Ghost train- what a great title for this, Ursula Krechel’s third novel about the Nazi period in Germany and its legacy. The novel takes the story of a Sinti fairground family, the Dorns, following them during the thirties as they suffer from increasing persecution under the Nazis. The lives of other families living in Trier also feature and the second half of the book has the next generation sitting together on the same school bench post war as the ghosts of their parents’ experiences and suffering hover over them, shaping them as individuals and the society they grow up in. The city of Trier is at the heart of the novel, a city occupied by the Romans, strategically placed on the border with Luxembourg and part of the French zone in the post war period.The sense of the city’s history and location roots the novel and binds the different strands more tightly together : as in Landgericht and Shanghai fern von wo the novel combines fiction with reportage which can sometimes feel digressive, so Trier serves at times as a kind of unifying theme.
Ursula Krechel weaves real events through the Dorns’ story, painting a picture of increasing discrimination against the Sinti, legitimised by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. We see Alfons and his brother in law travelling to Berlin for a trade fair and getting caught up in the round up of 600 Sinti and Romani people on 16th July 1936, on the eve of the Olympic Games. They were taken with their caravans to the Berlin Marzahn Rastplatz which then functioned as a concentration camp where prisoners deemed unfit to work were executed and others detained in appalling conditions. At the same time, the family in Trier are targeted by the authorities’ forced sterilisation programme and there is a harrowing section where the young Kathi suffers this assault while her mother begs them to sterilise her instead.
One of the policemen involved in the forced sterilisation round ups is a character referred to as MEINVATER throughout the novel, his story alternating with that of the Dorns in the first part of the book. These sections are narrated in the first person by his son who slowly emerges through this narrative as a character in his own right, and in the later post war sections turns out to be the protagonist Bernhard. The MEINVATER sections, depicting the rise of an ordinary policeman to a position of power, authority and abuse under the Nazi regime, act as a kind of counterpoint to the Dorns’ story, showing us how the regime empowered the little man, elevating him to a position where he could exercise authority over vulnerable groups. But that capitalised name resonates powerfully beyond this, reminding me both of the generic names in Anna Burns’ Milkman and the VATERUNSER of the Lord’s Prayer: this character is representative of a whole group of people who carried out the Nazis’ orders and who represent authority. Yet he is also Bernhard’s father and it is as if fatherhood itself is called into question by those capitals and what they represent.
The second family group which interested me were the Torgaus, a Communist family, and as with the Dorns, we see through their story the history of Communist activity during the thirties and beyond. One key character is Aurelia, an extraordinarily brave and committed activist who smuggles Resistance leaflets across the border into Luxembourg. She is eventually denounced by her husband and imprisoned first in Ziegenhain, then Ravensbrück and eventually Auschwitz. Both Aurelia and her brother Willi survive the camps and the war and there is much detail in the latter part of the book about the choices they both make about continuing political activity after the war in a new political landscape. On a more emotional level there is a heart rending account of Aurelia’s broken health: she has TB post Auschwitz and suffers horribly from the brutal treatments of the time as well as from her own inability to have children.
Sometimes the suffering of characters like the Dorns and Aurelia Torgau felt almost too much to bear, and it was with huge relief that I reached the section entitled Kleine Körper. This takes us on to the post war section where the children of these families, and the others I haven’t mentioned, are sitting on the same primary school bench, 7 year olds in the 2nd class. Here the narrator is Bernhard again, one of the children in the class, and we see the post war classroom through his eyes: lots and lots of lusty patriotic singing, the daughter of communist Willi Torgau being punished for her father withdrawing her from RE, Anchen, whose mother Lucie Dorn, broken by anxiety, collects her from school when the other children are allowed to walk home alone. The picture of post war Trier extends beyond the children’s classroom world. Housing is going up quickly and women are supposed to be fulfilled by their domestic role. Younger brothers and sisters arrive unexpectedly- this is not yet the 60s with the pill and the freedom that meant for women.
The post war period is also one in which compensation claims, a reckoning for injustice suffered during the war, takes place. The search for post war justice is of utmost importance to this writer,as can be seen from Landgericht and Shanghai fern von wo, and, as in those books, falls short. In one of the books’ digressions from its characters, we learn that the process of denazification was carried out differently in the different zones and so there was a fair amount of Zonenwanderung, travelling between the zones, by people under investigation, seeking more lenient treatment in a different zone. In the French zone where Trier lay, all teachers, as Beamte, civil servants, were sacked at the end of the war and had to be interviewed about their allegiances to the NSDAP, the Nazi party, before being reinstated. On realising they had no teachers for the school return in 1945, these interviews gathered speed and were perfunctory at best. In contrast, those who had suffered irredeemable losses during the war received minimal compensation: the Dorn family returned from the camps and received 100 marks each in compensation, and Lucie received nothing in compensation for her childrens’ clothes.
The final section of the book takes us through the 60s and beyond. We see Bernhard and his left wing student friends protesting about the Vietnam War and visiting Willi Torgau to understand what Communism meant to him. Another character returns to Trier after becoming a film director, to a showing of her arty film. Gerwin has pulled his father’s vinegar factory down and replaced it with a vineyard. This seems a million miles away from the 30s and the lives described then. Yet the Dorns, Ignaz and Anna, who have now given up the fairground and opened a restaurant, have not escaped the prejudice and discrimination of those times so easily: the attacks on the restaurant and the casual attitudes of police and insurers suggest at best an indifference, at worst a continuing racism which continues to beset the Sinti community. An appropriate ending for our unstable times where racism and xenophobia are being seen again all over Europe.
Now this is a very long book ( 638 pages) with a panoramic view in the historical period it covers and the reach of the historical events, ideologies and personalities who appear- I haven’t even begun to mention the real people who appear but they include Adenauer, Furtwängler, Victor Bodson, Franz Seldte, many of whom I was looking up in Wikipedia as I read. Some readers might not take to the mixture of fiction and reportage which Ursula Krechel uses in this book as in her other two novels, and the reportage does sometimes entail digressions which take you away from the main characters and their story. Still, there is a lot of interesting material here and the mix of genres sat easily with me-you just do need to keep tabs on the characters at times as there are enough to remember in the fictional sections alone. And the additional interest for me was learning more about the Sinti community and their experiences during the Nazi period. This is a powerful read but with its length, scope and subject matter, not an easy one.