For anyone who has wondered how German Jews could have ignored the historical events swirling around them when Hitler was coming to power in the 1930s, Angelika Schrobsdorff’s difficult-to-categorize book — it’s been called a novel, a historical novel, and a memoir— should be of interest, with its focus on the life and mores of a certain class of German Jews during that period. Schrobsdorff’s account, which begins with her Jewish mother’s birth in 1893 and ends with her death in 1949, details her mother’s relationships, which yielded three children with three different fathers, as well as the authors’ own wartime sojourn with her mother in Bulgaria, and their return to Germany in 1947, greatly changed people from when they had left. Schrobsdorff’s Jewish mother, Else Kirschner, had exactly four living cousins by the war’s end, slight residue of a large extended family.
Else Kirschner wanted only to assimilate. From a young age, when she wished for a Christmas tree, she felt comtempt for her Jewish relatives and their work in the trades, and yearned for a life filled with art and poetry. Her daughter Angelika was shielded from understanding what it meant to be a Jew until she needed to flee her German home. All three of Else’s children’s fathers were non-Jews; the father of the youngest was the scion of a wealthy and well-connected German family. Though Erich Schrobsdorff arranged for a divorce from his wife and her marriage to a Bulgarian citizen in 1939 to get her out of Germany, and sent her money as long as it was possible, he was, with all his wealth and connections, unable to protect Else and his daughter Angelika entirely from the ravages of the war. And yet, the book ends with Else’s voice, her letters, and this is a kind of redemption for her in finally being able to enter into the life of art she had yearned for, a tribute to this most unusual mother.