Fiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. Haus Publishing, 2015. Originally published 2013. 272 pgs. Purchased.
In 1964, a Viennese man named Heiner is called to Frankfurt to testify at the war crimes trial of former SS officials and guards from Auschwitz. Heiner was deported to Auschwitz in April 1942 for his membership in the Austrian Communist Party, and his testimony about typing death records in the prisoner’s infirmary is crucial to the prosecutor’s case.
As the trial reaches its 52nd day of hearings, Heiner collapses in the hallway of the courthouse. The first person to come to Heiner’s aid is Lena, a Polish to German translator ten years younger than Heiner, and their interaction in that hallway sparks a connection that blooms into a three decades long love affair.
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Heiner and Lena’s relationship lives in the shadow of the Nazi death camp. Heiner’s first marriage fell apart because his wife and daughter expected him to return as the man he was before he became prisoner 63,387.
“Dear friend – which has more power over our thoughts, feelings, and actions – the present or the past? Are there findings on this, essays, books? Or is it a decision that everyone has to make for themselves? You seem to have made a proper grave for our past, a grave that you can visit, care for, and then leave. You commute between then and now, while I, to carry the metaphor further, walk around arm in arm with a ghost that I frighten people with. I can’t find a grave for this ghost, and, to be honest, I don’t actually want to bury it. Maybe sometimes I should hide it. Or disguise it. The past will always be closer to me than it is to you, my friend, but at the same time, I don’t want to grant it the power to destroy my present with Lena.”
Lena has the benefit of meeting Heiner twenty years after liberation; the man she falls in love with is the only version Heiner she’s ever known. But she also carries this deeply compassionate and graceful understanding of Heiner’s character that few seem able or willing to comprehend, including Heiner’s fellow survivors. I particularly liked the way Lena summarized Heiner’s behavior – and, thus their relationship – to a Holocaust survivor and friend of Heiner’s, Tadek:
“It’s like living with a singer who can’t stop singing the song of his life. He sings it in the morning, he sings it at noon and in the afternoon, evening and night. It has many verses. You have to like the song, or you’ll go crazy.”
This conversation occurs in the second half of the novel where Heiner and Lena travel from West Germany to Communist-ruled Poland to deliver food and supplies to other Holocaust survivors. There, Heiner and Lena both start to question the role of memory and remembrance in their lives as Heiner’s story becomes melded into the collective history of Germany, Poland, and Austria.
“One day Heiner would tell of the starvation bunker as if he’d been there, and Leszek would speak of the speaking tree, as if he’d sat upon its cracking branch instead of Mietek, screaming his number to the skies. Was that theft? Were the stories owned jointly, so that none of them could ever be forgotten? They said ‘Auschwitz’ less and less frequently. They called the place where they’d become friends simply ‘there’.”
Back in April, I mentioned how I’ve started to feel like the Holocaust has become commonplace in fiction, often written without reverence to the subject matter or without a truly unique angle. It has become clear to me that perhaps this is a subgenera of historical fiction that I best avoid, and I picked up Held’s novel with some trepidation.
Thankfully, this charge against novels centered around the Holocaust did not apply to Held’s novel. This Place Has No Fear offers a poignant portrayal of how a marriage adapts to lingering trauma, exploring complex questions of memory and loss without relying on melodramatic scenes. While at times the novel’s pacing lagged, the story is one I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.
This is my seventh book for #20BooksofSummer. When I made my list for the challenge, I didn’t anticipate how much traveling I’d be doing between June and September and didn’t include a single title off my Kindle, which is my go-to while traveling. Thankfully, Cathy is flexible with her “rules” for this challenge, allowing participants to swap in other books and count them towards their challenge total. I purchased ‘This Place Has No Fear’ in February 2015 after reading Kim’s review of the title on her blog, Reading Matters.