Berlin, 1920. Two babies are born. Two brothers. United and indivisible, sharing everything. Twins in all but blood. As Germany marches towards its Nazi Armageddon, the ties of family, friendship and love are tested to the very limits of endurance. And the brothers are faced with an unimaginable choice…which one of them will survive?
The novel follows the Stengel family – Frieda, a community doctor, and Wolfgang, a Jazz musician, and their sons Otto and Paulus. The young couple works hard to make ends meet. But in 1920s Germany, when the country was reeling under the aftermath of the Great War, things aren’t always easy. Wolfgang gets lucky, though, when he meets Kurt, “Germany’s new kindergarten entrepreneurs, crazy alcohol- and drug-fuelled chancers” who loves jazz music and gives him a well-paying job at a nightclub. But once the crazy inflation is brought under control, Wolfgang finds himself, once again, unemployed. At Frieda’s insistence, he places an ad in the paper offering to teach music. And then enters Dagmar Fischer – the heiress to the Fischer fortune. And both Otto and Paulus fall head-over-heels in love with her – a love that lasts a lifetime and changes the course of their life.
Elton’s novel covers a broad sweep of history, and as it follows the Stengel family, it focuses on the many small and everyday ways in which Jews were impacted by the directives that came out of the Hitler camp and the rising anti-semitism in the country. One poignant vignette was when Frieda asks Frau Schmidt if she would still like her to deliver her baby. Frau Schmidt says she does, and then goes on to say that while these are unfortunate times for Frieda,
“you mustn’t fret, everyone knows that you are not one of them, Frau Doktor Stengel. The Jews in Berlin are different, aren’t they? I know two or three SA men with Jewish girlfriends.”
Those Jews are the “ones depicted weekly in the million-selling Der Sturmer magazine, who drink the blood of Christian virgins to fuel their dark Satanic rituals.” Reminds me of The Prague Cemetery and the fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
But when the order comes that Jewish doctors cannot treat non-Jewish patients, Frau Schmidt immediately asks for a German doctor, saying:
I know you have not done these things [drinking children’s blood], Frau Doktor, but many of your race have and if you yourselves can’t stop them then Herr Hitler must. Surely you must see that.
Then there’s the uncertainty faced by the Mischling – half Jewish, half German – which was ratified under the Nuremberg Laws, which stated:
every person in the country had to have their ‘blood’ categorized to determine how much ‘German’ blood they possessed and how much ‘Jewish’
And Frieda and Wolfgang knew then that their private family affair – that one of the twins is adopted and had German parents – cannot remain private any longer.
The narrative alternates between 1956, London, where one of the twins lives, and Germany from the 1920s onwards, which covers the story of Germany and of the Stengels and Fischers and the young twins and their love and devotion for Dagmar. There’s an element of mystery to the novel, because, for the longest time, you don’t know which brother survived the war. There’s love and laughter, pain and fear and terror, unimaginable inhumanity, unbreakable friendship, war and devastation.
If you like reading novels based on the Holocaust, this is one book you shouldn’t miss.