SLOW FIRE: Jewish Notes from Berlin by Susan Neiman

SLOW FIRE: Jewish Notes from Berlin

Email this review


Vergangenheitsverarbeitung is one of those post-WW II German coinages that admit defeat by their very existence. It means ""coming to terms with the past."" Neiman's fine memoir of six years in Berlin, 1982-88, explores German attempts to face up to, or hide from (or both), the Nazi years. This is a rich broth of a book, full of sharply drawn characters, lively vignettes, verbatim barroom conversations, a journal kept with intellect and sympathy. If life is no longer a cabaret, at least it's a Kneipe, a rock-bottom, working-class or student hangout: Neiman (Philosophy/Yale) describes dozens of them. Her account is a last, loving look at the divided city, the Wall, the East Germans shut up behind it, the West Germans living their subsidized, claustrophobic, hothouse life of radical ease and experiment. It's an earnest autobiography, as Neiman, an American Jew, comes to terms with the past by staking a claim on the future. She marries a German Jew, they have a son, and decide to raise him in the traditions and perhaps even the faith they both have neglected. Neiman squeezes every nuance of meaning and paradox and irony out of her life as a student, teacher, political activist, lover. When a German painter boyfriend tells her, ""Every time I see you, I think of Dachau, baby,"" she knows it's the beginning of the end for them. The combination of lofty sources--Neiman knows Nietzsche and Kant--and gritty detail is unusual and appealing. The only flaw here is a tendency, common in Americans, to write about Germany as if nothing happened there before 1933. (And a mention, now and then, of the wider European context wouldn't have hurt.) But the narrow personal focus gives the memoir its punch. And Neiman's strong sense of humor mostly keeps her righteous anger from sounding smug. Finally, her Berlin 80's, materially shabby, spiritually rich, make us wish--as she intends--that we'd spent the decade differently over here.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1992
ISBN: 1610270304
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Schocken