The prodigal son investigates
Michael Ofer set out to find the story of his father, Dr. Walther Hirsch, about whom he knew little because he had been 'exiled' to a kibbutz at age 10, a traumatic event he had never before been able to understand.
Ha'av Haben Veruah Hahofesh (The Father, the Son and Who Else? ), by Michael OferSifriat Poalim (Hebrew), 355 pages, NIS 84
Toward the end of his book, Michael Ofer writes: "The Nazis shuffled the deck, plain and simple. There was a joker there, a king and a queen. The deck of cards was tossed up high, plummeted to the floor with a thud, and scattered. There was no longer any connection between the numbers on the cards and the figures of the king, the queen and the jack. Only the joker was left in an unforeseen place, as always, evil, devilish and smiling."
A tiny part of the twists of fate engendered by World War II finds an expression in chilling books by the children of that era, themselves survivors or indirect victims. The last few years alone have brought the publication of such books as Zvi Yanai's "Yours, Sandro" and "Too Late," Angelika Schrobsdorff's "You Are Not Like Other Mothers," and now Michael Ofer's "The Father, the Son and Who Else?" All of these titles deal with the search for roots that were lost or obscured because of the war.
I encountered Schrobsdorff's astonishing story when I read Claude Lanzmann's superb autobiography, published last year. Lanzmann, director of the monumental film "Shoah," is Schobsdorff's ex-husband, and what he wrote about her aroused my curiosity. A German writer, and the daughter of a Jewish woman and a German man who served as an officer in the Wehrmacht, Schrobsdorff tells the story of her mother, Else, and her mother's circle of friends in Berlin -- Jews and non-Jews, authors, journalists, actors, directors and merry bohemians who led a "free spirit" life during the jolly years of the Weimar Republic. The era of parties and romantic scandals ended with the Nazis' rise to power in 1933.
Ilsa and Walther Hirsch were good friends of Else Schrobsdorff and her husband Erich. But they chose to leave Berlin. They immigrated to Palestine in 1936 and settled in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood with their children, 6-year-old Tommy and Michael, age 1.
Michael Ofer, formerly Hirsch, is now 74 years old, a member of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, and until recently the director of the kibbutz movement's Oranim teacher training college. On retiring, he decided to research the life story of his father. Ofer arrived at the decision while vacationing on the shores of Lake Starnberg, where the surrounding landscape brought him back to a Germany he had never really known. He also knew very little about his father, since Michael had been "exiled" from home at age 10 and sent to school at Beit Alfa, a traumatic event he never understood.
His mother was an attractive woman, pretty and colorful, a special-education gym teacher, who even in the 1940s drove an open-top car through the streets of Jerusalem, went horseback riding, and carried on the tradition of holding parties in her home, which was open to Jews, Arabs and British alike. She gave birth to three sons, but although she was a loving mother, she agreed to part with Michael on the grounds that, as he quotes her in the book, "no Jerusalem institution will take him because he is a bad student."
Walther was a pediatrician, an intellectual and a lover of classical music, beautiful women and fun-loving male friends; he remained a mysterious figure in his son's eyes. He was distant and ironic, and did not invest a lot in his sons' education, though he made high demands of them intellectually. He was popular with Rehavia's Yekkes (Jews of German origin ), as well as with residents of the surrounding Arab villages. On immigrating to the Land of Israel, he took up the simultaneous study of Hebrew and Arabic, and never forsook the good life or his afternoon nap. In 1956 Walther divorced Ilsa and returned to Berlin, where he remarried. Until his death, in the 1970s, he was surrounded by friends and, most of all, by beautiful young women.
Tough nut to crack
Aided by the recollections of his mother, brothers and friends -- among them Schrobsdorff -- Ofer planned the writing project and documented the various stages in his research: He obtained recordings his father had made for German radio programs, read Walther's letters to Ilsa from before they got married in Berlin, with the groom-to-be planning the nuptials (while his bride was off skiing ), and traced his visit to Palestine. Walther Hirsch emerges from all this as a colorful character, but also a tough nut to crack. The research leads to further questions: What is the meaning of that peculiar letter of congratulations Walther wrote to Ilsa in 1935, upon Michael's birth, when the father was not at the birthing mother's side but rather in Italy? Why did he exile his son to the kibbutz while Michael's two brothers stayed in Rehavia in the bosom of the family?
Hints that Schrobsdorff drops about "secrets and lies," and other clues, gradually reveal a secret that turns out to have been known to all -- except Michael himself: Walther was not his father. Walther knew this, yet raised him as a father and gave him his name.
Did Walther demand that the boy be sent away from his home and dispatched to Beit Alfa because he was not his son? Ofer does not delve excessively into childhood wounds, perhaps thanks to his warm, enveloping family, who take an active part in the search and in the excitement of the thrilling revelations. The search for the identity of Ofer's biological father is not simple, as the author discovers an extensive and no less complicated family than his "old" one: biological fathers and adoptive fathers, divorcees, mistresses, half-brothers and -sisters, cousins -- some of whom are elated to hear from him, while others balk at the relative who announces his existence at age 74.
Ofer's writing is honest and direct, and includes the readers in the doubts, revelations, disappointments and daily lives of the members of his extended family. The book draws on some historical documents, but for the most part it has the feel of a journal filled with distant memories. Sometimes these are longings for vistas the author never knew, sensations of deja vu, and surprising, almost mystical, coincidences that lead the writer to further surprising discoveries. Despite the many upheavals, the tone of Ofer's writing remains restrained and understated, as befits a Yekke who is meticulous about detail and does not get carried away by sentimentality. He is convincing, compelling and riveting.
Gaby Levin is a frequent contributor to Haaretz.
Haaretz Books, April 2010