This is an extraordinary book. More autobiography than novel much of the time, it has a fictional twist. The fictional Angelika was born in Germany, and spent the war in Bulgaria, just as the writer did, and returned to Germany in 1947, as the writer did, too.
This is the author's story. But it is principally the story of her mother, Else Kirschner, adored child of Daniel Kirschner and Minna Cohn: "I was the little, beloved, child of affectionate parents, Jewish parents, who are the most affectionate of all." Her brother Friedel died of Spanish flu in 1918. Little Else was all they had.
Except often she was not with them, physically or in spirit. Instead, she embraced the Bohemian life of Weimar Berlin. She didn't like the Jewish world and "couldn't stand the people in our circle. They all dealt in fabrics, leather or fur, spoke in such an atrocious jargon, and were crude and uneducated."
She married the non-Jew, Fritz Schwiefelt, had affairs, as did he, and had a son -Peter - before finding herself in a ménage à trois with a close friend. Then came an affair with a man who later became a serious Nazi - and another child. And then marriage with a German Junker, and a third child: Angelika.
Somehow, she didn't see the storm clouds gathering. In the end, her husband got her to Bulgaria, via a divorce and a marriage of convenience, where they survived a tough but protected time. There is little reflection on the courage of the Bulgarian royal family and bishops in resisting the deportation of the Jews (though praise for Bulgarian villagers). Nor is there much on the deportation of her own mother to Theresienstadt, where she died. Instead, we hear the agony of a mother trying to help her son, who made it to Greece and then Israel before getting killed.
Else died in 1949, largely estranged from Angelika, who could not understand her mother's emotional torments. Angelika married Claude Lanzmann, director of the iconic Holocaust documentary, Shoah.
Fact or fiction? Havoc and intellectual ferment or simply an escape from a stuffy bourgeois Jewish environment? An abandoned elderly mother or the last possible way to escape? A noble husband or a man who wanted to be rid of a troublesome wife? This is a compelling tale, with a wonderful depiction of Weimar Berlin, and an acute embarrassment about being Jewish.
There is no resolution to the novel, other than death. Life in Germany before the war, coming to terms with the rise of the Nazis, and ignoring them… all too believable, whether truth or fiction, and memorably told.
By Julia Neuberger
Baroness Neuberger is the Senior Rabbi, West London Synagogue