The quest for a sense of belonging motivates a first-generation Jewish American exploring his roots in post-WWII Austria.
Max Berman emigrates from the Austrian village of H in 1928 when he is almost five. His mother, Mira, who never adjusts to America, keeps alive his memory of the gracious home and European bourgeois lifestyle they left behind. As a young soldier in Europe in 1945, Max briefly visits the house in H now occupied by strangers (the Austrian relatives who lived there all died in the Holocaust). A successful, free-wheeling bachelor, Max puts off visiting H again until Mira’s death. Now 50 years old, he returns to Austria to reclaim the house. After months of legal maneuvers, he gains ownership, then returns to New York since he can’t take occupancy until the rent-control tenants die. While in H, Max becomes involved in the small Jewish community of returned survivors. Their leader, Spitzer, is a private, almost saintly man who accepts the local Austrians’ arrogance and defensiveness. Through Spitzer, Max has met Nadja, a young woman who wants to be Jewish. He brings her to America to be educated. She falls in love with him but he breaks off their affair and she must find her way in America alone. Eighteen years pass before the last tenants in H die. Max, almost 70, returns to renovate the house. He rekindles his friendship with Spitzer and begins to write a chronicle of the Jews of H, an indictment of their mistreatment by Christian Austrians through the centuries. Upon Spitzer’s death, Nadja visits H. Max realizes he does love her—but it’s too late. He returns to New York, where he can be himself without the weight of history. Austrian-born Mitgutsch (Lover, Traitor, 1997) writes with a passionate anger that can be discomforting, but her characters’ complex humanity is riveting.
Dense and deeply moving.