"It’s more important than ever not to ease up on the culture of remembrance".
Annette Hess, along with seven other German authors, will travel to Turin for the 32nd Salone Internazionale del Libro (9-13 May) to present her novel "Deutsches Haus", the rights of which have already been sold in over 20 countries. In the interview she talks about her own history, how she dealt with the National Socialist era in Germany and the impact of her book abroad.
At the Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino in Italy you will present your new novel "The German House". Does it feel different to you to present the book abroad than in Germany?
For me, it’s a very inspiring experience to see the impact of my book abroad. For example, I was just in Spain, where it led to intense discussions about Spain’s past, in particular about the Franco era. There seems to be a lot there that remains unprocessed, unspoken and unresolved. Obviously it’s wonderful if a book elicits these sorts of discussions.
Eva, the novel’s protagonist, translates witness statements by former Polish concentration-camp prisoners during the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials in 1963-1965. She becomes the translator of her own history. What in particular about Eva as a character fascinated you?
A few years ago, I listened to the 400 hours of recordings of the Auschwitz trials – initially out of pure interest. In the process, I was deeply impressed by a Polish interpreter, who, with her calm, precise and reliable manner, gave the witnesses a sense of security. This woman contributed significantly to giving them the courage to recount their worst experiences in the face of their perpetrators. The second inspiration for Eva was my own mother, born in 1942, who in the 1960s looked to the future just as naïvely and cluelessly as Eva initially does: marriage, children, building a home. I could only write a story about the Holocaust from a naïve point of view. I want readers to discover again as if for the first time what we humans are capable of.
You explain history through stories. Is this also because we have a dearth of them due to the silence of the post-war generation in Germany?
I think that the developments after 1945 were ultimately a natural human reaction: The Germans had to keep silent and repress or they would have fallen apart. They had to look forward in order to rebuild the country. That left no room for questions about the past and feelings of guilt. This was especially difficult for the children of the war, who had witnessed everything, but weren’t allowed to talk about it or ask questions. As a result, to this day, families continue to tell the same innocuous (heroic) stories again and again. Yet to get to the heart of the truth, you have to ask questions. For a very long time, that wasn’t allowed, it was downright taboo.
Unlike the German TV series Weissensee for which you wrote the script, the novel is set in the western part of the divided post-war Germany. Do you see differences in how the two sides have come to terms with the past?
There were and are differences in how history is confronted. For example, schoolchildren in the German Democratic Republic had to go on obligatory field trips to Buchenwald, [the historic site of the former concentration camp,] but that wasn’t the case in West Germany. Here, in contrast, the TV series Holocaust was broadcast in the early 1980s, leading to a new debate about the crimes perpetrated by the Germans. Overall, a social consensus emerged in West Germany – also as a result of the protest movement of 1968 – that of course the population, and the judicial system in particular, was riddled with former Nazis. In my opinion, awareness about this wasn’t raised in the GDR, where, in the eyes of the general public, Nazis didn’t exist anymore after 1945. Have these different ways of dealing with the past contributed to the fact that the new right-wing tendencies are taking hold above all in Eastern Germany? That’s probably an oversimplification. The reasons for that are more complex.
The rights to your novel have already been sold in over 20 countries, including Israel. How do you explain this great interest in your book? What does it mean to you?
I’m completely overwhelmed by this success, because I wasn’t expecting it at all. But apparently Eva’s story is a universal one. Her realisation that the history of her country is inextricably linked to her own family’s history applies to everyone. I seem to have touched a nerve with my book – because every country has dark chapters in its past (even if they aren’t comparable with the crimes perpetrated by the Germans during the Nazi era). And that affects everyone alive today through his or her background and family. Traumas skip generations, are passed down – we know that to be true now. That’s why there is a desire to disclose and come to terms with one’s own history. Because only then is healing possible.
Were there challenges in translating this novel into other languages?
I let all the translators know that they could contact me anytime with questions. I’m fascinated by languages; I think it’s difficult to overestimate the challenges of producing a satisfactory translation. The translators had a lot of questions about national characteristics, culinary dishes, the dialect. My most intense contact was with the Israeli translator. For example, in my book I avoided using the term “concentration camp”. In German, the term has such a powerful impact that it would jolt the reader out of the flow of reading the text every time. Yet the Israeli translator felt that to call them just “camps” minimised them. So in her translation they are referred to as “concentration camps”.
The refusal to grapple with Germany’s past – do you see any socio-political parallels in this to the present?
In my observation, in Germany today there isn’t repression so much as an aggressive backlash against confronting the past. In the Bundestag, an AfD politician called the period from 1933 to 1945 in Germany – and so the Holocaust – a “speck of bird poop” in history. People perform Hitler salutes at concentration-camp memorials. Since those who were alive at the time are dying off, it’s more important than ever not to ease up on the culture of remembrance, not to grow weary, to talk about what everyday racism paired with existential frustration and ignorance can ultimately lead to. I believe that Auschwitz could happen again at any time. We humans haven’t gotten any better in that regard in the last 70 years. That was also an important motivation for working on my novel.
Thank you for this interview.
The interview was first published by Börsenblatt:
The interview was presented in the newsletter of the Frankfurt Book Fair: