The story could be set in any times and in many places.
Five children are conceived on the same night, born within days of each other at the same hospital. Their backgrounds are very different, but there are links between their families and they form friendships. It is only with the passage of time that they realise what their parents have always known; that the world will look at them and treat them differently.
This particular story resonates, speaks so profoundly; and that comes from its setting and from its author.
Those five children were born in Germany in 1920. The war was over, there were hopes for a new Germany, but the stringent conditions of Treaty of Versailles that had been signed the previous year would be a heavy burden. The country struggled, but in time a charismatic leader emerged, at the head of a new party offering a path to national pride and a brighter future. His name was Adolf Hitler.
This book, published in 1938, follows the lives of those five children until 1933, when they are twelve years-old. By then the Nazi party was in power, Hitler was Germany’s Chancellor, and the Reichstag Fire Decree had become law, stripping many German citizens of their civil liberties.
Many, fearing for their own futures, fearing that their government would go even further, sought exile abroad.
Anna Gmeyner, Austrian-Jewish by birth, was one of those exiles, and she wrote this book in London. She knew of course that she was writing of a terrible time, but she could not know – though she might suspect – how very, very terrible things would become, for the families of those five children, and for so many other families in Germany and across Europe.
Her book offers a clear, vivid and detailed view of the lives of five disparate families. Each scene is painted clearly and starkly, and, though the narrative those scenes must carry is complex, the author’s clear-sightedness and the skills she deployed to bring each scene to life, meant that I always understood what was significant.
And, though this is always a very human story, social changes are so clearly illuminated. The earlier chapters show the consequences of the War and the Peace, on those who fought and lost, and on those who lived through it. The latter chapters show how that leads to the rise of the Nazi party, and to the appalling shift in society that followed.
Manja, who gives this story its title, is the only girl of the five children, the daughter of a Polish immigrant whose life was thrown off course when her lover killed himself, and who would always struggle with what she had to do to survive and to be a mother to her children.
The four boys have very different backgrounds. Heini is a son of a doctor, who has fine ideals and will always stand by his principles; Franz is the son of a man who will become a Nazi; Karl is the son of a Marxist factory worker; and Harry is the son of a rich industrialist who believes his philanthropy may protect him from his part Jewish heritage. It won’t.
It would be fair to say that their four families represent different sides of society, but the reality of each character and situation, and the naturalness of the links between the different families are such that it never feels didactic.
…. Heini’s father, was the doctor, who cared for both Manja’s and Harry’s mothers after they gave birth; Franz’s father was employed – and dismissed – by Harry’s father; and he endowed Heini’s father’s hospital. And then there were families who lived in the same building; there were children who met at school …..
It feels real, and it feels right that these families stand for so many others.
The children meet each Wednesday and Saturday – at the wall – which is all that remains of a house that once stood above a river. It is there that Manja shows the boys the constellation of Cassiopeia – five stars that they see as symbolic of the ties of friendship between them. As they grow they will come to understand the differences between their families and the tension that brings, but none of that will stop them from being friends.
As the story advances though the changes wrought by the Nazi party have dreadful repercussions for so many. It is terrifyingly, heart-breakingly real.
Manja is vulnerable, the result of her sex, her race, her family situation. I feared for her as I saw the chain of events that led to an and that was both inevitable and tragic.
That, and the whole story was profoundly moving; and the knowledge of what was still to come when this story ended made it still more so.
The author’s first hand experience of Germany during the time she writes about makes her story so vivid, and that she left the country before she began to write leaves me in no doubt that it is honest and authentic.
She told her story so well, using all the skills she must have learned as a dramatist to bring her five families and that Germany that they lived in to life, and in engaging and involving her readers.
I hope – and I have to believe – that she did what she set out to do.
And I am grateful that her book has a place in the Persephone Books list.
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