris Emanuel, Lenz’s wife, who provides the insight that the true cost of hewing off one’s identity becomes clear only if the anticipated payoff never arrives. As ambitious as her husband and more intelligent, her sacrifices — surrendering her family, her faith and, finally, her femininity — weren’t enough for her to be accepted by the intelligentsia. She’s a woman, after all, and the Belle Epoque wasn’t quite so beautiful for the fairer sex.

Cyanide, suffocation and drowning

Generation-spanning fiction of this type works best when historical fact serves as a reference point for imaginary lives, rather than as a raison d’tre for the fiction itself. The early segments of “A Reunion of Ghosts” are founded upon recognizable historical affairs — what Einstein, who has a walk-on part as an acquaintance of Lenz, once described as the German-Jewish “tragedy of the unrequited love for the blond beast.” Although the characters of Lenz and his wife were inspired by the lives of the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, what matters more for this fiction is how convincingly their imaginary counterparts attempt to negotiate their pre-ordained fate — pre-ordained from the reader’s perspective, at least. Unrequited love almost always comes to a bad end.

Iris and Lenz, who end their lives in 1915 and 1934 respectively, are spared from finding out just how bad an end, as their imperfect era is eclipsed by the dark shadows of the 1930s and the Third Reich. Richard, their only child, makes it as far as America, at the end of World War II, before defenestrating himself; the knowledge that his father’s legacy was the basis for Zyklon B pushes him over the edge.

His three daughters follow the same path: cyanide, suffocation, drowning. Before Dahlie, Richard’s youngest daughter, throws herself into the Hudson River, she makes sure her daughters understand that their lives will always be tainted by their forebear’s actions. No antidote.

The principal strength of “A Reunion of Ghosts” is Mitchell’s astute and feeling characterizations. The panoramic perspective of decades lends the three Alter sisters — and before them their ancestor Iris — a sharp authenticity, a realness that intensifies as the years pass and they gradually, gracelessly submit to the existential despair that springs eternal for them. (The description of Vee’s battle against breast cancer is especially empathetic.)

Mitchell, director of the MFA creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has an ear attuned to the absurdities that accompany the banality of everyday life. What could have been a very bleak book is instead defined by a mordant sense of humor. “Mom in the river with rocks in her socks,” the sisters write, setting the tone for their intimate engagement with death. The reader is never allowed to, heaven forbid, feel sorry for Mitchell’s characters, as they never feel sorry for themselves.

But there is something missing, nonetheless. When measured against Iris’ futile struggle against the failures of her age, her great-granddaughters at times feel curiously stripped of agency. Through their eyes, their failed relationships and unfulfilled lives seem inevitable. But because they evolve through the book so vividly and fully, it is hard to reconcile this passivity with their realness. The introduction, late in the book, of an unexpected counter-narrative holds out a sliver of hope that they might yet escape their end.

Perhaps, one thinks, their suicide pact might become just one part of an affecting and tortured family history, rather than its last note. It is to Mitchell’s credit that the last quarter of the book resonates, despite the sharp turn in tone; with a lesser writer, the fate of the Alters wouldn’t matter nearly as much.