Reissued 1933 Novel in Translation Captures Fascism's Rise Around YouBreaking News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, Nazism, literature, antisemitism
Among the many holocaust anecdotes I heard again and again as a child—my grandparents were the kind of survivors who liked to talk—certain stories took on the force of fables. And none was more common than the tale of the brother who stayed and the brother who left. Different versions of this basic narrative abounded, set in 1933, in 1938, in 1941. One brother couldn’t bear to abandon his small shop or his parents or his homeland, while another brother packed a suitcase at the first inkling of danger and set off toward the French border or over the North Sea or into Soviet territory. The more impetuous one lives. That was the takeaway. When the social and political barometric pressure begins to drop, when you can feel that tingling: Leave.
Even recounted by survivors, maybe especially so, the simple story of a threshold, in or out, always seemed too shaped by retrospect. A decision like that—ethical, national, personal—must have been grueling and not at all obvious. How many of the people who swore they would leave after Donald Trump was elected, fearing the same collapse of democratic norms that the Nazis portended, actually did? Not so many. Identifying that point at which all is lost is not so easy.
This existential dilemma is Lion Feuchtwanger’s abiding concern in The Oppermanns, a long-forgotten masterpiece published in 1933 and recently reissued with a revised translation by the novelist Joshua Cohen. It is a book written in real time—written, that is, right on that threshold. Feuchtwanger was one of the most popular German writers of his generation, and he meant for this family saga (think of a high-speed Buddenbrooks) to open the eyes of those blind to Hitler’s full intent. It offers something more, though, almost in spite of itself. The novel is an emotional artifact, a remnant of a world sick with foreboding, incredulity, creeping fear, and—this may feel most familiar to us today—the impossibility of gauging whether a society is really at the breaking point.
In The Oppermanns, the members of one German Jewish family come to realize, each at a different pace, that they are no longer welcome in the country they have come to think of as home. Showing us this dawning, its varying velocity and consequences, is Feuchtwanger’s project. The best-selling writer of popular historical fiction was already living in exile in the south of France by the spring of 1933, when he began writing this book. The Nazis had ransacked his personal library. His own work was being burned in massive bonfires. And his German citizenship had been stripped. It was at this moment that he cast back just a few months to begin his story of the Oppermann siblings, describing their fate over the course of nearly a year, from November of 1932, just before Hitler was appointed chancellor, through his quick consolidation of all power, and ending in the summer of 1933 with the family “scattered to all the eight winds.”
Feuchtwanger endows his titular clan with a 19th-century forebear, Immanuel Oppermann, a paragon of successful assimilation who built a well-loved business producing affordable, good-quality furniture for the German middle class. His portrait serves as the firm’s logo, a testament to a man who made “the emancipation of the German Jew a fact, not a mere printed paragraph.” His four grandchildren have inherited this sense of ease in German society. Martin is the serious-minded steward of the company. Gustav is a self-satisfied intellectual and playboy, whose passion project is a biography of the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing. Edgar is an internationally recognized throat specialist. And Klara, though mostly absent from the book, is married to Jacques Lavendel, an outspoken Eastern European Jew who has remade himself in Berlin through his connections to the family. (We learn of a fourth brother, Ludwig, who was killed as a soldier in World War I—the ultimate tribute to fatherland.)