In this historically panoramic drama, the horror of the holocaust permanently binds and alters the lives of two German boys.
Leo Bergner is a young Jewish boy whose otherwise quiet middle-class upbringing is ruptured by the rise of the Third Reich. After fleeing his native Germany in order to escape the persecution that envelops his parents, Leo matures into a committed Zionist, becoming a British officer to defend Israel against its anti-Semitic adversaries, Nazi and Arab alike. Leo’s childhood piano teacher, Bruno Franzmann, follows a different trajectory: He works for the Nazis as an administrator at a concentration camp. A wave of consequence washes over all who sided with the Fuhrer when it becomes clear that Allied Powers will prevail, so Bruno decamps for Buenos Aires. There he hopes to begin a criminal enterprise centered on bribing former Nazis bent on concealing their identities. The narrative leads the reader to the final crescendo, their reunion: Now a well-heeled banker, Leo discovers a vast financial conspiracy that facilitated the looting of Jewish property during the war, which draws him into Bruno’s nefarious dealings. Maitland-Lewis’ tale is scrupulously researched, saturated with rich historical detail. His account often deftly depicts both the gradual unfurling of Nazi atrocities and the psychological trauma thrust upon so many Jews as a result. While Leo struggles with the pathos of a fractured identity—his German nationality pitted against his Jewish religion—Bruno abandons all sense of allegiance to his own narrowly conceived self-interest. Problematically, such an ambitious psychodrama requires deeply textured characters and a nuanced exploration of their motives, which Maitland-Lewis doesn’t fully offer. A few developments don’t add up—Bruno’s growth from a morally divested Nazi collaborator to anti-Nazi compatriot or hardnosed Leo’s sympathy for him. The story seems to be designed as a moral parable, but the lesson isn’t quite clear.
A lucid history of the Jewish experience after World War II, but unsatisfying as a fictional tale of real people in the throes of moral crisis.