This novel is preceded by two quotes that could hardly be more different. Once by Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher and advocate of the Enlightenment: “Searching for truth, loving beauty, wanting good, doing the best – that is human destiny.”
Underneath is a quote from Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS and one of those primarily responsible for the Holocaust: “A master race must be able to eliminate people who are harmful to the community from the community without Christian mercy.”
Anyone who believes after this prelude that the aesthetics of Alexa Hennig from Lange’s novel “The Checkered Girls” (Dumont Verlag, Cologne 2022. 377 pages, €22.) works by means of confrontation will be disappointed. In the biographically grounded, three-volume history, many prominent Nazi figures say similar horror sentences.
The central narrator is a warm-hearted, purposeful woman, Klara, who is now over 90 years old. She is blind and unsteady on her feet, but her mind seems still alive. Before she dies, she wants to immerse herself in a painful past, about which she has hardly said a word for decades.
The novel is based on the memoirs of Hennig von Lange’s grandmother
She discusses cassettes with her memories “to make her children and perhaps grandchildren understand how one thing led to another.” The harmless formulation that Hennig von Lange puts in the mouth of the elderly protagonist tells something about the character of the character , for whom there is also a family role model.
In the afterword, the author explains that the novel is based on her grandmother’s memoirs and that the elderly woman actually reviewed more than 130 cassettes. Curiously, no sentences appear in the book that are marked as the original sound from the extensive audio material – which is particularly surprising as the story progresses, when it comes to the involvement of the teacher Klara in the conformed Nazi training system.
It is quite important whether the grandmother’s retrospect is more of a self-critical confession or a justification. With transcribed passages from the cash register, the processing of this bitter biography would not only have been more polyphonic, but also more contradictory. Instead of assembling different types of text, Hennig von Lange consistently uses a pleasing narrative style in which even the Reich youth leader Gertrud Scholtz-Klink appears in a mild sepia light.
So Klara Möbius appears here as an all-round lovable, cheerful person, entirely in the spirit of Moses Mendelssohn. At first she had every reason to be optimistic, after all, in the uncertain times at the end of the 1920s, she accepted a coveted position as a teacher in a home for sick children.
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The facility, located in Oranienbaum in Anhalt, is dependent on state subsidies, which unfortunately are becoming less and less as a result of the global economic crisis. The economic and political conditions come to a head; the National Socialists win one election after the other. Alexa Hennig von Lange vividly describes the decline of the home parallel to the social upheavals. Here you can see that she can draw on documents with many detailed descriptions.
A conflict with serious consequences soon arises: Klara is now the director of the children’s home and decides to cooperate with the new rulers in order to save the institution and her employment. Inwardly she is probably rebelling against the Nazi ideology, but outwardly she is always open to talks and strong in implementation.
She is promoted and takes over a larger home, which she converts into a dubious training center where young women are prepared for their role as mothers in the Nazi state. Klara even introduces the desired dress code. From then on, the residents wear dirndls and are accordingly called the “checkered girls”.
Alexa Hennig von Lange must have wondered what motivated her grandmother to always greet the local and national Nazi elite in a friendly manner, to fulfill all the requirements and to rise in the hierarchy of Nazi women’s training.
“She had no firm opinion on what was happening politically,” it says at one point. This indifferent attitude, which probably applies equally to the literary character and the real grandmother, does not seem to have convinced the granddaughter: “That’s why I put the little Jewish orphan girl Tolla next to my main character in literature.”
Woman moving position
Klara protects the child by posing as the mother. Few know of the dangerous secret. For the novel, however, the initially touching, sometimes maudlin narrative thread becomes a problem in terms of content. The evil henchmen in the highest offices are often to blame.
Klara is relieved of the narrative and can continue to go through life as a reasonably good German. How painful would it be to come to terms with this biography without the Jewish orphan who actually never existed? In order to round off the entertainment novel, the writer accepts a historical falsification.
After the Night of Broken Glass, Klara organizes a place on the legendary Kindertransport to England. She will explain Tolla’s true origins before leaving and will not see her again after that. The grief is great, but the reputation in the Reich is preserved.
Heinrich Himmler will visit Klara’s women’s education home and offer her a management position in the Lebensborn association. At least Klara refuses to persuade pregnant women to adopt their illegitimate children in favor of SS families. During the Himmler visit, she explains to herself what is really important: “The whole thing happened in a good, harmonious atmosphere, as Klara noted with relief.”
The radical opportunism of the protagonist is also explained by her women-friendly position of not giving up work in favor of the role of mother, even under adverse conditions. In this respect, the book contains another important topic for which the author finds no literary form beyond the softly drawn memoir prose. Unfortunately, this novel is a collection of missed opportunities.