A scene in Anna Winger’s novel, “This Must Be the Place” (Riverhead), is reminiscent of the Chasidic story about people who no longer remember the way to pray nor the words, yet somehow simply remember the instinct to pray. Two friends descend into a storage area in their Berlin building that had once been a secret Hebrew school for young people in hiding. They light memorial candles for their own lost relatives and, aware that they don’t know Hebrew prayers, instead sing out the songs they know with gusto.
Set in December 2001, “This Must Be the Place” is an urban novel, a love story, a tale of searching for one’s place. There’s much musing about Germans and Jews, about the past and about memory and identity. Many Berliners who have never been to New York City wear I LOVE NY T-shirts in solidarity with the city after Sept. 11.
Winger, an American who has lived in Berlin for the last five years, grew up in Cambridge, Mass., along with long periods in Kenya and Mexico, as well as New York City. The daughter of Harvard anthropologists, she picked up their skills of observation, which she has fine-tuned in her work as a professional photographer and in this beautifully written fictional debut.
The novel traces the friendship of Hope, an American woman who followed her workaholic husband to Berlin shortly after a private tragedy and the events of Sept. 11, and Walter, a German actor who lives in an identical apartment in the same building. Once quite well known, Walter, who’s now in his 40s and has lost his hair and gained weight, is the voice of Tom Cruise in German. He has just been dumped by his much younger girlfriend, an actress, and he dreams of America.
Their 90-year-old building, with its fading grandeur, is in a once-elegant and now-gentrifying section of what had been West Berlin. Hints of the building’s history and of the Jewish families who once lived there are whispered about, hidden under peeling layers of wallpaper.
“Most Germans of my generation would love to be Jewish,” Walter tells Hope. “Even just a little. People are always coming up with a Jewish great-grandmother out of the blue…. Everyone wants to identify with the oppressed, not the oppressors, to relieve their own inherited guilt. If you ask, almost everyone here will claim that their own family had nothing to do with the Holocaust, that they were hiding Jews in the basement, or in the attic, or under the bed.”
Hope’s husband, Dave, who is Jewish, admits that he likes his Germans guilty. As he says, “They’re nice to me now.”
In an interview, Winger speaks of her unexpected love of Berlin and believes that this is the best moment to live there.
“It’s a city with a complicated history — where you choose how you interact with history every day,” she said, adding, “The amazing thing about Berlin is that in so many ways it’s a Jewish city.”
She moved there to join her husband, a German-born television and film producer. When she first met him, about a decade before they started dating, she said that “the idea of being with a German was not something I took seriously. It was so off the charts, not part of my world.”
But when she finally visited Berlin, their friendship changed. Much to her surprise, she was struck by how familiar his world seemed to her.
“Everything about the country really surprised me. You hear only negative things in Jewish America. Actually, the culture is intensely intellectual. People are more open than expected; it’s very urban, welcoming.”
She began writing the novel when she was pregnant with their daughter; at the time she could no longer travel extensively as she had for her photographic work. In some ways, the novel is an answer to the many questions she was thinking about as an American Jew living in Berlin — and an attempt to explain to her daughter, “a child with mixed heritage, everything that happened in the place where she was born.”
Winger’s own Jewish identity has evolved in her years as a Berliner. While living in New York, being American and Jewish seemed so intertwined that she didn’t think much about it. In Berlin, she feels a large responsibility to celebrate Jewish holidays with her friends and, in fact, wrote about her eclectic Passover seder in The New York Times.
In Berlin, she has never experienced anti-Semitism and instead finds the opposite: a high level of sincere interest among Germans in Judaism.
“They’re curious in a positive way,” she said. “You are more likely to have a negative experience in an American yacht club than in Berlin. Of that I’m certain.”
She added, “The fact that they have learned from their mistakes is integral to what makes Berlin so welcoming.” In general, she sees people as “post-guilt enlightened, well educated about Jewish subjects. They feel responsible to make their country a better place and that’s palpable.”
She is frequently asked about the Holocaust, and people want to talk, but she doesn’t want it to be their only subject.
“I’ve had to make my own peace with the ghosts of history,” she said.
Her 4-year-old daughter speaks German and English. Winger is also the creator and producer of “The Berlin Stories,” a new series for NPR. An exhibition of her photographs is set to open in Berlin in 2009.
“My hope would be that people would read the book, and it would give them pause to reconsider some of the prejudices they have about the city,” she said.
Anna Winger will read from “This Must Be the Place” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 22., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood.
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.