Most people know that the purpose of the Nuremberg trials was to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. But trials for Nazi war crimes were not finished by that tribunal; in fact, they continued long after the Spencer Tracy film “Judgment at Nuremberg” was released in 1961. As “The German House,” Annette Hess’ new novel about the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, opens, it’s 1963. A young woman named Eva Bruhns signs on as a Polish-to-German interpreter, despite the objections of her conventional family and rich, stuffy fiancé Jürgen Schoormann.
Hess writes for German television, and her small-screen ear for pacing and dialogue comes through in the deliberate plot that follows Eva as she navigates between her family’s titular restaurant and the anonymous but dignified auditorium where the trials take place. At one point, Eva jokes with her sister, Annegret (a maternity-ward nurse whose memories of their childhood form an ugly subplot): “Perhaps I was a Pole in a previous life?” because the language comes so easily to her.
Canny readers will quickly discern that the German House restaurant contains many secrets, and that it’s a proxy for a Germany longing to cast off its horrendous recent past and return to a mild heyday of Rhine wine, sauerbraten and dumplings. In that phoniness, the blue-collar Bruhns can side with the old-money Schoormanns, replacing guilt with collective amnesia and excitement over the new German economy, symbolized by the Schoormanns’ mail-order business.
What makes Hess’ book work is the apposite motion Eva takes as she meets a fiery young American named David Miller whose determination to bring the monsters of Auschwitz to justice convinces her of the necessity for sincere (if not always perfect) translation. Slowly but steadily, Eva realizes the extent of her country’s evil deeds, and in her dawning knowledge lies skillful character development.
Eva’s strength matters. However, Hess wisely gives that strength an anchor, in a character named Otto Cohn who some may see at first as a caricature: A Hungarian Jew who has arrived in Frankfurt solely for the trials, Otto holes up in a nasty hotel where he sleeps fully clothed, attending each day’s long proceedings without bathing. “Eva couldn’t have known that Otto Cohn not only wanted to be heard and seen - no, he intended for those guilty men sitting at the defendants’ tables to smell him too.”
What could be more shocking to a country obsessed with order and cleanliness? Even before her family’s past surfaces, we can sense that the rot in “The German House” is fouler than unwashed flesh.
As the book ends, on Christmas Eve, Eva and Jürgen must choose their next steps, for their relationship and its future in a broken country. She presents him with a tiny box of myrrh, “The gift brought by the Moorish king,” and explains that it represents human nature. “It is both bitter and healing.” In her careful, sad debut novel, Annette Hess asks readers to consider the importance of healing and the necessity of confronting the past, regardless of the bitterness it brings.