“In the end we are all gambling with our lives in this war : Killed by the Germans, raped by the Russians or shot by friendly fire.”
The luck of the Weissensteiners is certainly better than most, but when the world goes mad even the best of luck can become tattered and frayed. The Weissensteiners are Jewish, not practicing Jewish. They even occasionally finding themselves sitting with the congregation of the Catholic Church. They are weavers, but Jonah is much more than an artisan making rugs. He is an artist creating masterpieces. It turns out to be the very thing that buys him some more luck.
Bookstores in my opinion are the best place to meet your next girlfriend or boyfriend. Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Don’t let those glasses fool you. There is a passionate tiger lurking behind those window panes.
The story begins in 1933 in a bookshop in Bratislava when Greta Weissensteiner begins buying books from the bookstore in which Wilhelm Winkelmeier is working. Wilhelm is a rather good looking young man, well aware of his attractiveness to the female species, but he has never met a girl quite like Greta. She not only reads, but she reads literature and philosophy. She reads the authors he reads. The pursuit is on. By 1935 they are married and their son Karl has been born.
Everybody is watching with various degrees of trepidation and in some cases jubilation at the rise of the Nazi party. There are a lot of German nationalists living in Slovakia and the Winkelmeier family are among them. As more and more propaganda makes its way from Germany it begins to have an affect not only on the Germans living in countries outside of Germany, but also on Wilhelm. Suddenly his beautiful wife who was a feather in his cap becomes a detriment to his future. He sees her as corrupted genetically and he is thankful that Karl looks as Aryan as he does.
People start to make decisions about how to best position themselves properly for the upcoming war. Some Germans move back to Germany and Wilhelm is no exception. He doesn’t take his “tainted” wife who is now pregnant with their second son. Ernst when he arrives shows the “mixed” heritage. His grandmother in particular has a hard time with it.
”To many people this strange combination seemed cute or adorable but to her it was a little
unsettling and disgusting. To see the handsome Winkelmeier features disfigured in such an ugly way was too much for her.”
Jews from Slovakia being sent to their deaths in 1942.
Until the rise of Nazism looking Jewish was not something anyone thought about. Now it was all anyone thought about. Egon, Greta’s brother joins the army in an attempt to protect his parents, but they need more than that. Fortunately Jonah has a benefactor in the Countess. She has bought many of his works of art and helped commission many more with her friends. When the Germans insist on lists of Jews they can use in the work camps the Weissensteiner luck holds once again.
”Jonah’s names was listed but a friendly, corrupt and heavily bribed pen crossed the Weissensteiners off all lists.”
Many Jews try to convert, but the Catholic church in many cases is unsympathetic.
”The conversion of opportunistic Jews who just wanted to escape the persecution – which they deserved in his eyes - was out of the question.”
Andrej Hlinka. You might be asking yourself if that is a Catholic Priest collar, yes indeed it is.
The Hlinka Guards named after Andrej Hlinka was formed in 1938, trained by the SS in Germany, and in charge of deporting Jews from Slovakia to Auschwitz starting in 1942. This was really just a state sponsored shake down. They stripped the Jews of all their money, jewels, and other valuables before sending them off to die. There was over 15,000 Jews in Bratislava alone and most did not survive the war.
Hlinka Guard well trained by the SS.
How long can the Weissensteiner luck prevail?
So Christoph Fischer follows these two families the Weissensteiners and the Winkelmeier families and how the changing winds of political favor affects each family. The Winkelmeier’s do very well early on in the war acquiring more and more land that used to belong to Jews, but what happens when the war starts turning against the Axis Powers? What happens if the Czechs take the area back over? How about the Russians? The Weissensteiners purchase German documentation made by one of the numerous blackmarket artists disenfranchised by the war which of course works fine as long as the Germans maintain control.
As the Russians and the Americans advance everyone including the once secure Germans are unsure of what to do? Where to go to be safe? Ideally they want to land in the hands of the Americans. The Russians are like a raging pestilence, killing and raping everybody who is unfortunate enough to fall in their path. Even people like the Countess whose money has insulated them from the ravages of war finds herself in the wind with no safety net.
The roads are choked with refugees for mile after mile. Food is scarce. Tempers are frayed.
These are conditions where good people find themselves becoming someone they don’t want to be in order to survive. Some of the more fragile go crazy. The stress and strain on everyone is tremendous. People who used to own farms and businesses suddenly find themselves refugees. People are shot for some unknown reason or no reason at all. There are no distinctions between Jews, Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Austrians or Slovakians now that the whole region is destabilized. Civilians are caught in a vortex of uncontrolled violence. There are no rules.
Death doesn’t play favorites. It is stalking everyone.
I had no idea that Slovenia provided troops to the German army. One of the many historical facts that Fischer liberally doses this novel with. His writing style is going to drive some people crazy. As a reader you feel like you are reading a historical nonfiction book for some sections and then your Slovakian great aunt’s diary in the next moment. As the tension mounts, and I was starting to wonder how anyone lived to reproduce in Central Europe, I became the relative in America waiting for that letter that so matter-of-factly tells me that Great Uncle Jonah didn’t make it or Greta was sent to a camp in Germany.
Luck plays such a factor in who survived and who died. Yes, some people are naturally more feral and have an increased chance of surviving the war, but frankly there is no way to predict that things would get this bad or that you’d suddenly be up to your eyeballs in pissed off Russian troops or desperate Germans. In many ways it showed the worst of humanity, but there are also those moments when someone does the unexpected and reaches out a hand when someone needs it most. People who when living in a sane world would never even consider hurting another human being or demeaning themselves for a piece of bread are forced to be killers, beggars, and whores. This book reinforced for me the absolute need to maintain civilization. It is the only chance we have to continue to evolve into more benevolent and peaceful creatures.
This is the first of The Three Nations Trilogy. The second one isSebastian and the third one is the The Black Eagle Inn. I’m in for a penny and in for a pound.
Lynda wrote a great review about Sebastian that everyone should check out. Lynda's Sebastian Review