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An Ordinary Youth by Walter Kempowski review – a young man’s memories from the fall of Berlin

Published in English for the first time, the German author’s 1971 novelisation of his early life in the 1930s blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary There is a houseplant, the hanging saxifrage, that in German is known – or used to be known – as Judenbart, “Jew’s beard”. This is not to be confused with the species of tradescantia still known in English as “the wandering Jew” – Google it, and you will find articles of advice for gardeners with unselfconscious titles such as “methods for the control of wandering Jew”. The Judenbart is mentioned twice in Walter Kempowski’s An Ordinary Youth, first published in 1971 and now appearing for the first time in English translation. The book – whether or not it is right to call it a novel is one of the many questions that it poses – consists of continuously relayed fragments of Kempowski’s youthful memories from the late 1930s to the fall of Berlin. The gradual triumph of nazism is made to creep up on the reader as it did on the young narrator. When the operations of genocide appear they suddenly punctuate his experiences, jutting into the narrative: “On the way to school we passed a narrow house… Two Pekinese dogs were always lying in the window. When they saw us they started yapping like mad. Beside the house was a burnt-out synagogue, with a broken Star of David on the wrought iron gate.” The narrator’s friend tells him that a severed finger was found there, and a basement crusted with the blood of murdered Christian children. Such moments are, however, the exception, rifts in a calculatedly even and placid narrative style. What is the relation, the book asks, between such acts of violence and everyday facts such as the naming of the Judenbart – a name that subtly associates Jews with plant life (green beans in Spain are still called judías verdes, green Jewesses), and with the straggly beards that were said to hide their animalistic faces and through which they muttered their incomprehensible prayers? (I write this as, myself, a relatively lightly bearded Jew.) Do these everyday choices, the ways in which hatred and fear are woven into ordinary language, help to explain the obliterated synagogue? Do the war games that the young narrator plays with his friends, in which “garden peat” stands in for “the brown soil of Poland”, prepare them for their activities with the Hitler Youth and then the army? But if racist language and bellicose children’s games are everywhere, how can the appalling distinctiveness of the German case be explained? Continue reading...

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