Arts & Events

Book Review: German Voices: Memories of Life during Hitler's Third Reich, by Frederic C. Tubach.

Reviewed By Joanna Graham
Tuesday May 31, 2011 - 05:43:00 PM

Ten years ago, the University of California Press published An Uncommon Friendship,by Bernat Rosner and Frederic C. Tubach. The authors, Orinda residents who were then just retiring from their respective professions, had been longtime close friends on the basis of shared interests, shared values, and a common background, both having grown up in rural villages in pre-World War II Europe. But there was one vast dissimilarity. Rosner, a Hungarian Jew, was the sole member of his family to have survived Auschwitz. Tubach, a German, was the son of a man who early and with enthusiasm joined the Nazi party and ultimately the SS. Together, they took on the difficult task of remembering and recounting their wartime experiences and ultimately produced a spare, honest, and deeply moving book which on the one side of the Holocaust refuses to whine and on the other to excuse. 

Fritz Tubach’s new book, German Voices: Memories of Life during Hitler’s Third Reich,published also by U.C. Press, is very much a follow-on project to the first, both with respect to intentions and to methodology. Therefore, I will speak briefly first about “An Uncommon Friendship.” 

In the mid 1990s, Bernie Rosner, as the retired chief counsel of Safeway Corporation and an American citizen leading a comfortable well-to-do life, had long dealt with his early losses and suffering by never thinking about them. His agreement to do the painful work of remembering which resulted in “An Uncommon Friendship” led to two years of intimate and painful conversations with his friend in which bits and scraps of discontinuous memories were slowly recovered and assembled. Rosner refused to write these memories down himself, instead asking Tubach to do so for him. Thus the book consists of alternating chapters in first person (Tubach) and third person (Rosner). In addition, the current life of the two men and their friendship is frequently referenced, providing a context for these recovered memories from so long ago. 

What carried these friends into and through this very difficult project? Tubach’s answer is that, “for one thing, because the German crime of the Holocaust never lets me go. [But also] this new undertaking came to form the crux of what was important to me: bridge building. I simply refused to accept the fact that…Hitler would have the last word in how we could relate to each other.” Rosner’s answer (in Tubach’s words) was that “it was our common European cultural heritage, with its utopian longing for a civil society and the shared experiences of great art, and as for the rest, we agreed with Peter Ustinov’s dismissal of ethnic and religious identity: one should have one’s roots in civilized behavior and leave it at that.” 

Tubach himself had what turned out to be the good fortune of being born in San Francisco in 1930. Raised in Germany, he activated his American citizenship in 1949 and moved to the Bay Area, where he ultimately became a professor of German literature at UC Berkeley. An avid traveler, through the years he has maintained a kind of dual American and German outlook, which surfaces strongly in his second book, the core of which is a series of interviews done in the past decade or so with now elderly Germans who lived through the war years as adolescents or young adults. The interviewees were not selected scientifically. Most of them are people who attend the annual conferences of a German business organization of which Tubach and his wife are the only American members. One interviewee was the visiting mother of a Bay Area friend met quite accidentally at a birthday party. Furthermore, not everyone who was interviewed is represented in the book. Despite this unscientific procedure, however, with some obvious biases built in, Tubach does a good job of presenting stories about a wide range of experiences from many different people, both men and women, of urban and rural backgrounds, from many geographic regions and social classes. Some were civilians and some fighters, including infantrymen on both fronts, fliers, and POWs. A few, but not all, of their stories are horrific. In all of the interviews, Tubach’s patient listening, humane curiosity, and refusal to pass judgment, comes through, as it does in his first book. 

These interviews are preceded by Tubach’s hundred-page summary of what the Nazi regime felt like to ordinary (non-Jewish) Germans. Most of this material is available in other, more detailed studies, but sometimes we have to be reminded that Hitler in the ‘thirties made life better. A more thorough program of social spending than the New Deal lifted Germans quickly out of the Great Depression. Tubach is at his best, as always, in presenting his own childhood memories. The Nazi youth programs may have had sinister intentions of indoctrinating young Germans in the Nazi cause and toughening up boys for war, but I for one did not know that, if one was a kid, the hide-and-seek style war games ranging through streets and woods were just plain fun. 

A word on the Holocaust is in order, since it is now, of course, the single greatest association all of us have with the Nazi era. Tubach includes a chapter on it in his summary, as, I assume, he must, but it is one of the weaker chapters in the book since it is essentially a summary of others’ work. Far more compelling for me is his own strong childhood memory, described in “An Uncommon Friendship,” of seeing a Jewish neighbor on the street of his village the day after her home had been vandalized and pillaged during Kristallnacht and understanding, just from her gait, that something terrible had happened to her, something that had turned her “from subject to object.” Even though this incident is trivial compared to what ultimately happened, it is just this kind of detail, I believe, with its immediacy and complexities, that epitomizes the concretization and specification of German experience that Tubach is trying to accomplish. Early on in “German Voices,” Tubach admits that it is “problematic” to omit the Holocaust from the memories he recounts but argues that, although “for some readers, this may seem a scandalous assertion,” “it did not play a major role in the lives of the majority of Germans.” I believe this to be true: how many of us are paying attention to, let alone doing anything about, the killing that is currently going on in our name? 

This issue brings me, however, to the weakest part of the book. The last sixty pages consist of excerpts from letters written home by German soldiers during the war. I’m not surprised that children in their towns and villages in Germany in the 1930s were not paying a great deal of attention to what the Nazi Party was up to, but I cannot grant to soldiers, on the Eastern Front in particular, such innocence. The handful of letters, parts of which Tubach translates and comments on, were selected from a vast archive. I can accept the arbitrariness of interview subjects who are acquaintances or parents of friends. The book is, after all, intended to be a personal project, not a definitive historical statement. But, by its very existence, it does add to the data and that data, particularly on this subject which remains so fraught, should be untainted by any hint of apologetics. The last sixty pages, except for a few brutal comments, show a studied ignorance of the vast amount of killing, of Jews and others, in which the Wehrmacht was engaged. Although I’m certain that Tubach’s intentions here are completely benign, these pages mostly make me curious to learn what is in the 80,000 or so letters from which he doesn’t cite. 

With this caveat, however, I can recommend Tubach’s book, which I do feel should be read as a companion volume to his first. Why did Tubach undertake this second project? He says in his preface that his intention is “to add—for the record—German voices that have not been sufficiently heard in the United States.” This is the sort of Tubachian understatement that goes off in the mind about two hours after reading. Later in the book, he makes his impulse more exact when he says, apropos of an interview with an elderly survivor of the Dresden bombing, “My first dinner with Bernat Rosner, my friend who had survived Auschwitz, came to mind….I hoped to retrieve and thereby save the most traumatic experiences in their individual lives from the leveling effect of the violent storm that engulfed them.” Again, this offhand parallel between Jew and German, without saying so, asks us to consider the difficult proposition that suffering is suffering, no matter who must endure it. 

Although not stated as an aim, my guess is that at least part of the intention is to add to the effort currently underway to re-normalize Germany and Germans. It’s been fifteen years since Daniel Goldhagen became an overnight sensation for his book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” in which he argued that the Holocaust occurred because of a lethal anti-Semitism specific, like a bad gene, to the German people. I find, interestingly, that even though I believe Goldhagen’s book to be, in Raul Hilberg’s words, “completely wrong” and “worthless,” I, as a Jewish-American, am hanging up, in a weird way, over the extremely attractive dust cover of Tubach’s new book. There is the title, “German Voices,” printed large at the top and the subtitle, “Memories of Life during Hitler’s Third Reich” smaller at the bottom, both superimposed over a black-and-white photograph printed on khaki-green paper of the author as a smiling boy in the 1930s dressed in sandals and lederhosen and standing in front of uniformed men, identified on the back flap as members of a visiting fire brigade. 

Does this child and others like him, now in old age, have the right to speak? On that subject, I will give the distinguished Israeli, Avraham Burg (who, on his father’s side, has German roots), the final comment. In his own deeply thoughtful book,The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from Its Ashes (2008), he writes: “In the detention cell of humanity there is only one detainee left from the dark days, and it is Germany. There will be those who will justify it and claim that they deserve it forever. But others may understand that the best interest of the human race requires the unshackling of the problematic relationship between the Jewish guard and the German prisoner….In the day we leave Auschwitz and establish the new state of Israel, we also have to set Germany free….On the day that the Shoah is no longer part of our daily lives, we can recite the Kaddish for its victims and for ourselves. The prayers will transition from the mournful years of bereavement, suspicion, and anger to the age of memory, optimism, trust, and hope.” 

Fritz Tubach will be reading from German Voices on Thursday, June 9th at 5:30 p.m. at University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, and on Thursday, June 16th at 3:00 p.m. at Orinda Books, 276 Village Square, Orinda.