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Double Identity

A PAST IN HIDING Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany By Mark Roseman; Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt: 494 pp., $27.50

February 11, 2001|MICHAEL FRANK | Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review

In recent years, there has been a notable florescence in writing about the Holocaust. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" argued, to considerable controversy, that anti-Semitism ran wide and deep in German society and culture, where generational hatred of the Jews facilitated Hitler's genocide. Viktor Klemperer's diaries, "I Will Bear Witness," conveyed daily life under the Third Reich with special attention to the relationship between German Jews and non-Jews, while Wladyslaw Szpilman's "The Pianist," an autobiographical account of the Holocaust written in the immediate aftermath of the experience itself and only recently translated into English, depicted one man's unlikely survival in Poland during the war. And Peter Novick's "The Holocaust in American Life" explored and criticized the prominent--and, to him, problematic--place the Holocaust has come to assume in American Jewish thinking and identity.

Among the many widespread assumptions about the Holocaust that Novick challenges is the one that holds that the experience is, as he puts it, "singularly incomprehensible or unrepresentable," a position that, like its claim to uniqueness, he finds deeply offensive. As if in response to the matter of unrepresentability--with, however, a much broader human and historical agenda in mind--Mark Roseman's "A Past in Hiding" shows how all too representable and comprehensible many aspects of the Holocaust can indeed be. In this painstaking narrative, Roseman combines history, biography, psychology and detective work to tell the story of one woman's life in Germany up to, during and (briefly) after the war; the book stands out, in its genre, in any genre, as an act of great generosity, unbridled curiosity, relentless research and abiding respect for the persistent individuality of a human life, mind and memory. In places painfully raw, "A Past in Hiding" often vibrates with the kind of visceral feeling and textured observation encountered more often in a novel than in the careful work of historical inquiry, which this book remains, fiercely, until its final pages.

The memory, the feeling and the intricately substantiated interiority largely belong to Marianne Strauss, the most unusual woman whose life Roseman reconstructs. Strauss was born in Essen in 1923, to a prosperous bourgeois family who became the last Jews to remain free in the city during the war. Her parents and brother were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, deported to Theresienstadt and later gassed in Auschwitz. Marianne, who slipped out the front door when the Gestapo came to collect them, eluded the Nazis by going underground for the remainder of the war, but in her own fashion, which often meant living openly and boldly, with no papers and hair dyed red to help her pass for Aryan.

She also had spectacular luck and unflagging assistance from members of Essen's Bund. (Not to be confused with the Socialist Jewish Bund in Poland and Russia, the Bund in Essen--the word means "league" or "federation"--emerged from a group of people who attended lectures given by Artur Jacobs, a radical schoolteacher who, as Roseman explains, combined "a belief in the historical mission of the proletariat with an intense concern for the moral choices that face individuals in their daily lives.") In 1945, Marianne fell in love with Basil Ellenbogen, a British soldier and an Orthodox Jew; she moved to England in 1946, married and raised a son and daughter, and died in Liverpool 50 years later, having through most of her life concealed her story, even from her own children, while at the same time keeping an extraordinary (if wholly unorganized and unexamined) archive of letters, diaries and official records that documented her past.

Roseman first met Strauss in Liverpool in 1989. He knew something about her, because he had read an article that, despite her need for privacy, she had published in a small German journal five years earlier; in it she had told the story of her escape and her life underground. He found her account remarkable, perhaps implausible in some aspects, and was eager to meet its author. A striking woman still--she had been a great beauty in her youth--Marianne served him biscuits and coffee in a house full of antiques and good furniture. Her hair was pulled back into a "Continental" bun; her voice was "cultured and slightly husky," her demeanor "charming with a hint of steel." But she proved to be strangely reluctant to talk about the past, and the meeting was a disappointment to Roseman.

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