Keilson’s Kaddish, Now in English

Though Hans Keilson survived the Holocaust, it is only now that English-language readers have the opportunity to read his three gem-like early novels.

Life Goes On
By Hans Keilson (translated from the German by Damion Searls)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 272 pages, $15 (paperback)

Read together with Hans Keilson’s two other novels, “Life Goes On,” a small fate-haunted masterpiece from 1933 recently published for the first time in English, completes both an eloquent triptych of life under the gathering Nazi menace and the literary autobiography of a remarkable writer.

Born in Germany in 1909, Keilson was 23 when he published his debut novel, the last by a Jewish author to be brought out by the distinguished publisher S. Fischer Verlag (publishers of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Schnitzler) before World War II.

“Life Goes On” depicts a financially strapped family in a small-town district capital in Weimar Germany. Like Keilson’s father, who was decorated with the Iron Cross for valor in World War I, the fictional Herr Johann Seldersen is a textile merchant who survived four years on the front lines only to be worn down upon his return home by the corrosive effects of German reparations and hyperinflation.

For as long as possible, the Seldersens desperately hang on to middle-class respectability. “Money was at the center of their lives,” Keilson writes, “not that they worshipped it and danced around it, but its well-ordered movements in and out of the house were what guaranteed a secure and dignified existence.”

Hounded by debts and creditors, letters and threats, and exhausted by the cramped struggle to maintain his “miserable, limping survival,” Herr Seldersen feels “trapped in a hopeless battle with circumstances” and ashamed by the impossibility of cobbling together a living. “What times these were, that made men so unmanly!” he exclaims. The battle ends in bankruptcy on his 56th birthday, a lifetime’s livelihood vanished, a once proud man broken and dejected.

Keilson relates this story of the indignities of bourgeois misfortune and of faltering faith in the future through the eyes of Seldersen’s quiet and conscientious son Albrecht. With his melancholy perceptiveness, his habit of observing things from many angles at once, the young man offers a window onto a disintegrating family – and society. “He saw right through external events to their causes, their motive forces, and saw the delicate cracks spreading and branching out behind the glittering, seemingly pristine facades that were rotten underneath,” writes Keilson.

As he matures, Albrecht begins to discover the life of the mind. He joins a literary society, where he discerns “that sometimes a thought he vaguely sensed in himself (merely a breath of air, a soft sound) could, when he sensed it in someone else, a poet, be transformed into a fixed, clear harmony, ringing out loud and clear, and purifying and strengthening his soul in a strange way.”
As his father, like everyone else in their social circle, spirals from dignity and decency toward financial ruin, Albrecht lives the hopelessness of the times in his own way. Unlike his father, who “kept his distance from any political activity, and in fact considered himself above it,” the son announces his intention – born of a vague but urgent need to act – to throw himself into politics.

In the novel’s disquieting closing scene, we hear the drumbeats and marching footsteps of a political demonstration, as rows upon rows of workers, students and the middle-class unemployed march past, urged forward in unison by “a mighty will.” Albrecht leans out the window and silently salutes them. Neither here nor in any of his other novels does Keilson mention National Socialism by name. But it is clear that a new life, a life of organized masses and of youth desperate to overcome their despair, is about to begin.

After the Nazis banned “Life Goes On,” in 1934, its publisher, Samuel Fischer, issued Keilson a warning: “Get out of here. I fear the worst.” Keilson took the cue and, leaving his parents behind, fled to Holland in 1936. In May 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands and launched the systematic extermination of three-quarters of the country’s Jews. Keilson went into hiding, and composed his second and shortest book.

“Comedy in a Minor Key” was published in 1947, the same year as Anne Frank’s diary, another tale of hiding in which the abnormal becomes the everyday. The book is dedicated to Leo and Suus Rientsma, who hid Keilson in their home in Delft, famed in happier times as the canaled city of Vermeer.

With fine psychological subtlety, Keilson embroiders the story of an ordinary young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who take it upon themselves to resist the Nazi occupation by offering to shelter a Jewish refugee, a former perfume salesman named Nico (after Nicodemus, a first-century member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem). Confined to an upstairs room for almost a year, Nico, at the mercy of his hosts, feels “cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love.” His thoughts race; in his imagination he “rode with the trains heading east with no stops.” He begins to hear the voices of those heading to their deaths: “groaning, whimpering, sniveling, wailing, calling upon God, cursing God.”

Keilson twists the story to a close with two ironic turns. First, Nico escapes arrest, and death in a concentration camp, only to die of an ordinary illness while in hiding. Second, Wim and Marie themselves have to go into hiding, having left an identifying launderer’s mark on the pajamas in which they had clothed Nico the night of his death, and in which they hurriedly deposited his body under a park bench. Fearing they would be traced, they could only wait “while the life they had led up until then slowly crumbled like a mountain eroding away with time.”

Here again, parallel but different fates. An anti-occupation Dutch police detective cuts off the incriminating mark and saves Wim and Marie. The mark that sent Nico into hiding, by contrast, was invisible, indelible and fatal.

During the war, Keilson joined the Vrije Groepen Amsterdam resistance movement and helped arrange housing for refugee children. In the war’s aftermath, he launched a career in psychoanalysis, pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children, and helped found L’Ezrat Hayeled (Children’s Aid), an organization that supported Jewish orphans who had survived the Shoah. He himself had been orphaned; he learned that the parents he’d left behind had been killed in Birkenau. In 1979, Keilson completed his dissertation, 11 years in the making, on the traumas the war inflicted on orphaned and displaced Jewish children in the Netherlands. In writing it, he said in an afterword to the reissued “Life Goes On,” “I finally said the Kaddish – the prayer for the dead – that I had been unable to say for so long.”

His final and most fully realized novel, “The Death of the Adversary” (1959, translated into English by Ivo Jarosy), reads like another kind of Kaddish for a childhood disfigured. It gives us a nameless first-person narrator growing up in the 1930s in a nameless city in Germany who feels ostracized by the inescapable burden of his Jewishness. At age 10, when the boy is told by his father in trembling voice about their powerful enemy (Hitler is never referred to by name), “my youthful innocence suffered an injury,” the narrator reports. “It was a slight scratch, which in the course of time grew into a gaping wound that cut deep into my flesh and did not close.” The boy, not unlike Albrecht in his sensitivities, comes to believe “that one’s enemy is a banner which death waves from another world into our life.” Enmity toward his country’s destructive demagogue comes to fill his life, and causes him to hate himself for his impotence.

Yet his hatred is not unadulterated. “It contained that drop of unadmitted attraction which gave it the right seasoning,” he concedes. If the boy’s hatred becomes seasoned by fascination, it also comes with a hint of understanding, of what he calls “the community that secretly established itself between the persecutors and their victims.” He feels that he and his fanatical adversary are locked together in struggle. The young man speculates that the great leader may even need him as a double. “[G]ripped by the fear of being a stranger to himself,” perhaps the enemy felt that he did not know who he was, the boy thinks, “and so raised me up as his counter-image, so as to be able to say to himself, ‘I know now who I am not.’” In the end, he leaves open the question of whether his enemy is a scourge in the hand of God, of whether God himself is not perhaps the adversary.

As in his first novel, Keilson closes “The Death of the Adversary” with a young man witnessing elated masses. This time the man does not raise his arm in salute. He stands apart, watching the crowds surge as they wait for their adored leader to pass in his motorcade. Their elation, he reflects, “preceded the event, it created it and colored it in accordance with their expectations. They were its begetters; their lustfulness, their confused hankerings flushed their cheeks and lips with a fulfillment that arose from their own selves. They had come for their own sakes, not for his; they intended to warm themselves by a fire they themselves had lit.” The fire leaves him chilled.

Thanks to the good offices of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which in 2010 published the first English translation of “Comedy in a Minor Key” and reissued “The Death of the Adversary,” Keilson’s triptych – a deeply personal testimony of mesmerizing power – is now complete in English, offering us a harrowing but humane depiction of the sad self-surrender that accompanied the calamitous collapse of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of before (the 1930s), during (the '40s) and after (the '50s).

Hans Keilson died in 2011, aged 101.

Benjamin Balint, a frequent contributor to Haaretz Books, is author of “Running Commentary” (2010).