Anti-fascists fight back in World War II Germany in this novel that was written during the war.
When seven prisoners escape from the Westhofen concentration camp, the commandant, Fahrenberg, erects seven crosses, made from plane trees, in the yard. Each cross is studded with nails. Each cross is then hung, one by one, with a prisoner, as each of the escapees is found and recaptured. German novelist Seghers (Transit, 2013, etc.) introduces each of the escapees but is primarily concerned with one: George Heisler, once notorious for his womanizing, now for his ability to withstand interrogations without either giving up names or allowing a smirk to drop from his features. This novel, which first appeared in English in 1942 and was made into a film starring Spencer Tracy, is only now appearing in unabridged form in English. It’s concerned not with Jewish camp inmates (the word “Jew” appears only once or twice in the entire novel) but with anti-fascist German nationals. It’s Heisler’s activities on behalf of the Communists that land him in camp, though the precise nature of those activities remains vague. Seghers is mainly concerned with his escape and with the network of characters affected in one way or another by that escape. So we meet Fritz, the hapless young man whose jacket Heisler steals; Franz, a former friend who radicalized Heisler before Heisler stole his girlfriend, Elli, and made her his wife; Elli herself, long estranged from Heisler; Elli’s father, who makes a living hanging wallpaper; commandant Fahrenberg; and more—many more. Through these many characters, Seghers is able to provide a thorough autopsy on German society of the time, with its various classes and varying levels of enthusiasm for the current government. Still, there are almost too many characters to keep track of, and we’re still meeting new faces in the novel’s final pages. Likewise, the narrative itself is loose and rangy in places—it could have benefited from some tightening. But there’s no dearth of suspense, and Seghers’ skill in describing the many dangers, risks, and accompanying paranoias of the time is unimpeachable.
A suspenseful but occasionally long-winded account of a prisoner’s escape from a German concentration camp.