I’ve always been interested in Exilliteratur – books by or about writers and artists forced to flee Germany during the Nazi era. Much, of course, has been written about the exile community in Southern California – including Michael Lentz’s terrific Pazific Exil (2007). Anna Seghers wrote about her exile in Mexico in Ausflug der toten Mädchen, and many of Hilde Domin’s poems deal with her exile years in the Dominican Republic. But very little has been written about the German exile experience in Cuba – which is one reason I was keen on reading Ursula Krechel’s Landgericht (literally “District Court”), which won the German Book Prize in 2012. The central figure in the novel, the Jewish barrister Richard Kornitzer, is forced to flee the Nazis and finds sanctuary in Havana for ten years.
But Landgericht is also about homecoming – returning to the “scene of the crime”, to the country that cast Kornitzer out and wrecked his family forever.
Life was good for Kornitzer and his wife Claire in the Weimar Republic. He was a talented young lawyer and judge with a brilliant career ahead of him, while Claire was a successful businesswoman, with her own advertising agency that created and placed ads in the booming German cinema. Together they lived in a chic apartment in central Berlin and had two children. But things quickly went downhill once the Nazi’s came to power: Kornitzer was forced out of his job and could no longer practice law, Claire, although of Aryan background, had her business stolen from her because of her marriage to a Jew (which she refused to renounce). Soon it was clear that Richard and the children (Halbjuden) were in mortal danger. The children were sent to England via the Kindertransport while Richard was able to secure safe passage to Cuba – without his wife Claire.
Ursula Krechel takes the reader back and forth in time. The book opens with Kornitzer’s return to a ruined Germany after 10 years in exile, hoping to resume his career where it had been suspended by the Nazis. He is given a post in the provincial civil court in Mainz – a city that had been 95% destroyed by the allied firebombing. And the descriptions of the deprivations of those early postwar years are well done. Kornitzer quickly learns that the Third Reich never really ended: his colleagues on the bench in Mainz are all either former members of the NSDAP or Mitläufer. Kornitzer is treated as an outsider – both as a Jew and because of his special status an Opfer des Faschismus. And he is not alone as an outsider in new “democratic” West Germany. Krechel often brings real historical events and figures into the novel. Such as Philipp Auerbach, a Jew and former chemist who survived Auschwitz and who after the war worked tirelessly for restitution to the victims of Nazi crimes. Kornitzer watches with great interest as Auerbach is persecuted by former Nazis in Bavaria. Eventually he is unjustly convicted and imprisoned by a court comprised of ex-Nazis, and commits suicide. Kornitzer cynically sees what is necessary to succeed as a Jew in postwar Germany:
“Am besten war es, man verhielt sich mucksmäuschenstill. man tut seine Arbeit, man fiel nicht auf, gab sich nicht als ehemaliges Mitglied einer Spruchkammer, als Jude, als Trauernder um Philipp Auerbach zu erkennen, gab keinen Anlass, antisemitische Äusserungen, Taktlosigkeiten, Nadelstiche auf sich zu ziehen. Am besten, man war wortkarg, sah nicht nach links und nicht nach rechts und tat seine Arbeit. Am besten, man war tot.”
I very much enjoyed the middle part of Landgericht, which deals with Kornitzer’s exile in Havana. Life for the German/Austrian exiles in Cuba was hardly a tropical vacation. Many ended up in a jungle detention camp where conditions were deplorable. Kornitzer is able to find work as a secretary for a corrupt attorney and fares somewhat better than his compatriots. Ursula Krechel obviously conducted quite a bit of research on Cuba in the 1940s and its treatment of European refugees. Eventually Kornitzer meets and falls in love with a young school teacher. The affair produces a daughter – Amanda – who Kornitzer never has a chance to see before the war ends he returns to Germany.
Kornitzer becomes frustrated and embittered by his inability to get ahead in the “new” postwar order. His children are now more English than German and are estranged from their parents. Claire’s health was ruined after her business was confiscated and she was forced to work in a dairy during the war. Kornitzer pursues every legal and bureaucratic channel to recover the life that was stolen from him – the back and forth with the various courts and agencies becomes somewhat tiresome to the reader. But Ursula Krechel makes one brilliant move towards the end of the novel: Kornitzer is bitter that he was passed over for a promotion and in a public court hearing reads out Article 3 of the German constitution (Grundgesetz):
Niemand darf wegen seines Geschlechtes, seiner Abstammung, seiner Rasse, seiner Sprache, seiner Heimat und Herkunft, seines Glaubens, seiner religiösen oder politischen Anschauungen benachteiligt oder bevorzugt werden.
(No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, or religious or political opinions.)
That simple act of reading out loud a passage from the constitution is viewed as scandalous, and Kornitzer is forced into early retirement. He spends his retirement relentlessly seeking restitution and – despite an appearance by Amanda – dies embittered man.
This novel would have benefited from a good editor – it is about 150 pages too long. Nevertheless, Landgericht is an important novel and deserves an English translation. Landgericht was a recently made into a two-part film for television, which hopefully will be available to American audiences at some point.