By Marlena Thompson
Review of Hester Among the Ruins: A Novel By Binnie Kirshenbaum. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002. 286 pp. $24.95.
Hester Rosenbaum, a Jewish American biographer, and Heinrich Falk, a German (Christian) historian twenty years her senior, whose life she is documenting, have an "affair to remember." It is passionate, erotic, and, ultimately, loving. But because the two necessarily spend so much time recalling and recreating the past--his, Germany's, and, indirectly, hers (Hester's parents were German-Jewish refugees), theirs is also an "affair of remembering," doomed from the outset.
Hester decides to write Heinrich's biography because she believes that by relaying the story of an "ordinary German" war baby, she can unravel the tangled threads which comprise the identity of post-war Germany. Indeed, like his nation, Heinrich is much more than the rather charming, if eccentric, self-centered philanderer living life very much "in the moment" that he appears to be on the surface. As his relationship with Hester intensifies, Heinrich is revealed as a man obsessively fascinated with his ideological heritage--a heritage that begins to arouse suspicion in Hester--and the reader.
Through Hester, the reader glimpses the complicated, often paradoxical relationship modern Jews have with present-day Germany. For example, at one point Hester sees a group of soccer enthusiasts and thinks they resemble militant youths--not unlike the thugs that roamed German streets "hunting" Jews a half century earlier. On the other hand, she notices, not entirely without satisfaction, that she receives much better service in restaurants when she wears a Star of David.
Hester's Jewish identity is flimsy at best, since she was raised by parents who were, like many refugees of that era, obsessive "wannabes"--determined to become as American as possible. That her parents were never accepted by their "American" (read, non-Jewish) neighbors or colleagues--their accents and their European ways were too off-putting and alienating--didn't stop them from downplaying their Jewishness so that Hester might become "100% American."
Heinrich is as cavalier about Christianity as Hester is about Judaism. Often, when two people born into different faiths become a couple and neither is a believer, the relationship is more properly described as "intercultural" than "interfaith." This is true for Hester and Heinrich, who seem able to surmount both their cultural and age differences.
But the most divisive issue in their relationship--one that can't be resolved either through love or determination--is history, specifically, the respective roles of their parents during the Holocaust. Hester simply cannot get beyond the fact that her parents (and her people) were the victims, while Heinrich's were the perpetrators. At one point, Hester wonders:
"Is it possible to make him understand how, at school, when we opened our history books to those pictures, I winced? Just like they always show that picture of the boy with his arms raised, there's another one that you can't escape, one that is used everywhere, in all the books on the subject. It's the one taken on the day of the Anschluss of the old man scrubbing the city sidewalk with a toothbrush while a pair of Brownshirts stand over him laughing. Can I ever make HF understand how, for years, I thought that was my grandfather in the picture?"
During a discussion about the chasm that separates them, Hester tells Heinrich: "Your parents were a people who made history happen. Mine were the by-product."
Besides brilliantly examining Hester's (and hence modern Jews') ambivalence toward Germany, Kirshenbaum also exposes the inconsistent psycho-emotional responses Jews elicit in contemporary Germans. For side by side with their sense of shame is a perverse atonement manifested in a fashionable "philo-Semitism," which is why Hester receives such over-the-top service in restaurants when she wears the Star of David. Such fawning, unctuous behavior is, of course, just another way of marginalizing Jews all over again.
This sometimes darkly comic, sometimes sad, and always thought-provoking novel is introduced with the following quote by James Baldwin, "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." Readers are thus forewarned that they are entering terrain in which history is a force with which to be reckoned, and they will need to consider whether any of us can truly escape its fallout.
If Kirshenbaum's characters reflect her conviction, it would seem she thinks we cannot escape history, for neither Hester nor Heinrich can ultimately elude the terrible legacy that shaped them both.