Fiction – hardcover; Haus Publishing; 277 pages; 2015. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Monika Held’s This Place Holds No Fear is an extraordinarily beautiful novel — about survival, the power of love and the strength of one exceptional marriage.
It’s also about the Holocaust (fittingly, it was published on Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz just six weeks ago), but it’s quite unlike any Holocaust novel that I have read. That’s because it’s not so much about what happens to those who are sent to the death camps while they are there but explores what happens to the survivors afterwards — how do they get on with their lives after such unfathomable horror and trauma?
A love story
The novel is essentially a love story between Heiner, a Viennese man, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 as a Communist, and Lena, a translator from Germany, who is 10 years his junior.
They meet by accident when Heiner is called to give evidence as a witness at the Auschwitz trials, held in Frankfurt in 1964, in which former SS officials and guards were tried for war crimes.
Lena is working in the court, translating evidence from Polish into German. On the 52nd day of the hearings, Heiner collapses in the hallway of the courthouse, where Lena rescues him — she wipes his brow, helps him to a chair and gets him a glass of water — forging the beginning of a love affair that endures for the next 30-plus years.
The Auschwitz legacy
As the couple’s story unfolds we learn that Heiner’s experiences at Auschwitz will forever mark him. As prisoner 63,387, he worked as a typist in the prisoner’s infirmary typing death records for those internees who had died.
Several times a day the SS man brings us a list with names and numbers of the dead. We don’t know how these people died. We can choose from thirty different illnesses. According to my typewriter people die of heart failure, phlegmons, pneumonia, spotted fever and typhus, embolisms, influenza, circulatory collapse, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and kidney failure. Under no circumstances is anyone tortured, beaten to death or shot at Auschwitz. No one starves, dies of thirst; no one is hanged, no one is gassed.
On a daily basis, Heiner witnessed great brutality and unspeakable acts of cruelty and inhumanity by the SS officers and guards, but he knew that he had to survive in order to be a witness. But life was cheap and at any point he could be the next to die:
That was the first lesson he’d learned: You can die. For looking too curious, too horrified, too bold, too submissive or not submissive enough. For walking. Too fast, too slow, too casually. You can die for saying your number wrong. Too softly, too loudly, too hesitantly, too slowly, or too fast. You can be killed for not knowing the words to a song. If a person wants to kill, any reason will do.
But after liberation there were new challenges to overcome— “He’d survived — but what was the point? The perpetrators were convicted and would serve their sentences without remorse, without understanding, without any shock over what they’d done” — and no one understood what he had gone through:
At home people had looked at him mistrustfully: How come you’re still alive? We thought there was only one way to freedom at Auschwitz: through the chimney. Their eyes asked: What did you do? Were you a Nazi stooge? At whose cost did you survive? If only they had asked him directly. He found their secretive looks repugnant.
His first marriage, which is mentioned only in passing, falls apart when his wife and young child are unable to cope with Heiner’s ongoing suffering and his inability to escape from the shadow of Auschwitz that continues to loom over him.
By the time Lena meets him — almost 20 years after liberation — Heiner is still in the grip of that shadow. Their marriage works, not because Lena helps Heiner to overcome his pain — he can never overcome it — but because she accepts that it is part of his character, part of his being. As she tells Heiner’s friend, Tadek, who is also a Holocaust survivor, “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.
Marriage governed by trauma
This Place Holds No Fear offers a poignant, often moving but never sentimental, glimpse into a marriage that is governed by trauma. It’s never maudlin, however, but it distills in clear, eloquent prose (beautifully translated by Anne Posten), an unconditional love that knows no bounds.
It particularly comes into its own in the second half of the novel when the couple travel to Poland, now under Communist rule, to deliver relief supplies to other Holocaust survivors. Here, Lena listens into conversations that deeply move her, because in meeting Heiner’s comrades she comes to understand that they all share a deep need to tell their (disturbing) stories. Yes, they are psychologically damaged men, but they have managed to stay sane not by forgetting what happened to them but by remembering their unnatural pasts.
The novel is based on a true story — the author interviewed and spent time with Auschwitz survivors — so it feels incredibly authentic. It’s certainly powerful and compelling. And when I finished it, the first word that sprang to mind was not “depressing” or “traumatic” but quite simply this: “beautiful”.