Half-Jews outlast Nazi regime in ‘The Kaminsky Cure’
It is to the great credit of Christopher New, the author of the “The Kaminsky Cure” (Delphinium Books), that one is able to laugh, if not out loud, at least to smile sadly, while utterly immersed in a story that takes place in Europe during the most shameful time in our not-so-distant history. A time when “a frothy stream of anti-Semitism had begun to flow into the village like s— from the leaking sewer, except that there wasn’t a sewer to get leaks in yet.”
Perhaps no sewers existed at the time in the small Austrian village in which our young narrator’s life unfolds, but in the Aryan Führer’s rotten mind, a malodorous sewer has been frothing for years, leaking a stream of fecal conspiracies aimed at annihilating the Jewish race.
The frightening developments of Hitler’s plan, from 1939 until his defeat at the end of World War II, is narrated by the son of the Jewish Gabi, who has converted to Christianity, and her husband, Lutheran minister Willibald Brinkmann, who is proud of his Aryan heritage. At age “five and three-quarters,” the youngest of four Brinkmann children breathes life into the story with a wonderfully ironic, humorous and heartbreaking voice, as he attempts to understand the constantly changing Nazi laws regarding his family. Who amongst them is Aryan? Who is a Jew that carries tainted blood, and who is half-Jewish? The answer, of course, is that Willibald is the pure Aryan, although he displays none of the courage the Jewish Gabi displays, and their children, then, are considered “privileged” half-Jews.
While, one by one, the most basic of rights are snatched away, first from Jews, then from half-Jews, the Brinkmann children — Martin, Ilse, Sara and, eventually, our narrator — are barred from attending school, but not from receiving private education, although that restriction will come, too. So Gabi embarks on selling her jewelry, furniture and anything that would bring in some money for her children’s education. No matter her conversion to Christianity, Gabi remains Jewish at heart, and her children will receive an education, even if the family has to suffer cold and hunger and illness in exchange for private lessons from Frau Kaminsky. And it is Frau Kaminsky, who in an effort to protect Gabi from herself, suggests the “Kaminsky Cure” of the title. She advises Gabi to hold water in her mouth so as to stifle her dangerous tendency to blurt out what she really thinks about the Nazis, who are tightening their claws around her family’s throat.
As the story progresses and Hitler boasts of one triumph after another, the once privileged half-Jews are no longer immune from Nazi atrocities. Laws are in constant flux, as are loyalties of friends and family. The situation becomes unbearable, and mouthfuls of water prove inadequate in curbing Gabi’s rage from spilling out, so she gets into the habit of stuffing a balled handkerchief in her mouth or swallowing scalding coffee.
Yet, despite all the inflicted horrors, not only by the Nazis but also by Gabi’s self-serving husband and his theatrical outbursts, Gabi manages to retain her humanity. She is naïve, optimistic and hopeful to the extent of declaring that “they do things by the book in Germany, so her name is not on the list yet, no one’s going to touch her,” and, as such, there is no danger in her accompanying the Jewish Frau Professor Goldberg to the train station, which is, of course, destined for the camps. This, when it is dangerous to be seen with a Jew and constant disappearances remain unexplained, adding terror to her son’s fertile mind, as does the “imploring voice” of Great-Aunt Hegwig before her disappearance, “Remember us!” And always that most terrifying of all childhood fears: What if mother disappears like the rest? A logical fear that adds tension to an already tense situation.
The war ends, cartons labeled CARE arrive at the Brinkmann home from America, once full-fledged Nazis suddenly deny any affiliation with the party, friends turned enemies spin like Chanukah dreidels and become supposed friends again. They smile, bow to the Brinkmann family, have the audacity to look them in the eye and declare, “How pleased they are that everything turned all right.” The truth, as we all know it, is that nothing is the same and, “what was there is gone and cannot be replaced.”
Toward the end of this gripping and intelligent novel, I found myself slowing the pace of my reading, savoring the artistry of New’s narrative and meditating on the internal journey of the characters rendered on the page with such admirable insight. This is a novel well worth reading, not only because of the fresh, poignant manner through which it brings to life the struggles of a family during the reign of the Third Reich, or because it reminds us that no matter how long ago Hitler’s atrocities might have occurred, if they fail to illicit horror and disbelief, then we have ceased to be human. “The Kaminsky Cure” is also admirable for its attempt to answer the often-asked question of why millions of Jews followed orders without resisting, even when they knew the trains they boarded were speeding toward crematoriums.
The answer, according to New, at least for the half-Jews, is that they believed that any resistance on their part would endanger the lives of the rest of their loved ones, whose names were not yet on the Gestapo’s list.
DORA LEVY MOSSANEN is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Journal. Her latest book is “Scent of Butterflies.”