Danzig! How did I forget to include the town of the drumming dwarf in our recent roundup devoted to novels that take us to different cities and times so we can stay safely and cheaply at home?
Guenter Grass was born in Danzig in 1927, but unlike little Oskar Matzerath he didn’t stop growing until he became West Germany’s greatest author.
“The Tin Drum” (Mariner, $15.95) -- published in 1959 and the first in his “Danzig Trilogy” -- describes with the blackest humor the rise of the Nazis in a town that was stuck with the perilous status of “free city” after World War I.
On Danzig’s right was East Prussia; on the left, the so-called Polish corridor, a swathe of land that allowed Poland access to the Baltic sea. And beyond the corridor was Germany, with a lot more Nazis, who wished Danzig to become part of the Reich.
I opened my mother’s signed copy and looked for the funny description of opera innocent Oskar visiting Zoppot with his mother.
In the summer, the music-loving citizens of Danzig would repair to Zoppot (now Sopot) for Wagner performances at an open-air stage in the forest. Many divas preferred Zoppot’s brisk weather to the tormenting humidity of Bayreuth.
Unfortunately, Oskar became very agitated as the soprano kept wailing away in “The Flying Dutchman.” Thinking she was hurt, he emitted a high-pitched scream that popped the lights and stopped the show.
The novel is Oskar’s memoir, composed in the ’50s when he is in a nuthouse. As old Danzig flickers in his memory, the new Gdansk haphazardly rises from the ruins -- eventually becoming the stage for Lech Walesa, the union man who raised his fist to Soviet power.
As I drifted through “Tin Drum,” I recalled my mother, a Latvian of German ancestry whose relatives roamed the port cities of the Hanseatic League and spoke of the beauty of the Masurian plains.
The British biographer Max Egremont opened up those memories in his lyrical “Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17). In this book, published two years ago, he takes a meandering path through the region’s history, pondering monuments and myths and meeting up with survivors of this chaotic frontier of the German empire.
Egremont’s focus is on the region’s idiosyncratic landed class, the Junkers, many of whom joined the resistance against Hitler. He pays proper homage to the hardy Marion Doenhoff, a countess who fled her ancestral lands on horseback, dismounting in Hamburg where she became the publisher of the prestigious weekly Die Zeit.
Forests, castles, towns all evoke complex emotions, with the beauty of Rominten, for example, blighted by Goering who loved to hunt here, dressed like Siegfried.
Worst for all, Hitler chose to conduct his Russian campaign from Rastenburg in the middle of East Prussia, accelerating the ongoing butchery of non-Aryans who got in the way.
Millions died in this area alone, buried in the rubble of once-beautiful towns. Lovely Konigsberg, home of Kant, philosopher of the Enlightenment, turned into ghastly Kaliningrad. Look at the photos and have a dark day.
‘Diary of a Man in Despair’
I ended up spending the weekend going through my assorted memoirs of a time that might have been so different if only Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen had pulled out his pistol, which he always carried, in a Munich restaurant in the 1930s.
There was “the vegetarian Genghis Khan” chewing his cud, all alone -- unusual for Hitler, who liked an audience for his non sequiturs. Reck, a caustic, cultivated East Prussian writer from those Masurian lake-lands, never forgave himself. Like so many of his class, he thought of Hitler as a clown who would disappear. When he didn’t Reck withdrew to a tiny town, periodically pouring his rage into “Diary of a Man in Despair” (New York Review Books, $15.95), finishing his last entry on the day the Gestapo picked him up in 1944. Somehow, the monsters of efficiency missed the diary.
For macabre humor, I turned to Bella Fromm’s “Blood and Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary” (out of print). Fromm, an upper-class Jewish gossip columnist for a liberal newspaper, was a very witty observer of the brutes and sycophants who sipped champagne and kissed the hand of “Frau Bella,” as she was known.
Frau Bella’s acid views of Hitler, especially his cultural pretensions, are a joy to read.
“Once I watched him during a performance of ‘The Merry Widow’ in Munich. It was amusing to see how eagerly he listened -- and looked. The full-bosomed, and somewhat aging Valkyries of Bayreuth never seemed to strike the same aesthetic and artistic chords in the ascetic Fuhrer as the slender, seminude chorus maidens of Munich.”
Fromm left for a penurious life in the U.S. in 1938. Joseph Roth hurried to Paris after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. There he fell apart, writing increasingly desperate letters for handouts, while consuming toxic quantities of booze.
“Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters” (Norton, $39.95) is a painful cry for help aimed often at the famous Stefan Zweig, who surely could have folded a few banknotes into his dutiful, “chin-up” responses.
Finally, in May 1939, Roth just keeled over, too distressed to go on. He is remembered for the satirical novel “The Radetzky March” (Everyman’s Library, $22) -- about the collapse of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire and its many small-brained people.
Zweig’s polished books have largely disappeared, except for his autobiography, “The World of Yesterday” (University of Nebraska, $24.95), which he finished before his suicide in Brazil.
I read it years ago and can’t forget his aged mother. One day she was the respected Frau Zweig, mother of one of Europe’s bestselling authors. Then the Nazis arrived in Austria and she was suddenly nobody, deprived even of her walks in the public garden because Jews were not allowed to rest up a little on benches that were reserved exclusively for fat Nazi arschen.
The list of things verboten to Jews grew ever longer until pets ended up on the list, as wearily recorded by Victor Klemperer, an ex-professor of the French Enlightenment.
Neither could they be adopted by an Aryan neighbor to thwart any sneaky visiting. So on a day she never forgot, his wife carried their cat to be euthanized by a vet. Astonishingly, the Klemperers and his diaries survived the firebombing of Dresden and were published in English as “I Will Bear Witness: 1933-1941” and “I Will Bear Witness: 1942-1945” (Modern Library, $18 each).
“The Hare With Amber Eyes”
Finally, I entered the rarified world of the wealthy Ephrussi banking family who once occupied one of the grandest palais on the Ringstrasse, an immense mansion on the scale of the opera house.
Decades after the Anschluss, Edmund de Waal, a noted ceramist, pieced together his fractured family history, focusing on the collection of netsuke -- miniature carvings that included the creature of the title, “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”
Anna, his grandmother’s maid, had carefully secreted them in her mattress. It is a remarkable book, a magical book, conjuring up vast worlds and unusual people from these tiny treasures.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine and James S. Russell on architecture.