Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.
The Eager Refugee
Review of Mohr by Frederick Reuss (Unbridled Books, 2006).
When novelist Frederick Reuss inherited from his grandfather a collection of photographs taken of and by his uncle, successful pre-World War II playwright and physician Max Mohr--a German Jew who married a Lutheran woman--he felt compelled to learn as much as possible about his uncle’s life. But when the research trail led to mostly dead ends, Reuss turned Max’s story into a work of fiction, peppered throughout with the authentic photographs. The result is Mohr, a fascinating and often deeply moving exploration of pre-war Germany and China, interfaith relationships as the Third Reich rose to power, and the strength and failures of our bonds to each other in the context of a world breaking down. “The world does not resolve itself in twos,” writes the author, “but in a lingering loneliness.”
Mohr opens in 1937 as the title character departs Germany for Shanghai to escape a climate where his books, once commercially popular, are now banned and burned by the Nazis. He flees as political tension builds in Germany and marital tension mounts within his own modest country home. Arriving in China, he begins his new life as a doctor, leaving behind his Lutheran wife Käthe and their pre-teen daughter Eva. Although Mohr believes he will send for his wife and daughter when his circumstances in China stabilize, he still feels relief upon fleeing his quiet life and embarking on a new adventure. The author suggests that Mohr possesses an inherently self-serving and seemingly unstoppable restlessness and that he might have left regardless of the political situation in his home country.
Reuss’ prose is beautiful throughout, but in his descriptions of 1937 Shanghai its vibrancy is hypnotic: “Mohr sits silently, taking in the view. Rickshaw traffic, roadside commerce. Tea, rice, sugarcane, watermelon and sunflower seeds, candy, fruits, vegetables, full-course meals bubbling on kerosene stoves, ear cleaners (who keep him supplied with a steady stream of patients with infections), astrologers, letter writers, tailors, beggars, monks, cripples. Red silk banners hang from every shop front, billboards and neon lights in every direction. The war in the north has not altered the pace of the city.” The war expands and invades Shanghai soon enough, and Mohr finds himself swept along in a chaos similar to what he thought he was leaving behind.
Meanwhile, Käthe remains in the Bavarian countryside, trying to heal her broken heart and to protect her daughter from the effects of her father’s abandonment and the encroaching Nazi nightmare. Käthe agrees that her husband had no choice but to leave, given Mohr’s native discontent and the anti-Semitism that continues to escalate in pre-war Germany, but she never completely acknowledges the fact that he insisted on going alone in the first place. He writes often and sends money, but gives no true indication of a plan to return or to send for his family, and expresses little worry for his Jewish daughter. As much as Mohr begs off his Jewishness when not urgently confronted with it, Käthe must shield her daughter, who believes she is Lutheran, from a town that knows she is not, and a world that could do harm should her secret come out. When a neighbor reminds her that, “Jewish families are losing their shops, their homes, being pushed out into the street,” Käthe experiences a flush of confusion and guilt over her own vulnerability and her daughter’s possible danger. She also misses her husband’s companionship more pointedly as her situation intensifies.
Is Mohr’s disassociation from his heritage what causes him to disregard the fact that his daughter is, at least in the eyes of those who would seek to destroy her, a Jew? Or is it his disassociation from all that would tie him down to places and people in general? Mohr wants to stay and to have stayed, to go and to have gone: “Any answer he gave now,” offers the author, not one for easy solutions, “would be different from an answer given yesterday or one he might give tomorrow.” Reuss never tries to excuse Mohr’s often hard-to-take behavior, or suggest that his being Jewish excuses his having left.
Käthe wants desperately to have what she had before the war, yet she knows it is gone forever--if it wasn’t an illusion all along. And yet, although Mohr’s story ends in sadness and tragedy, Käthe believes, through memory and a shared love for Eva, they are bound to each other forever: “In the end, everything they did, they did together--even parting.” The heart of Mohr is, indeed, its heart, the impossible, thorny love between a devoted woman and a complicated man in a world edging toward war.
Modern day interfaith families will find more here than just historical fiction. Reuss raises provocative questions regarding what we share and sacrifice of ourselves and our religion when we intermarry, as well as what we pass on to our children--sometimes beyond our choosing or awareness. Many contemporary readers will be left pondering their own lives in light of these issues.