The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff
I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings what an easily influenced reader I am, ready to be seduced away from the books already on my shelf to something shiny and new. “The Lost Europeans” has been on my radar for a while, looking and sounding like something I would love, but so far I’d managed to resist. I even picked the book up and put it down again in Foyles on my recent visit to London. However, when Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book tweeted that it was the most marvellous thing in the world, I couldn’t help but finally succumb – so I sent off for a copy (yes, yes, I know – I have no willpower when it comes to books!)
“The Lost Europeans” was Litvinoff’s first novel, and it’s recently been republished in a beautiful new edition by Apollo. The author, born in London from Russian Jewish heritage, was known during his long life for his writings and for speaking out against anti-Semitism. This is an important novel, which deserves to be republished and be better known, and Simon was most certainly right about it.
There were eighty million Germans, each with his own degree of guilt. To condemn them collectively or to probe each individual one encountered was to succumb to paranoia. The only way to preserve one’s sanity was to cultivate indifference.
The novel is set in Berlin, late 1950s. Martin Stone, formerly Silbertstein, is returning to Berlin for the first time since his family fled the Nazis to make a claim for restitution for the loss of the family banking business. Martin was only a boy when they fled Germany and as so much of his life was in England he has become very much like an Englishman. His contact in Berlin is Hugo Krantz; older than Martin, Hugo had a career in Weimar Berlin theatre, initially bankrolled by the elder Silbertstein. Hugo also fled Germany after being betrayed by his Aryan lover, Putzi, but has returned to make his home there once more, running an expensive shop. Both men are searching for something: Martin, although ostensibly looking for financial recompense is also in need of some kind of spiritual resolution. Hugo, however, is convinced that Putzi is still alive and needs some kind of revenge on his betrayer.
What’s most immediately striking about the book is the rawness of the emotions; as Hugo points out, early in the book while staring down at the crowds in the streets below his apartment, one in five of those people was a Nazi, but the hard part is knowing which one. It’s difficult for us now, at this distance, to grasp the feelings of those who were still within striking distance of the Holocaust, to recall how fresh the pain was and how strong the anger must have been. As the book progresses, we find out about the terrible horrors both men suffered under the Nazi regime, from the fate of Martin’s sister to the beatings and humiliations Hugo endured. Martin is suffering from an additional problem in that his father doesn’t even know he’s returned to Germany, and wouldn’t approve; but Martin needs to somehow come to terms with the fact that life is going on in many ways as if nothing happened and the War and Holocaust weren’t there – at least on the surface.
Hugo, however, is in a more vulnerable position, particularly because of his homosexual past (this in a time when such things were still outlawed). He’s mentoring (in a purely non-physical way) a young criminal called Heinzi, which allows a strange man called Kane to start take an interest in Hugo and his life. And his search for Putzi, his adverts in the newspapers and constant enquiries, are digging up things from the past which shouldn’t be dug up… Things become more complicated for Martin as he meets Karin, a girl living in the Eastern sector who has her own demons from the treatment she received during the War. Despite the fact that she is German and he is a Jew, they are strongly attracted – but is that attraction strong enough to overcome the past?
I shan’t say any more about the plot because half the joy of reading this book is watching the story unfold with its little shocks and revelations; what I will say is that this book needs urgently to be read. There is an immediacy in the narrative which brings to life in all its awful detail what the Jewish people went through at the hands of the Nazis, an immediacy that forces the reader to recognise that although we are at quite a distance from WW2, we are still in a world where humans are persecuting other humans for whatever belief they have, and that this has to STOP. There is hope in the book, as Martin struggles to accept that not every German can be held to account for what happened to his race, as someone like Karin was too young to have any part in that. He is looking to the future and will hopefully be able to move forward; Hugo, however, is locked in the past and his betrayal by Putzi and without any kind of resolution his life is hollow and worthless; unless he can break free of this he has no future.
Hugo grimaced impatiently. One thought of the past as a collection of dusty photos in the attic of the mind, a bundle of old letters, a grief that the years had dulled. But the past was never over. It was here in the room with them. It was the enemy on the other side of the city.
“The Lost Europeans” is eminently readable and incredibly atmospheric, capturing wonderfully what fractured post-War Berlin must have felt like. The city seems to be straddling two eras, with parts of the old world still remaining, but with demolition and rebuilding taking place and the traditional houses being replaced with shiny modern apartment blocks. The older generation, many seemingly still stuck in their ways, are contrasted with the young, who seem to be the same the world over. We’re so used to thinking of the 1950s as part of the modern age, that it’s a shock to recall how close to the past and the War they were and how things had probably only changed on the surface.
She also looked like any girl one might see sipping Coca-Cola in a Brooklyn drug-store, or bouncing with sweaty concentration to guitar music in a Kensington or Chelsea coffee-bar. Mass culture had succeeded in rubbing out national differences. A generation before, these Germans would have sat around in brown shirts singing full-throated Hitler Jugend lieder; now they looked like fraternity and sorority members of some American university that had opened branches in all the West European capitals, wearing snappy clothes labelled ‘Fifth Avenue’ or ‘Hollywood Special’ or ‘Palm Beach’. Perhaps it was reassuring; Martin didn’t know. But thinking of the older people sitting out on the pavement terrace, he did not believe that the imitative characteristics of the young could have more than a transient effect.
Litvinoff apparently lived in Berlin for a while after the War, from where he drew material for the book, and that would explain the strong sense of place.The writing is mainly excellent, though I did find that a certain sexual metaphor (as mentioned in Michael Schmidt’s excellent introduction) was a little hackneyed, and the love scenes themselves were occasionally a little awkward.
Really, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The characters, from Hugo and Martin, to the guilt-stricken lawyer Ulrich, Hugo’s old revue colleague Frau Goetz, the troubled Karin, the mysterious Kane, and all of the other supporting players are strongly drawn and alive, and reaching the end of the book was something of a shock – I wanted to go on reading about them and find out their fates. I came out of the story thinking deeply about guilt and culpability – there is, of course, the saying that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and indeed many of the Germans Martin and Hugo come across declare that they knew nothing of what was happening. This denial of any collective guilt runs through the book and it certainly is chilling.
As I said, this really is a powerful and important book, and one that deserves to be rediscovered and re-read. I can’t thank Simon enough for nudging me into getting a copy – it’s a book which will haunt me.